A discussion at the recent symposium for New Zealand culinary history highlighted that food writing about Maori cookery needs to be improved.

My paper at the symposium, titled ‘Reinventing the Hole’, looked at methods for cooking a hangi without actually having to dig a hole in the ground. A rather narrow area of study, for sure, but I found some interesting stuff. One theme to my findings was recipes for ‘oven hangi’ – food enclosed in a container and cooked in a domestic oven – for which I was able to identify a clear evolution of recipes. Secondly, there were specially-constructed devices, from converted beer kegs to purpose-built commercial-grade stainless hangi ovens. What these two areas prove is that average New Zealanders are adapting hangi to modern cooking technology.

I therefore reached the conclusion that Maori cuisine is alive and strong. And that’s where food writers have been falling short of the mark.

During my research, I found many books and articles that treated Maori cookery in, quite frankly, a patronising tone. This habit goes all the way back to the bad old days of New Zealand race relations, but there is no excuse in the 21st century to repeat any misinformation or condescension from the past.

A second point raised at the symposium held at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology last October was that there has never been a single ‘recipe’ for hangi. For example, most food writing assumes that hangi can only contain fatty meat, cabbage and starchy kumara, potatoes and pumpkins. But in reality, almost every marae has its own tradition for earth-oven cookery. In coastal areas they will probably include seafood in a hangi.

So, if you’re a food writer, the next time you’re commissioned to write a story on Maori cookery, get in touch with your local hapu. Not only will writers be telling your readers a unique story, but they’ll be recording local food traditions for future researchers.

André Taber