Hangi chef Rewi Spraggon brings his tradition to the masses

Pit stop

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.

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 Māori 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 “Māori 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 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, fast-forward 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 kūmara, 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 mānuka honey drink, all of it for $15. Eventually, he will offer hāngī wraps or kebabs, too; he’s currently working with Pūkeko 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.”