Friday, June 01, 2007

Hanging out for Hangi

Putting down a hangi can be a lengthy, labour intensive business. Done properly however, it can result in the most glorious outcome (just like sex, except dirtier). Imagine then, the effort required to feed 120 people! With the apple harvest at the orchard finally winding down after two long months, a hangi was put down as a way of saying 'thank you' to the staff for all their efforts. Thanks to the expertise of John and Fish, you'll see how it all took place, step by step.

Firstly, a definition. A hangi is a traditional Maori way of cooking food, done in a pit using heated stones and/or pieces of iron, with water or leafy vegetation thrown on to to produce steam. Wire baskets of food wrapped in foil and muslin are put on top of the hot stones and iron. The baskets are covered with wet sheets and then wet sacks. All this is then covered over with soil. The water in the sheets and sacks is turned into steam by the hot stones; with the steam trapped under the sacks and soil, the food begins to cook.
A lot of preparation is required for a hangi. Before you start, you'll need to find out the fire regulations for your area, so call your local council - during the summer for instance, fire bans are often in place. When choosing a site, two key factors to consider are wind direction and the proximity of buildings and vegetation. Finding yourself engaged in battling a rampaging bushfire alongside the emergency services while caught in the full glare of the nation's media is embarrasing but can be avoided as long as you plan ahead. Finally, you'll need ready access to water, for soaking the sheets and sacks you'll need later on, as well as for controlling the fire if the need arises.

So, what to cook? Typically, you'll find pork, beef, lamb, mutton and chicken in the hangi basket. Root vegetables such as potatoes and kumara (sweet potato) as well as others like pumpkin and carrot cook well in a hangi too. Steamed puddings and stuffing are are also well suited.In the days leading up to your hangi, you'll need to hunt down some special material. Look around for some metal baskets - old deep freezer baskets stripped of their plastic are ok - these will hold the food to be placed in the pit. It also protects it from the weight of soil that'll be piled on top, as well as allowing space for steam to circulate. Keep an eye out for at least five or six hessian sacks (make sure they haven't been used to hold chemical of any description) and put aside some old cotton bedsheets. A supply of muslin or mutton cloth for wrapping the food prior to placement in the baskets is essential (oven bags work just as well but muslin allows the hangi odour to permeate the food, as well as being inexpensive). An old tub or drum is useful for soaking the sheets and sacks. Find some heavy gloves which you'll need to protect your hands from the heat while shovelling embers. A large bag of watercress or cabbage leaves for placing on the stones once hot (they'll produce steam). Finally, make sure you have a good supply of firewood (enough for a couple of hours burn time), kindling and some newspaper.

Finding stones and iron may be tricky but once found, they'll serve you well for an unbelievably long time. The best stones to use are volcanic or igneous rock which, once white hot, retain their heat for a long time. Some of this rock finds it way into rivers and is identified by its 'glow' under the light of a full moon (!). Maori Food lists the types, locations and how to gauge the suitability of stones here (scroll down to " 3. Gear Check List : Stones". The section is part of a well written page on hangi - well worth a read). Pieces of iron, such as cut-up railway track, heat up quicker than stones but the heat dissipates rather quickly too. The number of stones needed depends on the size of your pit. As a very rough guide, you'll need enough to loosely cover the bottom of the pit.Where possible, try and prepare as much as you can the day before: cutting the firewood (cover the pile if it's to be left overnight to protect it from rain or overnight dew); digging the pit (cover this as well); soaking the sacks and sheets in water; preparing the meat and vegetables (with meat, make sure it is WELL THAWED); rounding up your stones and irons, spades, rakes, shovels and a hose or large water container.
Soaking the sacks overnight in water allows them to become thoroughly saturated. This is essential because it aids in generating steam as well as keeping the steam trapped inside the pit (not to mention keeping soil off the food). Do the same with the sheets - soaking provides water for steaming the food as well as preventing burning. Have them all soaking in your tub or drum near the hangi pit.

When digging your pit, use your baskets as a guide to the size you should dig your hole (keep in mind too that you may end up stacking your baskets). Place them on the ground, mark out the area around them, and when digging, make it a little bit bigger so you can tuck the sheets down the side. The hole should be big enough for the stones and over a third of the depth of your baskets.

Having dug the pit, fill the hole with newspaper and kindling. Layer your firewood on top in a latticed pyramid formation; bear in mind that you'll need sufficient fuel for the fire to be burnt down to embers within one and a half to two hours - enough time for the stones to become white hot (red hot for iron). This level of heat is required for the stones to be able to thoroughly cook the food, thus minimising the risk of illness from bacteria. Once the firewood is stacked, place the stones and iron on top of the wood. Again, if you're doing this the day before you fire up, cover it so as to protect the pit and firewood from surprise rainfall or overnight dew.

It should be mentioned at this point that many Maori heat their stones next to the pit, not in it as shown here. The reason why John prefers lighting the fire in the pit is that heated stones placed in a warm pit retain their heat more readily: heat is not being leeched from the stones by the surrounding cold earth. The principle is similar to that of a good barista serving hot coffee in a heated cup - it stays warmer longer. However, you must be careful to remove all of the embers and ash from the pit otherwise the food will taste overly smokey.

