Ben Shewry's Historical Roots

Published on 27 March 2013

Photo: Ben explains the Hangi process at Earth MasterClass 2013 (Image: Dan Mahon)

Ben Shewry shares his story of laying a hangi at Earth MasterClass 2013, including it's historical roots and how to go about preparing one.

I’ve got a bit of a history with the hangi. It’s the product of our New Zealand culture and is the traditional cookery method of the Maori. Growing up, laying a hangi was how we celebrated an event such as a 21st birthday or a death in the family. It’s a great way to feed a crowd, and the flavour is something totally unique and one that reminds me of my New Zealand home.

I ‘laid’ my first hangi by myself when I was about ten years old. It contained only potatoes and I was too impatient and dug it up after only two hours. The potatoes were half raw but I thought it was great. It was this experience that inspired my A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth It Was Grown.

Laying a hangi with mates is a lot of fun. To begin you need to gather volcanic rocks – you need to use rocks that can withstand high temperatures; dry branches and firewood – you need a combination of both but they can’t be green otherwise the fire will not have the intensity to heat the rocks to a high enough temperature; and hessian sacks and muslin (cheesecloth) bags to stop food coming into contact with the earth – you can also use foil or the more traditional leaves and bark.

Find an isolated spot and dig a pit – it should be wide and long enough to comfortably fit all of your food and about 60cm deep. Lay the branches and firewood over the pit followed by a layer of rocks. Repeat layering, crossing the branches at opposite angles with the rest of the rocks and wood. The bonfire should be rather large. Set it alight and leave it to burn while you start the food preparations and place all the food into separate muslin bags.

When the fire has completely burnt out, the rocks should be white hot and should have fallen into the pit. It is time to ‘lay’ the hangi. Soak the hessian sacks in plenty of cold water. Lay flax leaves over the rocks, then the soaked sacks. The first layer of food should be the meat and cabbages as they will take the longest to cook and will (hopefully) protect the other vegetables from getting burnt. Lay the other bags down and cover all of the food with more damp hessian, ensuring everything is well sealed.

Cover the whole lot with plenty of dirt, then sit back and enjoy the smell of earth and food cooking. The hangi needs to be left for about 4-6 hours. Laying a hangi can be an amazing way to spend some time out of the city with friends and family, and it’s the way I most like to eat. A real experience filled with history and emotion. And without airs and graces.

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