It's pronounced "hungee," says Ben Shewry, a New Zealand native who is widely regarded as the best chef in the Southern Hemisphere, as he paces around a smoking pit with a microphone in his hand. Shewry is teaching an Earth MasterClass on the art of the hangi as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival at the base of CERES Environment Park, located in East Brunswick, a suburb just outside Melbourne. The audience is sweltering in the heat of the afternoon, another 100-degree day in a record heat wave in March, and the hangi smoldering away at the front of the class isn't helping. But we're all eager to learn, so we take a collective sip of our beetroot coolers, and soldier on.
A hangi is a longtime tradition of the Maori, native inhabitants of New Zealand. It involves cooking food over a pit filled with heated rocks and firewood, and it's a great way to serve a crowd of hungry people when there's no grill to be seen for miles. Says Shewry, "Growing up, laying a hangi was how we celebrated an event such as a 21st birthday or a death in the family… the flavor is totally unique and one that reminds me of my New Zealand home."
Chef of the award-winning restaurant Attica, located in Melbourne, Shewry has crafted more than 150 hangi over the course of his lifetime, each one slightly different. His first hangi was the most memorable: "I 'laid' my first hangi by myself when I was about 10 years old," he says. "It contained only potatoes and I was too impatient and dug it up after only two hours. The potatoes were half raw but I thought it was great."
It's not going to be super exact, says Shewry. Every hangi he has ever laid has turned out slightly differently, and he emphasizes that there is no recipe. The hangi is more of a technique that people refine over the years with their own interpretations. "It's natural to worry about how your hangi will turn out," says Shewry.
To find out how to lay your own hangi, check out our slideshow, and when you're done, be sure to check out our other story on cooking in the great outdoors, How to Host an Imu, in which Ed Kenney, Hawaii native and chef of Town Restaurant in Oahu, shows us his culture's take on this timeless tradition.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.