Māori kai and the importance of hāngī

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Food brings people together on many different levels. It’s nourishment of the soul and body; it’s truly love.”

– Giada De Laurentiis, Italian chef

Food is literally life. As one of the life forces for our bodies, it provides us with all the important nutrients we need to survive. It plays a big role culturally in every country across the globe and all have specific practices and traditions, from harvesting, to how food is served and eaten.

Māori kai (food) is no different and it is said that Māori kai traditions go back 3000 years, to when the early Polynesian settlers first arrived in Aotearoa. Oral traditions state that

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Food brings people together on many different levels. It’s nourishment of the soul and body; it’s truly love.”

– Giada De Laurentiis, Italian chef

Food is literally life. As one of the life forces for our bodies, it provides us with all the important nutrients we need to survive. It plays a big role culturally in every country across the globe and all have specific practices and traditions, from harvesting, to how food is served and eaten.

Māori kai (food) is no different and it is said that Māori kai traditions go back 3000 years, to when the early Polynesian settlers first arrived in Aotearoa. Oral traditions state that Māori food descended from the atua(Gods), namely atua Tūmatauenga. He is the Māori god of war, food, hunting, cultivation, fishing, and other activities. Māori legends tell us that Tūmatauenga wanted to seek utu (revenge) for his brother’s cowardice when he refused to kill Earth mother Papatūānuku and Sky father Ranginui. In doing so, he made kai noa(common, free of sacred restrictions) for future humankind. Because of this, the harvesting, preparation, and cooking of kai have incredibly spiritual and environmental beliefs and rituals (Richardson, 2017). Despite the importance of food in their culture, Māori kai traditions and techniques have gradually faded with the introduction of Pākehā and other multicultural foods that are now available in New Zealand.

Hāngī diagram of an earth oven, used too by the Māori. Hand-drawn after a model from Peter Darman’s The Survival Handbook. This earth oven can be constructed in the field using commonly available material and can be used to cook food (so it’s safe for eating). Average boil time: 1.5 hours.

One of the last few Māori food traditions alive today is hāngī. A hāngī is a fire prepared in a shallow-dug hole, two foot in diameter and around six or twelve inches deep with stones layered on top. When the stones are hot, the hāngī is ready to begin the cooking of food. The hot stones and some hot coals are placed at the bottom of the hole with the food on top, usually meat first and then the vegetables. The food can be put either straight on the rocks; wrapped in leaves for different flavours; or in vessels to gather the fat. The hāngī is then covered with mats or leaves and soil to keep in the heat. The kai is cooked for around two-three hours, but the entire hāngī process takes around a day. Preparing the hāngī itself uses an immense amount of time and labour and is usually done at a marae by rangitahi (youth or young people) who are supervised and instructed by kaumatua (respected elders). Quite often, it is a time for rangitahi to learn from their elders, not just about making the hāngī but also about other tikanga Māori (Māori values, traditions, and customs).

Earth ovens, as hāngī are otherwise known, were commonly used in many cultures. In the Americas, pit-hearths were a regular occurrence. In Central Texas, large burned-rock middens existed as donut-shaped holes in the ground lined with rocks and cooking debris. In Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, barbacoa is a term that referred to an earth oven consisting of a fibrous, plant-lined pit which slow-roasted meat. The Hakka people of China who lived in tulou (earth buildings) were known to use earth ovens to cook, as were various Middle Eastern and North African peoples. In Morocco, a whole lamb leg was sometimes cooked in an earth oven called a tandir – historically related to the Central and South Asian tandoor which is a large outdoor earthen oven made from clay or firebrick.

The Māori hāngī is an adaptation of the umu, a Polynesian earth oven. Along the Marlborough coastline in New Zealand the earliest evidence of an earth oven was found, dating back to the first Polynesian settlement in the country. The earth oven found there is a similar style to the Polynesian umu – shallow scoops in the ground where the food is covered in hot stones and possibly leaves and mats. The main differences between the hāngī and the umu are that the umu is generally shallower and not covered by soil.

