If you were at Te Matatini last week, there’s a good chance you’ll have had some kai from the hāngi master Rewi Spraggon and his team. Rewi prides himself on running the only large scale commercial hāngi operation in the country that produces hāngi food the old way. Not in those new-fangled steamers thanks very much — but in an earth pit, over carefully selected and heated stones.
Here he is talking to Dale, after the flooding in Auckland and before the cyclone, about keeping the hāngi taste and tradition alive, and feeding the multitudes.
Kia ora, Rewi. How many hāngi meal packs are you putting out each week for people in need?
With the homeless, it’s normally around 1,500 a week. With this latest crisis, the flooding and evacuation, it’s been around 500 or 600 more. We’re taking the pressure off the Civil Defence centres where they’re housed. We’re just helping wherever we can.
It’s a wonderful generosity you’re showing, Rewi. How do you co-ordinate kaimahi to help you out?
I’ve got three full-time staff when we’re cooking. We don’t prepare a full 1,500 meals at one time. It’ll be in 500 lots in most cases, and two people can do 500 on their own.
We’ve got it down to a fine art because we do it every day. Cooking for massive numbers isn’t daunting for us. We can do it comfortably with two or three staff.
And where do you do this? Are these ground hāngi? Or are you doing them in steamers?
That’s a swear word, mate! I never do them in steamers. I only do them in the ground. And I’m the only in-ground commercial hāngi person in the country — which is weird on a scale like that. We’re based out in Te Henga, Bethells Beach.
Do you always get it right?
Yeah, because we know the process. The secret is in the stones and having enough stones. We don’t have a button which turns it up to 200 Fahrenheit or whatever. We rely on what we know and what works, and making sure that those stones are red hot, white hot. If they’re still black, they’re not hot enough, so you don’t bother putting food down.
Tell me about the stones you use. What are you looking for when you’re going out into the ngāhere to gather a stack of stones?
I’ve still got some of my grandfather’s rocks, but I don’t use those much now because we’re cooking in volume. I use many types of rock: basalt, river rock and blue rock. A lot of them work but you get some that explode, and you don’t really know the quality till you’re heating them.
I’ve got a good source where I get my kōhatu. It’s a landscape supplies yard that has a range of rocks. I’ve been using them regularly because you don’t have to worry about taking your truck down to the river.
How about your supply of wood to get the stones red hot. Is that easy to come by?
I’ve got a good supply of mānuka that’s regularly dropped off. We go through probably a cubic metre of mānuka a week.
In this age of fancy dancy exotic tucker, the hāngi suffers from an unfortunate perception that it’s bland, steamed food. Have you been able to find new ways of injecting flavour into your hāngi kai? Or do you stick to the tried and true, just steam and salt?
The flavour comes from the earthiness of the soil, the smoke, the wood. But I always brine my meats, whether it be pork or beef or lamb or what have you. I brine it for 18 hours in salt and garlic and whatever. You can infuse the food before it goes into the pits, and that always gives it another edge.
I’ve been fortunate enough to cook around the world, and in some flash restaurants too. But no one is doing hāngi — even though it’s the oldest dish in Aotearoa, it isn’t available.
My goal always has been to normalise hāngi and to make sure that, if a cruise ship comes into the harbour in Auckland, the passengers will have access to hāngi kai.
If you go to Italy, every second restaurant serves Italian food. You come to Aotearoa, it’s McDonald’s or sushi, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and so on. There’s every other culture in the world here, except ours.
Our goal is to expand. Teach more of our rangatahi about hāngi and go wider with it. Over the years, I’ve had probably 20 good young rangatahi who know hāngi back to front. But it‘s becoming a dying art, Dale. More people are using steamers and multi-kai cookers rather than in-ground hāngi techniques.
You’ve been quite an innovator. You devised the first mobile in-ground hāngi. Now you have hāngi buns. Then there’s this purpose-built hāngi which I’ve had a look at in a new playground in Māngere.
When I saw it, I thought: “Wow, that’s amazing!” I’d never seen one that’s there permanently for use by the community. You have a knack, don’t you, of thinking outside the square?
With Māngere mountain, it was a good opportunity to test the idea, and I’ve got probably 10 orders from marae who want me to build them hāngi pits. By doing this first one, I now have good, council-approved plans of how to build them.
I know that at the back of my marae at Pipiwai, all the ground is uneven because of the different holes for whare kai. But, if you have a permanent pit, you use less wood and it’s a lot easier to clean up. So that’s got to be the way of the future for our marae and for keeping this tradition going.
