In the latest in the Frame documentary series produced for The Spinoff by Wrestler and funded by NZ on Air, we follow chef Luke Adams as he prepares a hāngī for his children’s school fundraiser.
“It never really seemed important in the beginning,” says Luke Adams. “It was just something that was always going on.”
Growing up in Manurewa, with regular trips back home to Pawarenga in the far north, hāngī was a fixture of the Auckland chef’s childhood.
“My father taught me how to do it. He used to have hāngī up the back of our house all the time, and it just became normal,” says Adams (Te-Uri-o-Tai, Te Aupōuri).
“Then we’d always go back up north for tangi and a hāngī would be at the end of it, at the hākari. There’d be hāngī and a big platter and then there’d be little things of crayfish and pāua and fry bread, sort of all like tied in together. That accumulation of everything makes my mouth water, just talking about it.”
Kids were helpers from the get-go. “You started off, like, collecting the wood and then peeling potatoes and doing all the bum jobs. As you learnt it got better and better. All the little things – you know, chopping the wood properly and having it so that it doesn’t fall into the hole lopsided, and laying the stones, sprinkling them with salt and slapping them with water.”
Understandably, the significance of this passed-on knowledge wasn’t exactly appreciated at the time. “My dad was a very methodical man. He used to take his time and never cut corners,” Adams recalls of the process. “It was quite painful as a young guy, you know? I just wanted to go skateboarding with my mates or whatever.
“But later on, especially after I started cooking, I remembered all of these things that he taught to me, over and over and over again.”
Progressing from hāngī helper to running the show is a unique journey within Māoridom, Adams explains. “You start off playing bullrush or touch out the front of the marae and then you’d do the dishes and then you’d peel the potatoes and then eventually, you started to take on bigger jobs like, de-boning the cow, you know? Three hundred kilos or whatever.
“And then eventually getting to the point of taking over all of the meals, you know – breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then hopefully, one day, sitting on the taumata.”
Adams, 37, is head chef at Auckland cafe L’affare Newmarket. His two oldest kids, Huia (8) and Awatea (5), are enrolled in Te Akāpūkaea, the Māori-medium pathway at Newton Central School in Grey Lynn, and he’s heavily involved in various kura activities. (He’s also dad to Walter, who’s 1½.)
“The first couple of years that Huia was at the school, I wasn’t in a place where I could help. Then all of a sudden, I was, so I can. Especially cooking. Putting a hāngī down, man. That’s my jam, you know. I’m all over it.”
Adams regularly takes charge of the food side of celebrations and fundraising events. In November, that meant organising a hāngī for 400 people.
“The preparation involved is huge,” he said in the lead-up. “Not only whatever’s going into the hāngī – the meat and vegetables – but the logistics of getting it there at the right time, prepping it, storing it, digging the hole. We’re pre-cutting all the meat into pieces and laying it all out in the baskets so it all gets smoked and steamed evenly.
“If you do it in the same hole all the time with the same baskets and the same cuts of meat and the same sacks, then yeah, you kill it. But it’s hard, man. It’s like trial and error every single time. It’s never gonna be perfect. It’s gonna be as good as you can make it at the time.”
For this hāngī, Adams and his helpers (mainly other parents from the kura) prepped 200kg pork, 200kg chicken, 50kg potatoes, 30kg kūmara, 16 pumpkins and 16 cabbages. He used a kawakawa and garlic marinade for the chicken, and a rosemary and garlic one for the pork, made with rosemary from the school grounds.
“I really do love the fact that everybody chips in to do a whole lot of work, feed a whole lot of people and then clean up the mess,” he says. “It’s a great bonding experience – especially with people you don’t know and they’ve just come to hang out and peel some potatoes or dig the stones out.
“The more and more I do them, the better I get, so I’m definitely changing a little bit more of the flavours, working out what works well with the meat and mānuka,” he says, referring to the wood he uses.
Adams says he looks forward to passing the knowledge on to his own children. “They’ve eaten a lot of hāngī but I haven’t put down as many as I’d like with them, but they’re still a bit too young to really get in there. I’m sure when the time comes, they’ll be put to work – because that was most of it, eh. It was work. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, we’re gonna have a fun time and go collect all this wood.’
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“I can see Huia taking control of things. Awatea is very strong and like an energiser bunny, so when it comes to that, he’ll be a good labourer.
“Passing on that knowledge is great – getting it from my dad and him from his dad.”
Another, more tangible contribution from Adams’ father to the Newton hāngī was some 50-plus-year-old scrap iron from a railway track used as hāngī stones. “They all lock into each other and form these big, flat plates that the baskets can go on. It’s like a big bottom element for an oven, and they hold the heat. Using his irons is really cool,” explains Adams.
“And you know, Māoridom – gosh, that’s what it really goes back to. Spreading Māoridom as much as we can.”
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.