Steaming geothermal pools with a vibrant orange hue set against a vivid blue sky, soaking in natural thermal pools hidden in the middle of lush natural surroundings and a day spent soaking up indigenous Maori culture — these are three of the most memorable parts of a trip I took several years ago to New Zealand. I was lucky enough to have a coworker who had recently returned from visiting some Kiwi relatives, and she helped me plan my trip.
Her advice? Focus at least a few days on visiting Rotorua, a gorgeous area on the North Island that’s known for its natural beauty and connection to the Maori culture.
When I first got to Rotorua, I spent days exploring hiking the trails at Lake Tarawera to get to Hot Water Beach, the site of several hot pools where you can soak your aches and pains away. I explored Te Puia, where I had a chance to see the famous Pohutu Geyser and experience a Maori welcome ceremony known as a Powhiri, which included everything from a ceremonial peace offering to a haka war dance to an amazing meal cooked using the Maori’s unique cooking process known as hāngī.
First, a Powhiri ceremony
The intricate wood carvings greet visitors of Te Puia and can be found along the way as you walk from the entrance into the village. The sound of chanting and horns gradually escalates as a lone Maori warrior emerges, beginning the dance.
Eventually he’s joined by others, including the Chief, who issues the official welcome as dappled sunlight dances through the canopy of towering trees. One of the most dramatic parts of the ceremony was the haka.
Whether they were going to war or gathering in peace, the Maorian haka has always been an integral part of the culture. During the ceremony, warriors chanted and the sound of hands slapping their bare thighs punctuated the otherwise quiet surroundings. The scent of dirt and food cooking mingled in the air from the hāngī, a traditional underground oven that cooks food on top of hot coals or volcanic rocks.
Traditionally, the Maori would wrap “kai,” or food in Maori, in leaves, but the modern hāngī style allows for wire baskets and aluminum foil in place of the leaves. The foil or baskets contain the food, which gets covered with wet cloths and mounds of earth that trap the steam and heat to cook it for anywhere from three to four hours.
During my visit to Te Puia, the Maori uncovered the pit and hauled up the kai. I couldn’t resist trying a little bit of everything, including some of the most tender, fall-off-the-bone meats and most flavorful veggies I’ve ever had.
The technique requires time and patience. Once the rocks are good and hot, the food gets lowered into the pit and carefully covered for hours. But the payoff is a deep connection to the earth for the cooks. And for the diners? The food has an earthy, lightly smoked taste that’s difficult to imitate using any other technique.
The day after my visit to the Maori village, my traveling companions and I left Rotorua to explore Auckland before heading to the South Island. Although every experience was a standout, it was hard to top the multisensory experience of the Maori village and the unique flavors of the meal I was lucky enough to enjoy there.
Recreating the experience
For the Maori, hāngī isn’t just about eating. It’s also the perfect opportunity to share amazing food experiences with family and friends. After returning home from my trip, I promised myself I would take a little sliver of what I learned home with me. So, when my family started planning a reunion, I immediately thought that it might be time to try my hand at hāngī.
Digging a pit and using a combination of coals, wire baskets and wet cloths to cook the meal is like my version of a love letter to my family and to the Maori people who taught me so much about this simple, yet oh-so-complex, traditional cooking method. I’m hoping to achieve that irresistible slightly smoky, slightly earthy flavor infusing all the ingredients I add to my underground oven.