To sample traditional cooking methods go to a hangi (pronounced nasally as “hungi”), where meat and vegetables are steamed for hours in an earth oven then served to the assembled masses. The ideal way to experience a hangi is as a guest at a private gathering of extended families, but most people have to settle for one of the commercial affairs in Rotorua or Christchurch. There you’ll be a paying customer rather than a guest but the hangi flavours will be authentic, though sometimes the operators may have been creative in the more modern methods they’ve used to achieve them.
At a traditional hangi, first the men light a fire and place river stones in the embers. While these are heating, they dig a suitably large pit, then place the hot stones in the bottom and cover them with wet sacking. Meanwhile the women prepare lamb, pork, chicken, fish, shellfish and vegetables (particularly kumara), wrapping the morsels in leaves then arranging them in baskets (originally of flax, but now most often of steel mesh). The baskets are lowered into the cooking pit and covered with earth so that the steam and the flavours are sealed in. A couple of hours later, the baskets are disinterred, revealing fabulously tender steam-smoked meat and vegetables with a faintly earthy flavour. A suitably reverential silence, broken only by munching and appreciative murmurs, usually descends.