Keep­ing a close eye on his hāngī pit at home in Te Henga, Rewi Sprag­gon is cook­ing up a plan to bring tra­di­tional Māori cui­sine to the masses.


A hangˉˉı master pushes for the re­vival of tra­di­tional kai.

What can’t you cook in a hāngī The an­swer, ac­cord­ing to hāngī master Rewi Sprag­gon, is al­most noth­ing. His goal – to have ev­ery New Zealan­der en­joy­ing nu­tri­tious, hāngī cooked food more of­ten – has seen him cook ev­ery­thing from lasagna to hokey pokey un­der­ground. He’s about to start pro­duc­tion on a new show for Maori TV called The Hāngī Master, make a high-pro­file ap­pear­ance at the Taste of Auck­land festival, and open a food truck on Queens Wharf, all along­side the reg­u­lar hāngī and carv­ing work­shops (yes, he’s also a carver) he hosts at his home at Te Henga. But the good-look­ing 50-some­thing seems un­fazed (and un-aged) by all this work. His big­gest ques­tion is si­mul­ta­ne­ously straight­for­ward and se­ri­ously com­plex: how can he help New Zealan­ders eat bet­ter?

Sprag­gon’s en­thu­si­asm for hāngī “starts off with my father, who was taught by my grand­fa­ther,” he says. In fact, he still uses some of his grand­dad’s hāngī stones to cook with. His father, one of 18 chil­dren, “was al­ways in charge of the hāngī," Sprag­gon ex­plains.

He as­sumed a sim­i­lar role among his sib­lings, a chief cook per­sona he brings to ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion. When I ig­no­rantly ask what makes a good hāngī spot, he rel­ishes the op­por­tu­nity to school me. “Look, there’s a whole way to do a hāngī, from where you can light it and so on,” he says. “He [my grand­fa­ther] would as­sess the place, make sure there’s no wa­ter com­ing down the hill or you know... it’s all year round, so you could be cook­ing in a bl­iz­zard like I was the other day [at Welling­ton on a Plate], or in the mid­dle of sum­mer when there’s a fire re­stric­tion, and you still have to feed 400 peo­ple.” Weather, ter­rain, venue, and tapu are all se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tions.

Sprag­gon says cook­ing in a for­mal restau­rant en­vi­ron­ment is very dif­fer­ent to the “Maori way” of cook­ing, where un­pre­dictabil­ity in terms of num­bers and con­trol cre­ate chal­lenges. The head cook at a marae might know that lunch is at one o’clock, or that din­ner has to be ready at 5pm, but they prob­a­bly won’t know how many peo­ple they’re cook­ing for. At a days-long tangi, 400 peo­ple could show up one day, and 600-plus the next, and they all need feed­ing. A chef needs to plan for this.

There’s an­other thing – the near-im­pos­si­ble chal­lenge of con­trol­ling the heat in the hāngī pit. “Any chef can just go into their kitchen, turn on the oven and in 20 min­utes they’re cook­ing,” says Sprag­gon. “In a hāngī

sit­u­a­tion, it’s going to take at least six hours be­fore you get to that 20-minute mark and it’s time to put the food in.” Pits like the one at Sprag­gon’s Te Henga home have to reach tem­per­a­tures of around 700 de­grees Cel­sius be­fore they’re ready to cook in, be­cause they don’t act like con­ven­tional ovens. Es­sen­tially, a hāngī pit is a steam oven, where the food within ab­sorbs the heat of the rocks while they slowly cool.

There’s a very small win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for plan­ning when cook­ing this way, be­cause once the fire that heats the stones comes out and the bas­kets go down, it’s a wait­ing game: din­ner won’t be pulled up for hours. After es­ti­mat­ing how many guests he’ll have, a hāngī master needs to get a grasp on ra­tios. If he’s good, he’ll know that brisket loses 20 per­cent mass to shrink­age, that mut­ton and lamb might lose 10 per­cent, and that chicken will lose al­most 30 per­cent. He will need to be able to prep ac­cord­ingly. If he’s cook­ing for 600, there’s going to be red and white meats cook­ing with shell­fish, veg­eta­bles and pud­dings, all of them with dif­fer­ent cook­ing times.

