Year 9, Ngaruawahia Marae. We were lining up to meet a wharekai filled with the toasty, brothy aroma of roasted vegetables and meat. I take another bite and get reminded of a smashed baby potato brunch. Time machine? Harry Potter portkey? Nope. All from a humble hangi sandwich!
Māori Kitchen is a food truck fixture located by Queen’s Wharf by the ferry terminal. Welcomed by warm and friendly staff, you are also welcome to watch the screen by the food truck to see the hangi process in action. You needn’t spend a fortune for fresh ingredients and a cooking craft perfected over generations, our very own tangata whenua hold the key to this direction in the future of farm to table food.
Hangi is a Māori technique used to cook food in a kind of earth oven, using the heat and steam of hot stones to cook meat and root vegetables. This is similar to the Polynesian umu.
Firewood and volcanic stones are placed in a deep earth pit and baskets of food are placed on top of the rocks to cook. Hangi takes around 3 hours to cook, this ensures the food is thoroughly cooked and tender while holding a rich flavour.
Like the Magic School Bus or the Wild Thornberries’ combi, a humble and homely front can often be the start of an international experience as I was to find out:
Hangi Sandwich ($12)
This was hangi meat, I chose chicken with smashed baby potatoes which came with a watercress and beetroot salad and Asian style-dressing inside a sourdough bun. What surprised me and made this stand out from most hangi I have tried was that the chicken was crispy as it would be in a slow roast or being lightly fried. Then there were the crispy smashed potatoes a-la-Cuisine-Magazine or Parnell brekky, herby and gourmet but still had the nostalgic taste of a chip butty*. And the cherry on top, or rather, the salad on top; the watercress salad which had a sesame-like taste and was a sweet homage to the 1970s NZ dinner side dish staple of puha- watercress. The bun’s flavour reminded me of mashed potato, could this be rewana bread?** On the whole, very tasty. Don’t let the name ‘sandwich’ fool you, this was as filling as a heavy burger for me!
Pie (Part of a $7 meal combo)
Usually, when you bite into a pie, it’s kinda…soupy
aka my brain at an 8am lecture but this was not like that. Golden, flaky pastry covering big chunks of hangi vegetables and tender meat. This is not some stew of reconstituted thingys you’d see in the frozen aisle at the supermarket. This was a meal in a golden pie, the El Dorado of pies.
Taha (Part of the $7 pie combo)
We were told that this was a kind of Māori ginger beer. The taste reminded me of those Chi drinks meets honey, meets apple, meets kiwifruit. More fruity than gingery and very refreshing.
As someone from Southeast Asia, I understand the feeling of seeing how restaurants have been ‘gentrified’, as in Asian menus ‘spruced’ to the standard of fad diets or as having watered down flavours. Who could forget the Lucky Lee’s debacle of the New York food scene? This restaurant opening was marred with notoriety as the owner opened in the name of making ‘clean’ Chinese cooking and used stereotypes to belitte Chinese technique.
I certainly can’t forget NZ based chef Mike Van De Elzen’s food show where he mocked the Vietnamese accent by pretending not to understand locals and kept raising how ‘unhealthy’ Vietnamese food is, going on to saying it was his aim to ‘improve’ Asian cooking in changing the recipes. Through the glitz and glam of the restaurant scene, and each wave of a celebrity endorsed ‘clean’ diet, the pressure for instagrammable meals, we’ve lost touch of what really matters.
Businesses that go forward with food of a culture whose cooking is not known too well to the western tounge, executing dishes and services with pride and love – this to me is a sign of something special and courageous.
Māori Kitchen is a testament to pushing the boundaries of the food landscape while staying true to the flavours that make you feel at home. Decolonization is here and it’s hearty, delicious and unapologetically authentic.
*UK: chips between bread
**Rewana: Māori bread made from potato