This year we’ll be in Queenstown, building more pits down there. We’ll be looking at street food, so tourists can enjoy hāngi food.
One of my dreams is to open a chain of 24/7 hāngi pits around the motu, similar to McDonald’s, where you can just drive through and order a bao bun, a hāngi pie, hāngi steamed pudding, hāngi meal, burgers, sandwiches, wraps, breakfast wraps. All that sort of stuff.
But, you know, it’s just small steps, Dale, to get it right. We’ve done quite a bit of mahi over the last six years to see what works and what doesn’t.
You’re a hāngi master, and all masters start as apprentices. Who took you under his wing and showed you how it’s done?
My grandfather taught my father, who taught me and my siblings. I never met my grandfather, but I know he’s cooking with me. Our brand, Hāngi Master, isn’t about me saying I’m a hāngi master. It’s about honouring hāngi masters of the past, the present and the future.
At times you work with our most accomplished chefs, putting on these celebratory dinners around Matariki. It must be amazing to be the hāngi guy with these people who are Michelin and five-star chefs. What’s that experience like working with culinary experts but providing something that many of them would be unable to furnish.
Yes, there are experts who’ve worked in some fine restaurants, but, when you get the flavours of hāngi going through brisket and pork and chicken, you can’t mimic that or come close to it.
A lot of these chefs just love it. They know that my kai is unique. It’s cool to sit down with them and go: “Okay, we’re gonna cook some weka this time, or pūkeko breast. How are we gonna do it?” And then matching wine with it as well. It’s exciting.
This year we’re going down to Christchurch, to the new conference centre for Matariki. And, once again, our top 10 Māori chefs will be on the stage and all of the kai will be from Māori producers.
That’s exciting, and it’s fun. This is our third year now, and every Māori chef wants to come on board. In the few days we’re together, we wānanga, we share ideas and talk about new stuff. That’s the beauty of Māori. We work together. We always have a community.
One innovation which sparked my interest was the hāngi steamed bun. What’s the backdrop to that?
I was at a festival and this Taiwanese kaumātua tried it and loved the pork. Then he said: “I make bao buns.” I said: “Well, why don’t we combine my hāngi and your steam buns?”
It started as simple as that, but it took a good five months to get it right. Because it’s a long process. It’s not just about putting pork and cabbage into a steam bun. It’s about getting the consistency and the flavour. Now they’re in over 80 shops around the North Island. We’re doing about 20,000 pork buns a week.
Another thing I’ve always done is hāngi pies. I’m working with a cousin who owns Luv A Pie. That’ll launch this year and be in supermarkets as well. Eventually, we’ll have hāngi meals in supermarkets. It’s all about bringing in the volume. It’s one thing to do 1,000 but to be consistent with 10,000 a day is another step.
Eventually, you’ll be able to go to a supermarket and get a proper in-ground hāngi meal where you can fire it in your oven or your microwave and it’s cooked to perfection.
Hāngi dumplings are also on the horizon.
When are you going to launch Hāngi Airlines?
Talking about the airlines, I’ve been knocking on their doors and trying to get some hāngi pies into Air New Zealand. Imagine crossing the ditch and having a hāngi pie and a beer on the plane. That’d be awesome.
That’d be the ultimate. But let’s go back to the beginning. Would you be kind enough to talk about your name and tell us a bit about your whakapapa lines?
My full name is Rewi Patrick McSweeney Matiu Spraggon. I was named after my mum’s brother-in-law, an Irish fulla, Patrick McSweeney, and then Matiu was after my mum’s older brother.
Spraggon comes from my old man’s side. It’s an English name. But, like all of us, we come from four grandparents who came from four grandparents, and so on. There’s a lot of whakapapa through our veins, bro.
What are your main tribal connections, Rewi?
Ngāti Hine in the north, and then Te Orewai, Te Uriroroi, Te Parawhau, Te Kawerau ā Maki, Te Waiohua, and Ngāti Maniapoto. I’m fortunate to have a diverse whakapapa.
And you’ve got the reo too. You’re very committed to our taha Māori. The name Rewi is not all that common. Were you named after any particular Rewi?
No, it’s the Māori version of David. Some people call it Rawiri, but it’s always stuck with me, Rewi.
Where did you grow up?
I had a strong platform with my mum (Eranangarinoa) and grandmother (Materoa Taki Niha). There was no kōhanga reo in my time — I came along just before that kōhanga wave. My mum was one of 18 siblings.
They spoke Māori and were of that generation where they were strapped or caned for speaking the reo. Mum even had teachers putting soap in her mouth for speaking the reo. You’d be put in jail if that happened now.
