Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Traditional Hangi in Patea

Back in early February, our neighbors Jeanette and Laurie kindly took us to their hometown of Patea, about 45 minutes north of Wanganui, for Waitangi Day, a national holiday commemorating the 1840 treaty between the Maori and the British crown. The town is heavily Maori in population and Jeannette mentioned that a hangi would be cooked and served. Since this is the iconic Maori feast meal – meat and vegetables cooked in an earthen pit by the heat of hot stones ­– I jumped at the opportunity.

In Patea, Jeanette introduced me to the man in charge of the hangi, Ngapari Nui (below on Waitangi Day), a well-known man about town who explained that the meal they had cooked that day for 400 was not prepared in the truest traditional manner and invited me to call him about a more authentic hangi in the planning stages. I’m not sure if he expected me to take him up on his offer, but when I called he seemed to remember making it and was gracious.
Over the phone, Ngapari told me that the upcoming hangi was for a visiting group of Americans. Too bad, I thought. “From Hawaii,” he added. More interesting. He invited me for the powhiri – ritual welcoming ceremony mentioned previously in blog – that would start the day and welcome the group onto the Patea marae (Maori meeting house and its grounds). Even though it required a little son-juggling to leave early enough, one just doesn’t decline an invitation to a real marae powhiri (staged ones for tourists are available for a charge at locales across the country). My friend Margo joined me and we drove up to Patea early one Tuesday morning a couple weeks later to meet Ngapari in front of the dairy (corner store). In contrast to the first time we met, he was all dressed up in a nicely pressed shirt and, as we waited to head to the marae, he explained a little about his role and his town.

Ngapari is chairman of the local group of Ngati Ruanui, his iwi (tribe). “I’m the yes man,” he clarified with a wry smile. His surname, Nui, means great or large. He would disclose his age only in Te Reo (the language of Maori), which I struggled to transcribe at the time, but I now know he’s 45 since I just learned numbers in my Te Reo class. (Incidentally, the fact that this class exists and can be taken, free of charge, by any Kiwi is in and of itself a sign of changing times. See sidebar below.) The town of Patea was the original landing point of one of the huge wakas (canoes), the Aotea, that brought the first Pacific Islanders down to New Zealand and it served as a very busy port through the early part of the 20th century. (See waka on main street and coastline below.) It is now down to about 1,000 in population with, unfortunately, not much in the way of local jobs since the main employer, the freezing works (meat processing plant), closed in 1982 after nearly 100 years of operation when meat processing became more centralized at larger plants. (See photo from the freezing works museum in town.) Patea is still surrounded by farms and rolling pasture land, but the nearest source of work is up in Eltham at a huge Fonterra dairy factory.

A small schoolbus drove by as we spoke and Ngapari waved to the kids. “We’re quite lucky to have our school still,” he said. “We fought to keep it open.” Many of the young people move away to find work, or just don’t work. “Now we got our people spread out over the world,” Ngapari said. “My three sons,” he added, “I had to send them away.” One is in London, he explained, and two in Australia. This is quite common among families of all backgrounds in New Zealand. Salaries and opportunity are very often better elsewhere; ironically, the depressed world economy gives Kiwis hope that more of their own will stay closer to home.

SIDEBAR: When Jeanette and Laurie first met Ngapari a number of years ago, they knew him as Barry. As with the Native American culture in the US, Maori language and traditions had been ignored at best and repressed at worst, both officially and unofficially since the mid 1900s. It has not been until fairly recently, over the last 15 years or so, that there has been more general recognition that the indigenous traditions should be appreciated and celebrated. Preschoolers of all backgrounds now learn to count in Te Reo Maori and ceremonies like the powhiri have been adopted by many community organizations – like our welcome at the hospital and Nikko’s at the high school. There remain, of course, plenty of cross-cultural issues and bridges to be built. The discussion going on in our town right now about whether to add the h into Wanganui to make it Whanganui has both sides bristling over charges of cultural imperialism and political correctness.
(This is the photos of the day of the hangi on the marae. I'm trying this a different way - as a slide show rather than individual photos.)

We followed Ngapari and arrived at the Wai O Turi Marae, which is used by three local iwi as their meeting house. It is positioned on a cliff right above the ocean and had been a historical village site and marae until the Maori lost it in the 1870 land wars. Although post-war agreements pledged it back to the iwi, Ngapari said, that didn’t happen until 1936. “They also stopped a lot of our traditions like going to get eel in the rivers,” he added. As is customary, strangers do not enter the gates until they have been officially welcomed so we waited in steadily heavier drizzle for the Hawaiian group to arrive, at which point we were called in song through the front gate.

Along with a substantial number of local iwi members, the powhiri ceremony was also attended by about a dozen preschoolers and their teachers at the marea-based school. Old photographs hung on the walls and everyone, except for the elders, sat on mattresses lined around the edge of the room. We were all welcomed in Te Reo Maori by a representative of the local iwi and then, to my surprise, the visitors responded in a language that sounded like Te Reo to me as the local hosts nodded in comprehension. I found out later that they were speaking Hawaiian and that the shared Pacific Island roots of the two groups allow them to understand each other despite the roughly 800 years since the ancestors of the first Maori climbed into their wakas for the long canoe south.
The Hawaiians, it turned out, were part of a First Nations’ Futures Program fellowship through the Kamehameha School in Maui who were using their diverse expertise in law, education, agriculture and environmental issues to reinforce the leadership and stewardship roles of their own indigenous people. (See for more info.) As one of them said, “The land is our chief; we are the servants.” The children behaved very well until the end of the hour-plus ceremony when the fidgets hit. One toddler amused the crowd by dancing by himself in the middle of the room as everyone spoke. His father (I think), one of the organizers, was not as amused.

