Rewi Spraggon is a man with a mission; to preserve Aotearoa’s indigenous food story. The chef, artist and musician has done a lot in his time, including cooking many different cuisines overseas for many years - but feels most connected to the cuisine he grew up with; traditional Māori hāngi.
He’s now the nation’s most accomplished Hāngi Master and one half of The Māori Kitchen, which started out as a catering company operating from West Auckland’s Bethell’s Beach, Rewi’s hometown.
It’s now a fully-fledged eatery serving up traditional hāngi from the NorthWest Shopping Centre. Founded with business partner Ganesh Raj, of Kumeu’s The Tasting Shed, it’s one of the few places you can try authentic hāngi in the whole country without digging up your own backyard.
The founders of this modest food stall have big ambitions; to preserve ancient traditions of Māori cooking, allow Manuhiri (visitors) to taste, smell and experience our history and cuisine first-hand, and instil a sense of pride in Kiwis about our indigenous food, and are well on their way to achieving just that.
Preserving Aotearoa’s food story
“As far as authenticity and tradition goes in relation to New Zealand cuisine, there aren’t too many dishes out there that could knock a hāngi - but it’s becoming a dying art,” says Rewi.
“People visiting New Zealand can’t try real Māori food, and our own people are losing connection to traditional Māori cooking. It’s just not available.”
And it’s true - for many Kiwis, memories of sampling hāngi are limited to school fundraisers, or perhaps a Marae visit. Until now, there’s been nowhere you could pop in to grab hāngi prepared the original way, and certainly not in an accessible Auckland location.
Rewi says that was, and still is his biggest goal in starting The Māori Kitchen; to make proper hāngi accessible, and to make eating Māori cuisine the norm.
Ask a 13 or 14-year-old today if they’ve ever tried hāngi, and the answer is likely no.
“If we continue the way we are, the next generation won’t know what honest kai is. Food is identity – it’s who we are, and we can’t lose that.”
“I’ve grown up with hāngi as part of my culture. My tupuna (grandfather) taught my matua (father), and he taught me and my brothers, so it’s something that’s been passed through the generations. My mother was a caterer and the head cook at our Marae, so our family has always been around hāngi, cooking and hosting people.”
Kiwi kai in a local food court
The food courts of New Zealand malls are famed for serving up a variety of cuisines from around the globe, from Indian curries, to sushi, Turkish kebabs and now: hāngi.
A world-first portable hāngi pit sits in the NorthWest Shopping Centre carpark, and Manuhiri can witness the unveiling of fresh kai, with smoke unfurling from the pit, and the aroma of Manuka wood hanging in the air.
"The most important thing for me was that we were serving proper hāngi. There’s plenty of places you can try hāngi, but it’s often steamcooked or cooked with gas, which isn’t the traditional way."
My challenge was to create a commercial hāngi using Manuka wood, that was done in the ground and done properly.
Heating the stones – which need to reach a temperature of 700 Celsius - takes around three hours, so the hāngi masters arrive at 4 am to prep the pits and the food. Once the stones are piping hot, the food goes into baskets lined with leaves, placed on the hot stones and covered with dirt to cook. Depending on the amount of food, cooking time usually takes around two to three hours, meaning the whole process takes roughly six hours.
This labour of aroha (love) results in succulent, genuine whole food – with gourmet burgers, hāngi pies, breakfast rolls, and hāngi sandwiches on the menu. Many people go for Hāngi Tuturu, or ‘The Works’ – a hearty selection of pork, chicken, kumara, potato, pumpkin, cabbage, stuffing and watercress salad.
There are also vegetarian options, such as the hāngi sandwich served with hāngi potato mash, granny smith apple, watercress and beetroot salad with Rewi’s secret Asian sauce.
Produce is sourced from local suppliers wherever possible, and changes according to what’s available, one day could be duck or goat, and the next tandoori chicken; Rewi also has plans to extend the flavours on the menu to incorporate Pacific flavours in the near future.
Hāngi for the people
One of the biggest rewards for Rewi is seeing the reactions of people who try his food, whether they hail from New Zealand or further afar.
“We’ve had people come from as far as Kaikohe and Hamilton in the weekend just to get a feed of hāngi. Then there’s the people who visit from Chile, Argentina, Japan, all over the world. It’s humbling, knowing that we’re creating something that people love.”
"People arrive and they see the pits, and they freak out, saying “Is there food in there?” Then they smell it, and they can’t wait to try the food."
Beyond the west Auckland location, The Māori Kitchen also has a mobile food truck that pops up at events and provides catering for corporate and private events.
Being named as one of Time Out London’s top 18 coolest new food openings in 2019, alongside a subaquatic ‘super-restaurant’ in Norway and a high-end eatery in the Eiffel Tower, was a surreal experience for Rewi and his team.
But for Rewi, his most memorable moment came when a Kiwi family asked him to be part of a whanau member’s final send-off.
One particular family had lost their father, who passed away in his early 30s. He wanted to have a hāngi for his funeral feast, so his family asked me to cater it. It was so emotional that one of his wishes was for me to cook for him – for me, there was no bigger honour.
The most important thing about food is the stories and meaning that go with it.
With a goal to take hāngi nationwide and share it with as many people as possible, it is Rewi’s hope that in the not too distant future that hāngi will be normalised. It will be loved, and accessible by locals and visitors alike – just how it should be.