So they were brought up in a time when it wasn’t cool to be Māori. My mum had a beautiful tupuna name, which she changed to Eleanor in her teenage years. They wanted to get away from being Māori. It was like being brainwashed. A lot of her generation changed to Pākehā names.
I was fortunate to be brought up with my mum, who was a native speaker, and then spending time with my grandmother too. I was brought up in Pipiwai, near Whangārei, and then in west Auckland, around the back of Swanson.
Went to Henderson High School. Met up with a lot of boys there who became mates for life. Didn’t get my School Cert. I left. I didn’t have much interest in school. I was one of those guys who thought they knew more than the teacher, and I didn’t think the curriculum at that time was suitable for us. For me, anyway. Whereas there’s so many awesome opportunities now for rangatahi.
I left home when I was about 15 and moved back north. I lived with my mother’s sister and a few others and just got deep in the culture. Then I found an interest in our tikanga with Te Māori. I was still at Henderson High School when we were guides for the exhibition. I was fascinated with taonga Māori, and so that was my path.
Then, later on, I was fortunate enough to get a Te Māori scholarship to work at the Auckland Museum. I worked for a good eight years at the museum, and that’s where I found my love for toi Māori and the arts.
I was lucky to be one of the original members of Hirini Melbourne’s group, Te Haumanu, which started that revival of our taonga puoro, our traditional Māori instruments. And I got immersed in that as well as whakairo, painting, and what have you. Art has been a big part of my life, and still is.
You’ve had the privilege of repatriating some mokomokai, which is becoming more common now as museums across the globe recognise how wrong it is to be housing taonga that belong to others. And many are willing now to return them. You’ve had the experience, haven’t you, of accompanying these remains on their return from overseas?
I was fortunate enough to travel to London and repatriate three mokomokai and some human remains. It’s a very tapu kaupapa, and I had the good fortune of being brought up around genuine kaumātua like Sir James Henare, and other cool kaumātua, who were steeped in tikanga.
They taught me at a young age what to do in bringing the remains back. A lot of these tūpuna and taonga were away from Aotearoa for 200 years. When they came back with me on the aircraft, they weren’t put in the hold. They were stored in a safe place behind the pilots in their cabin. I didn’t want them to go in the hold near food.
As long as I’ve known you, you’ve lived in Te Henga, or Bethells Beach. It’s the most beautiful place. It’s also in your tribal domain, so you’re really living at home. But the beach has a threatening reputation. What strengths do you draw from in a place like this that is wild and rugged, extremely beautiful, but also at times very dangerous. What would you say about your relationship with Te Henga?
Te Henga has a real wairua, and a lot of the community who live there are drawn by that. But you teach your kids the importance of the environment and the history. For me, it’s a strength, and when you come home, you feel recharged. Yet I’m only 35 minutes from downtown Auckland.
But you’re right. The energy in the environment at Te Henga gives me the energy to do what I do.
When I think back to Te Māori and all the positive change that we’ve witnessed in these last four decades, what would you say of the advances we’re making, whether they’re culinary or education or social or political issues. Would you agree that our people are on the move now and that we’re in an unstoppable mode?
You’re totally correct. If you draw on everything that we’ve experienced as Māori, and you carry and wear that as a cloak, then you’ll be strong and the future will be great. I know my future because I create it, and it’s easy to predict the future if you create it yourself.
I’m really excited about the next 20 years, to see what will happen. I think back to the Māori economic summit in 1985, and then the second one in 2005, and the next one is coming up in 2025. It’ll be exciting to see what’s changed within that 20-year span. But I know that, in the next 10 or 20 years, Māori are going to be leading the world. Just look at all our Māori leaders out there. Good on us!
Behind every good hāngi man, there’s a good whānau. What might you say of those who are and have long been in your corner?
My wife, Kristal Rogers, has been the backbone for a lot of what I’ve done. We’re totally different. She is very conservative. And she’s a lawyer, for a start, which is good because she keeps me out of jail!
The thing with her is she knows when something won’t work — and she says 95 percent of my ideas won’t work. Because I’m passionate about my ideas, I get a bit upset, but then I think about it and agree that maybe it won’t work, and I should just park this one for now.
But the five percent that works has been amazing. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, an innovator, and I’m always getting up at three in the morning, thinking of a new idea or new way to do something. I think it’s that Māui gene in us.
But having whānau there is gold. My kids have seen me work hard. They’ve seen me in my hāngi pit — rain, hail and snow. They appreciate what their dad does. I know they sometimes think: “Crazy old bugger.” But they’ve all been a part of it and, for me, that’s really cool.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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