After a tea and sausage roll break, the Hawaiians went off to hear about river restoration projects from the local Department of Conservation while I made a beeline to the group building the large fire that would heat the rocks, the first step in the hangi that would be served for supper that evening. Anthony (Antz), who was leading the "laying down,” was a striking young man with plentiful tattoos and equivalent patience with my many questions. (He did admit to my friend Margo that he had added some of the newer tattoos to cover up some older gang-related ones.) The rocks would heat in the fire for two hours to get “white hot,” he explained, as a couple of his colleagues including Kingi, Antz’s nephew who didn’t look a lot younger than him, Wuzz with some fine rasta braids, and Rangi, in a Harley sweatshirt, finished digging the pit . Antz soaked cloths in a large barrel; they would cover the hangi after it was placed in its earthen pit. One of the Hawaiians had wandered over to watch and noted the similarity to the Hawaiian imu, or earth oven. It is, in fact, called an umu in Te Reo Maori. Steaming food with hot rocks and vegetation in a dug pit has equivalents all over the world, including the New England clambake. A history of New Zealand food I have read notes that the first Europeans to land here were impressed with the practice, which was more sophisticated and efficient than the open-hearth cooking used predominantly back home.

Ngapari and his energetic and mischievous grandson, Te Pou Tokomanawa (meaning, as his grandpa explained it to me: Pou means post, Toko means support and manawa is heart, "in other words I see him as my support for the future in carrying the things that I teach him") –who lives with Ngapari and his wife, Tina – showed me the veges (not veggies) prepared for the hangi: pumpkin, squash, kumara (traditional sweet potato), and potatoes. As the rocks heated, Antz wove piles of puka leaves through the wire basket to encase the hangi. The food is most definitely steamed, not roasted, thanks in part to whatever greenery is used to wrap it – cabbage leaves more commonly now, but also wild watercress, and the traditional puka leaves. Although New Zealand has much ocean coast, no one I’ve spoken with had ever heard of using seaweed.

Marty Davis (in blue t-shirt with iwi elder in photo slide show above), Ngapari’s equivalent for another of the local iwi, spoke with me as we waited. Traditionally, Marty said, Maori see land “not as an asset on the balance sheet, but as a treasure or taonga.” He was clearly practiced in his message, quite articulate but also honest. “We have a generation of some lost souls,” he acknowledged. “So we are concentrating on the next generation, helping them understand, ‘Who am I and where am I from?’” The revitalization of the language is key, he said, as was being politically organized: “Education leads to awareness. Awareness leads to tolerance. Tolerance leads to a better society.”

Ngapari’s wife, Tina Nui, was one of the efficient band of women working behind the scenes in the kitchen to prepare the food that would go in the hangi and be served with it. Traditionally, men handle the fire and cooking and women the food prep. Tina is known for her famous creamed paua (abalone), which would be served as the first course of the hangi meal. The local Maori always collected abalone from the ocean, she explained, but now must get a permit. Another traditional seafood the Maori gathered was kina, sea urchin. “Back in the old days we were taught to eat the whole thing or leave it alone,” Tina told me. “Now people just eat the yellow bit. If old people saw that, they’d slap you on the neck. I was brought up to eat the whole lot. I like it nice and fresh out of the ocean.”

Since unfortunately we could not stay to taste the hangi itself – much to the disappointment of our hosts and us – Tina did give me a sample bowl of the creamed paua, which was delicious. It was reminiscent of a really good, thick clam chowder with a bit more flavor and no potatoes. Tina starts with onions, chopped up abalone sauteed in butter and then adds milk, cream, a little flour and some spices. “I'd take a bowl of Tina's creamed paua over a hangi any day," said Antz.

The stones were ready and the hangi basket was filled with meat: huge sirloins (butt), rolled pork bellies, and whole chickens. The netted bags of veges went on top along with a bag of stuffing. The basket was lain in the pit and then the crew set about raking the hot stones into the pit, very hot and sweaty work. After the stones were in, the hangi was covered completely with sopping wet sheets and then wet gunnysacks after which dirt was shoveled over it to prevent any steam from escaping while it cooked for about 3 hours.

The meat from a hangi is very tender with a pervasive flavor of smoke and the vegetables soft enough for a baby to eat. Although I did not get to taste this one, the one we ate on Waitangi Day in Patea (see below) was fork-tender and quite smoky, if a little bland. I hold out hope that I will still get to taste a traditionally cooked one before leaving in July. Hangis, Antz told me, are a celebratory meal for Christmas, New Year’s, 21st and 50th birthdays. It’s an easy way to cook for a crowd, he said. “It saves a lot of catering. It’s just natural. It’s just how we are.”

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