Know­ing how to stack and wrap each item is cru­cial. “You can’t fuck it up,” says Sprag­gon, who likes to have two pits going at once so he can ac­com­mo­date spe­cific di­etary re­quire­ments, like veg­e­tar­ian or ve­gan. This adds yet an­other layer of pres­sure, but be­cause he cooks close to 100 hāngī a year, he’s a veteran. Has he ever screwed it up? “I’ve been in­volved in hāngī that haven’t gone par­tic­u­larly well, but I haven’t had con­trol over them,” he says con­fi­dently. His car­di­nal rule? That you must lay your own hāngī No com­pro­mises.

An­other thing he can’t con­done is hāngī cook­ers, or multi-kai cook­ers. He can’t mask his dis­ap­point­ment that, as peo­ple in­creas­ingly work longer hours and be­come more ur­banised, ap­pli­ance-based, gas-fu­elled con­ve­nience has trumped au­then­tic­ity and tra­di­tion. He won’t have a bar of it. “My cook­ing is long-term and it comes from a long past,” he says. “What gives me the right to change that?”

Sprag­gon says ev­ery town used to have a hāngī master, but nowa­days on marae around the coun­try, food is cooked inside rather than un­der­ground, and the tra­di­tional art of hāngī preparation is slowly dy­ing. “It’s all good,” says Sprag­gon, not want­ing to diss any­one, “but for me, I’m ded­i­cated to teach­ing peo­ple and help­ing them un­der­stand the au­then­tic­ity of Māori kai.”

Sprag­gon blames the ur­ban­i­sa­tion of New Zealand not only for a drop off in hāngī knowl­edge, but also for the rise in pre­ventable ill­nesses like obe­sity and di­a­betes in Māori and Pa­cific com­mu­ni­ties. Peo­ple be­ing moved away from their tribal roots and into towns where they’re work­ing long hours means when they come home there

“My cook­ing is long-term and it comes from a long past. What gives me the right to change that?”

isn’t al­ways time for them to cook a meal, or they have lost the skills to do so. So what would he say to peo­ple who claim their poor diet is a re­sult of poor in­come? “Yeah, that’s not a good enough ex­cuse,” he says. “My mum could cook any­thing out of noth­ing and on a cheap bud­get.”

What we’re miss­ing, in Sprag­gon’s view, is ed­u­ca­tion – and he’s con­stantly think­ing of ways to fix that. He’d like to start a new food de­liv­ery ser­vice in part­ner­ship with a su­per­mar­ket, which would help fam­i­lies of five to eat for $20 per meal. An as­so­ci­ated mo­bile app would al­low users to en­ter the num­ber of peo­ple to feed that week, and how many main meals they re­quire, and then tell the user ex­actly what to buy. Sprag­gon would post Youtube videos of him mak­ing each recipe on­line so users can pause, fast­for­ward or rewind while he shows them the how-tos.

He would also like to see a na­tion­wide free lunch pro­gramme in ev­ery New Zealand school for kids from five to 13, to teach good nu­tri­tion. “It’s going to cost a shit­load less in the long run than pay­ing for heart at­tacks and di­a­betes, but the gov­ern­ment won’t do it,” he says. We ed­u­cate kids in maths, sci­ence and lit­er­acy; Sprag­gon says we should also ed­u­cate them in food.

Sprag­gon’s show The Hāngī Master is due to air on Māori TV in April next year, and his food truck will start park­ing on Queens Wharf in sum­mer­time. When peo­ple eat at his truck, they’ll be of­fered a plate with ku­mara, potato, pump­kin, cab­bage, stuff­ing, two choices of meat (mut­ton, pork or chicken) and a salad, as well as a slice of rēwana bread and a cup of a kawakawa and manuka honey drink, all of it for $15. Even­tu­ally, he will of­fer hāngī wraps or ke­babs, too; he’s cur­rently work­ing with Pukeko Bak­ery to de­sign a hāngī pork bun. “I’m crazy about hāngī and I know what can be done in one,” he says. “It’s healthy. I’m cook­ing with good cuts of meat, good vege – for me it’s about eat­ing some­thing slow-cooked and home­grown, and bet­ter for you than deep-fried chicken.”

Above left The road to Sprag­gon’s home. Above right Sprag­gon waits as the hāngī cooks.

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