Fijian lovo of cooked staples
Photo: Jaejay77 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is called a variety of different names within other Polynesian cultures. It is an umu in Samoa, Tonga, and the Cook Islands, an imu in Hawai’i, a lovo in Fiji, and an ahima’a in Tahiti. The Samoan umu is an above-ground earth oven with hot volcanic rocks on which the food is cooked. The food is wrapped in banana leaves or coconut fronds, with more banana leaves placed on top to seal in the heat. The Hawai’ian imu was only ever used for special events or ceremonies because of the time and hard work necessary, similar to a Māori hāngī. The imu is created by digging a two- to four-foot hole with porous rocks lining the bottom. A layer of banana stumps and banana leaves are placed on the rocks and then the food is laid down and covered again with banana leaves. Wet cocoa sacks are sometimes laid on top to trap heat and create more moisture.

Kai and hāngī also play a big part in Māori hospitality. Known as manaakitanga, an important value in Māori culture is the practice of hospitality and respect between different people, groups, and cultures (New Zealand Trade Manual, 2011). In Māori culture, providing food and rest for visitors is considered hugely important and is treated with utmost care. One example of this is found in a pūrākau (tale) of Ngāti Haka of Tūhoe. One day, a woman called Tauheke put down a hāngī for a group of expected guests but when she unravelled the hāngī, the food was still raw. She was so ashamed that she threw herself off the side of the mountain (Richardson, 2017). From stories like this, it is no wonder Tūhoe held the principles of manaakitanga so closely and tribal mana was intertwined with their ability to make their guests happy. In general, undercooked food is a health hazard for anyone but cooking methods like hāngī mean food cannot be checked, and so educated guesses are often made. Enhanced mana is always given to the cook of the hāngī because of this.

The harvesting, preparation, cooking, and serving of kai and hāngī have deep spiritual beliefs and rituals for Māori. Umu or hāngī is used in many rituals, from opening a new house, to harvest time. An interesting superstitious restriction was what kind of wood was used during hāngī. Best (1931) says that the wood of a honeysuckle tree should never be used for a hāngī because, when it decays, it is phosphorescent and gives off a light similar to glow worms. Glow worms are said to be the offspring of Tangaroa-piri-whare (God of the ocean, mischief maker and eavesdropper) who is an evil being and, if honeysuckle wood was used, then the next crop of tī (cabbage trees) would fail. From this, wood from mānuka trees were favoured instead because they burn hot and clean, meaning they burn to ashes faster to add to the smoky, earthy flavour of the hāngī and are very easy to clean out of the pit.

Cooked vegetables were believed to have the power to drive out tapu (sacred, restricted, or set apart). This was because the process of cooking in a hāngī rendered the food unable to reproduce any other plants and so the essence of the food ascended to the Gods.

The sharing of food is also the final act in many Māori social and cultural rituals, one of these being a pōwhiri. A pōwhiri is very tapu, but as the ceremony continues and draws to a close, it becomes less so. Once the food has been given at the end of a pōwhiri, the ceremony is complete and it is not tapu anymore.

Similarly, food must be managed carefully around certain people and places like the wharenui (meeting house) or the marae ātea (the open meeting area onto the marae) because they are very tapu areas. Ariki (high chief), rangatira (hapu leaders), or tohunga (experts in any skills or art e.g., priests, healers, teachers) would have their food cooked separately and hand fed to them by others so as to not touch the food and thereby lower their tapu. There were also umu ruahine which were used to cook food for the elderly women of higher importance in the tribe. Umu or hāngī were put down as part of a magical rite, as well, possibly by tohunga mākutu (Māori witch doctor). Some of these rites included umu tāmoe, used to try and deprive enemies of power or to avenge defeat; and umu hiki, used to try and force a tribe or whanau to vacate their land by making them nervous, apprehensive, and lack self-confidence and courage.

The Māori culture is very rich in traditions and customs, so it is no surprise that their food also holds a special sense of power – the fact that legends say their food was gifted to them by a god exemplifies this. With such cultures like this, and many more across the world, it is no wonder the sharing of food is so central to their manaakitanga; their hospitality and respect. At the heart of it, the Māori hāngī is about coming together, building relationships, and enjoying some good kai.

 

Sources: 1. Maori agriculture. Cultivated food-plants of the Maori and native methods of agriculture. The Journal of the Polynesian Society 2. Manaakitanga: Giving New Zealand visitors an experience of true hospitality, New Zealand trade manual 3. 3 feet under: Is the traditional hāngī in danger of a cultural disappearance? (Doctoral dissertation, AUT, NZ)

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