Hangi master Rewi Spraggon challenges top chefs to cook a hangi

by Kate Richards / 12 June, 2018

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Photography by Michael Lewis.

Hāngī master Rewi Spraggon prepares the fire and hot stones for the hāngī, and puts the food down.

Hāngī master Rewi Spraggon introduces seven top Auckland chefs to the pleasures of the pit. Kate Richards reports hangi-side.

“We could be in the finest restaurant in Auckland eating a duck breast that’s been cooked in the hāngī – and why shouldn’t we be able to do that?”

Possibly, because it’s a little hard to dig a hole in the plush carpet at award-winning Sidart? But 46-year-old chef and hāngī master Rewi Spraggon is nothing if not committed to reviving the traditional art of cooking underground. He’s driven by what he considers to be diminishing education around how to prepare a hāngī, one of the oldest cooking methods in the world.

As a by-product of urbanisation, he says, many Māori have become too time-poor and under-resourced to learn how to cook this way. Spraggon wants to make it easy for everyone to eat healthy, hāngī-cooked food more often, and to showcase Māori cuisine at a fine-dining level.

“We’re losing the art of hāngī because we’re not doing enough of it,” says Spraggon. “It’s easier to turn the gas on than to go through the proper process. I want to show people there are different things you can do in a hāngī – you can do mussels, different cuts like pork cheek or mutton. And when it comes out of the hāngī, you can do more again.” For those who have enough space and the right equipment, it is entirely possible to cook a hāngī at home.

Hāngī baskets are lined with leaves and the food is put into the baskets, ready to be buried.

Spraggon’s insatiable enthusiasm for hāngī has, over the past year, seen him host regular workshops from his home in Te Hēnga (Bethells Beach, on Auckland’s west coast); open a food truck selling hāngī-cooked meat and vegetables in various new ways (including a popular pork burger); and supply hāngī-cooked food to some of the city’s top restaurants. Appearing at the Taste of Auckland Festival last November – his second time in two years – was the biggie of the bunch. Aside from using it as an opportunity to school some 23,500 punters on what can be done in a hāngī pit, Spraggon invited some of the city’s best chefs to cook with him. It was filmed for a new 10-part series, Hāngī Pit Masters, for Māori Television (now screening on Wednesdays at 7.30pm).

Hāngī Pit Masters follows seven of the chefs who appeared at Taste of Auckland with Spraggon, over two episodes each. The first episode introduces each guest chef at their workplace. It’s an opportunity for them to offer an insight into their style of food and restaurant. Then we see them in action at the festival as they discover the challenges of cooking underground.

The seeming simplicity of digging a hole, lighting a fire in it and throwing down some baskets of food is at odds with the real-life intricacies of cooking in a hāngī, where terrain, tapu, weather and numbers are all serious considerations. But Spraggon, who exudes cooking confidence, would probably consider himself a veteran. He has more than 100 big hāngī meals under his belt, so is at ease showing newbies the ropes.

Spraggon knows chicken, mutton and pork all lose significant mass as they cook, and that vegetables and seafood take less time to cook, so he preps accordingly. Often, a chef won’t know how many people he has to cook for until they arrive. By then, the hāngī’s been down for hours, so he needs to be sure there’s enough food ahead of time.

Spraggon describes the experience of cooking a hāngī as “intuitive” – and he’s unfazed by big numbers. “When you’re on the marae cooking for a tangi, where you might have 100 people or 300, you’re under pressure, but you have bigger teams. At Taste of Auckland, we were cooking for about 600 people with around three hāngī masters and two chefs.”

After several hours in the ground, Spraggon brings up the baskets and carves up some of the meat.

Cooking this way certainly wasn’t intuitive for novices Kyle Street and Jordan MacDonald, of Culprit, runner-up for Best Inner-city Bistro in Metro’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year Awards. Their initiation to hāngī-dom started with a torrential downpour and a pit full of water. “It was a lake in there,” says Spraggon.

They managed to get a fire going, anyway. “When you’re cooking at 300°C, everything soon dries out.”

Another challenge Street and MacDonald faced – something experienced by nearly all the other chefs, too – was figuring out how to add their own spin to this traditional cooking style without bastardising it or causing offence. Their final dish, which incorporated mostly root vegetables and meat, was a pulled-mutton sandwich on potato bread. They explain the finished product needed to be easy to eat in a festival setting while paying homage to the foods traditionally cooked in a hāngī.

There were difficulties with each new group, but what really stumped Spraggon was when Juan Balsani of Augustus Bistro told him he wanted to cook miti kau (beef) legs in the pit – each one weighing up to 50kg. The meal was based on a dish cooked in a similar way in Balsani’s homeland Argentina, so his pride was at stake. The legs were the biggest thing Spraggon had ever cooked in a hāngī. He says he lost sleep working out how to make sure they didn’t come up kaimata (undercooked). “I had to invent a new kind of hāngī.”

He burned two pits, then laid the legs in baskets in one pit, followed by extra baskets on top and more hot stones on the top of that. The whole thing became like a fan oven with heat coming from both the top and bottom of the pit. “It’s the only way it would have cooked them [the legs] in the time we had,” says Spraggon, obviously proud his Kiwi ingenuity paid off. “If we’d had 16 to 18 hours, we could have done it the usual way, but we only had them down for eight hours. When they came up they were falling off the bone.”

There were reputations at stake, not just for Balsani but for all the chefs involved in the series and for Spraggon, who says he’s never messed up a hāngī in his life. But he’ll tell you it’s always a tough crowd on a marae: “You’ll hear about it if your hāngī is no good,” he explains. “It’s more than just your reputation at stake; on the marae, it’s your mana. If you mess it up, they won’t let you cook again, and you wouldn’t want to.”

There’s a deep sense of pride in every hāngī Spraggon lays because the roots of his cooking trace back to another hāngī master, his grandfather. In his whānau, those are big shoes to fill, and Spraggon carries that with him, still using some of his grandfather’s 100-year-old stones to cook with. “My cooking comes from a long past – what gives me the right the change that?”  

Follow Rewi Spraggon at hangimaster.co.nz, and on Hāngī Pit Masters screening on Māori Television, Wednesdays, 7.30pm; Sundays, 10.30am (repeat); and On Demand. Check out Culprit, Augustus Bistro and the rest of the Top 50 restaurants in the new issue of Metro magazine, on sale now.

This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.

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