Building a Hangi (ground oven)

I’ve noticed several writers on ethical eating extolling the virtues of traditional food and the joys of cooking from scratch with family and friends. I had an amazing experience cooking a meal for a cousin’s birthday which fitted in well with these ideas of cooking for pleasure in a group. However the idea that traditional equates with low-impact is not necessarily correct. The Hangi (a Maori-style ground oven) we built, while a traditional method, was hardly low in environmental impact. Our bonfire certainly emitted more greenhouse gases than a gas oven, and we did indulge in plenty of meat. On the positive side it made us appreciate our food, and it did provide an entire day of entertainment for nearly twenty people. Building a Hangi is a lot of fun. The idea is to use hot rocks to cook food buried underground. You start by heating the rocks on an enormous bonfire. The food is wrapped in moist cloth and buried on top of the rocks. Finally the oven is covered with soil. The result is a succulent slow-roasted meal.

We started in the morning collecting two trailer-loads of fallen timber, mostly dead wattles fallen on our property. We piled this into an enormous heap, attempting to criss-cross the branches so that the edifice would be stable once lit. On top of that we placed our rocks, volcanic basalt which should withstand heating without exploding.

While we waited about three hours for the fire to burn down we prepared the food. Each thing had to be wrapped in soaked cotton (or other natural fibres, we used recycled bedsheets). The water is necessary to make steam for the cooking process and prevent the food from burning.

When the fire had burned down we scooped the rocks from the embers before they had time to cool in the ashes. We had already prepared the hole, perfectly sized for three wire baskets of food. Raking the rocks across required long clothing and even protection for your face from the strong radiant heat. One of our rakers wore a jumper wrapped around his head and another wore a full face motorbike helmet. It’s nice to have someone tough to do a job like that.

On top of the rocks we placed the three wire baskets of wrapped food. The rakers worked quickly to cover the top sheet with soil. Then the oven was ready to cook. We left it for about four hours.

We had legs of lamb, chickens, potato, pumpkin, sweet potato, carrots, sweet corn on the cob, onions and garlic. We stuffed the chickens with lemon, thyme and garlic and put rosemary with the lamb. The butter with the potatoes helped them brown a little. When the cooking was complete unearthing the meal was very exciting. The top sheet had kept the soil off the parcels of food.

We unwrapped mouthwateringly soft pumpkin and sweet potato. The sweet corn was a success, and the meat was tender. We sat down to eat by the campfire. The meal was accompanied with wine or ginger beer, depending on your taste.

It was a very satisfying meal, cooked in a very entertaining manner. It’s not the sort of meal you’d cook every weekend, but it’s a fantastic way to celebrate a special occasion.

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