Time to light the fire. Ignite and allow to burn until all the wood is burnt to embers and ash in the pit (again, taking one and a half to two hours). Use the shovels to reposition any rocks that fall out of the fire. The rocks should be white hot (iron, red hot). Keep a close eye on your fire and make sure you have water handy. Replenish the fire as needed, and ensure the tub of wet sacks and sheets are nearby.

While the fire is burning, organise your food. Place food into mutton cloth or oven bags and place in baskets. The order of placement is important because everything will be cooking at the same time. Place the large dense meats such as mutton and pork on the bottom, fat side down, with chicken on top of that. Place your root vegetables on next with the stuffing and steamed puddings on top. Once you've gotten word that the stones are ready, round up some helpers and bring the baskets out to the hangi pit.Once the fire has burned down, don your gloves and use the shovels and rakes to scoop out any smoking embers and ash - only the stones and iron are to be left in the pit. This is hot work. Rake the removed material away from the pit and into a pile. Dowse with water. Spread the rocks out into an even layer.Once the pit has been cleaned, throw some water (a cup or so) on the stones - this will generate steam. Sometimes too much water can be used, resulting in rapid cooling. Placing watercress or cabbage leaves on the stones minimises that risk while generating the desired effect, the moisture being released from the leaves more slowly and steadily.
Moving quickly, place the baskets on the bed of stones and iron, large items first; stack anything smaller on top of this. Get the wet sheets and lay them over the baskets, draping the sides - ensure everything is well covered.Place the wet sacks on top of the sheets. Make sure they cover the sheets, but do not allow them to go down the sides of the baskets; they must lay on the top of the ground.Start shovelling soil on top of the sacks. Any areas where steam can be seen to be escaping must be covered with more earth: escaping steam means escaping heat. Ultimately, you'll end up with a small mound.

The cooking time depends on the number and size of rocks, the amount and
size of food baskets, as well as the size of the largest cuts of meat but generally speaking the cooking time will be three to four hours. It's quite difficult to overcook a Hangi as the longer it stays in the ground, the more the rocks cool. This stands in contrast to cooking in an oven where the temperature is kept at an even and constant rate.Time to uncover the food. Remove the soil from the sacks - steam rising from where you've dug is a good sign!Once uncovered, pull the sacks back off the sheets being very careful not to get dirt on them. Pull back the sheets (it will still be hot - keep those gloves handy), again being careful not to get soil on the baskets.Remove the baskets from the hangi pit and take them to the kitchen. When removing the meat, check the centre to ensure that it's cooked thoroughly. Serve and eat!The annual end of harvest hangi has been a feature of orchard life for the last three years - this was the best yet. Succulent pork (so enticing that people were snaffling samples as it came out of the pit!), moist chicken, fragrant bread stuffing, lightly smoked potatoes, sweet steamed pudding with enough cream to make a heart specialist swoon - brilliant! The evening ended with drinks, dancing (the table kind mostly) and an unscheduled bonfire. Children may have been conceived that night...

A twenty one gun salute to John, Fish, Di, Sarah, Doug and all their hangi helpers - the day was all the more special for their hard and tireless work.

And a huge thank you to Sarah, photo journalist and table dancer extraordinaire, for taking photos throughout the day (I had people to look after, pffft).

Click here to see Sarah's hangi photo set on Curious Kai's Flickr page - a whole days worth! Or click here to be taken straight to the Flickr slideshow of the hangi.

Keen on planning a hangi? The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has a great page on good food safety practice in preparing and cooking a hangi (also available as a downloadable PDF file).


Unknown said...

This is the kind of post I'd love to read. I am very interested in hangi as a cultural kai event which reminds me of my childhood. Thanks for posting this, Nigel.

Shaun said...

Nigel - What a wonderful recount of a unique way of cooking food. This is a great post for your overseas/foreign readers to learn something about New Zealand.

My cousin wanted to put on a hangi for his five-year-old's birthday two weeks ago but didn't pull everything together in time, so he arranged a spit instead (completely different, I know; I suppose he just wanted to avoid a traditional bbq). A good mate of his brought wild pig that he shot the week before...It was wonderful.

I love kumara cooked any old way; in addition to marmite, feijoa and gingernut biscuits, I missed kumara a lot when living in the US.

Nigel Olsen said...

Hi Shaun,
God, wild pork - there's nothing like it! For a leg of pork off that pig, I'd have come down and organised the whole hangi myself! By the way, I tried your feijoa curd recipe (we're swimming in feijoas at the moment) - fantastic stuff!

Mary said...

YUM.. What a great post! Delighted to hear your hangi was a delicious success Nigel.

Nigel Olsen said...

Thanks Mary, it was a blast! Hi Arfi!

Anonymous said...

Hey Nigel,
thanks for the hangi details, and pics. You are right it was a blast.