Of our many culinary adventures across the world, the traditional Māori hāngi ranks right up there as one of the most wholesome meals we’ve partaken in.
Hāngi is the earth oven (a pit dug in the ground) in which food is cooked on heated rocks. This cooking method reflects the Māoris’ close bond with nature and is common to many other Polynesian island communities as well.
But this was not just any ordinary hāngi. This was the one at Whakarewarewa village, or just ‘Whaka’ as the locals call it. (‘Wha’ is pronounced as ‘Fa’ in Māori.)
Also interesting to note that Whaka is an actual Māori village and not a re-creation meant for tourists. The generous residents of Whaka have been proudly sharing their culture and homes with visitors since the 1800s.
Whaka lies in the Rotorua district of New Zealand’s North Island. The district is located on the Rotorua volcanic centre and hence, is well-known for its geothermal activity including geysers (pronounced ‘guy-zer’ not ‘gee-zer’) and hot mud pools.
Nature’s might is on non-stop display here. Wafts of steam and the distinct whiff of hydrogen sulphide (for those familiar with a Chem lab ‘or’ rotten eggs) pervade the air – thanks to the sulphur gases released by the geothermal activity.
Rotorua is the heart of Māori culture with about 40% of Rotorua’s population belonging to the Māori ethnic group (versus 15% for all of New Zealand).
Upon reaching Whaka, a wizened Māori woman greeted us and explained how she could predict seismic activity by simply monitoring the changes in the hot pools. That native wisdom could be life altering!
It was almost lunchtime. We watched with growling stomachs as cooked food began to emerge from a wooden, slatted box in the ground, affectionately called the ‘Māori microwave’. Root vegetables and meats, packed in leaves or foil, are cooked in an active steam vent in the ground. Even pies, desserts and puddings can be made in this manner.
The corn on the cob was cooked in a bubbling hot pool meant specifically for this purpose, as it had a low sulphur content.
I’m sure we devoured the meal as soon as it was put down on the table. The lack of pictures proves it! But I can still recall the down-home goodness of the food. The corn on the cob was naturally sweet but had a tinge of earthiness from the minerals in the hot pool. The meats (chicken and beef) were succulent with a smoky flavor and the root vegetables (potato, carrot and kumara or sweet potato) just melted away. As thorough city-breds, we had never eaten food cooked in such a rustic fashion. Just divine!
With our hunger satiated, we proceeded to walk around the mystical, thermal wonderland that is Whaka.
Read In the land of the long, white cloud for an overview of our month-long trip to New Zealand.
For our whale watching experience in New Zealand, read Meet Moby Dick in Kaikoura.