“So basically you bury the food and dig it up again later on?”
“well, sort of, not really; but basically yeah……”
A ponderous cloud of confusion and mild repulsion gathered on the brow of my inquisitive, Canadian born junior chef. I could tell I was losing him. How to redeem such an abstract concept, when to me it was as natural and iconic to the land of the long white cloud, as poutine and ice hockey is to my punishingly ignorant associate here.
“There is a little more to it than that” I pursued
“So you start out by making a big, fuck off fire. Into that fire you chuck a bunch of large rocks to heat them up. Next you dig a really big, deep hole in the ground into which you pour your really hot boulders of doom and cover them with damp leaves, and flax and shit. While all this is happening the food is carefully wrapped, traditionally in more leaves and flax and shit, but we always used good old fashioned tin foil. So now the food is lowered into this earth cauldron usually on metal crates or racks, covered with damp sacks and more leaves and shit, and then we bury the fucker……. David! Are you following?”
The ponderous cloud cover had broken into a full fledged typhoon of dubiety,
“So essentially the earth acts as a giant steamer oven”
A brilliant ray of comprehension suddenly pierces the heavens! I can sense he grasps this alien concept after all.
Different names for the earth oven circulate the island nations of the south pacific, but in this kiwi boys mind there is only the Hangi. Working bees, Tangi’s (funerals), weddings, basically any special occasion of cultural significance such as Waitangi Day, or simply for the sake of it; a hangi to me, growing up in rural New Zealand, meant a real mean feed, building strong community spirit, and sinking a few Crates of Lion Red in the process.
Now, while the grub (and the booze) flowed freely at these shindigs, thats not to say that they were at all the pinnacle of my early culinary experiences (blasphemy I know!). That fact of the matter is that, while unique, this method of cooking is far from an exact science. At best, it’s an educated guess as to when the food is cooked, how hot the cooking cavity is, and as everything is ruthlessly steamed at the same time everything was extremely well-done and to be perfectly honest, a bit sloppy in texture. What was exceptionally good coming out of these sweaty cavities in the ground however were the vegetables. Particularly those grown in the earth seemed to benefit from being cooked in the earth. They just came out tasting so much more…….. earthy.
Many years later, whilst on a reconnaissance mission across the puddle to the fair city that I now call home (Melbourne), we were lucky enough to secure a booking at the then 25st best restaurant in the world, and home of one of New Zealands’ finest exports, Chef Ben Shewry. Of the absolute avalanche of inspiring morsels presented to us on that fateful eve, the one that struck a chord with this Kiwi farm boy was the “simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown in”. A not so simple moniker for a humble potato, presented in a not-so-simple kind of a way. And I thought to myself, “Crickey! I think he’s done it!” this chef, another unassuming kiwi farm boy gone wild, has transported the iconic hangi, and native maori cuisine, onto the world stage using his Australian restaurant as the vehicle for that expression. It was one of those transcendent moments when a new experience is at once exciting, nostalgic, challenging, and yet comforting. And the star of this dish was not some $130/kg wagyu beef monstrosity, it was a plain old, albeit perfectly cooked, spud.
So fast forward five Waitangi days later, and here I find myself looking to recapture the magic of those rural days, where the small, isolated community I grew up in truly came together and broke bread so to speak. Drank crates more like.
So, using chef Ben Shewry as a spring board for this dish (or basically ripping him off and dumbing it down to my level) I also had a stab at integrating another kiwi classic into the mix. Driving home during the summer it would be a common sight to see a couple of cars parked up with a whole family of local maori squatting in the storm drains. Now before you start making assumptions about the derogatory nature of this statement let me be very clear; these locals figured out what leading chefs in top restaurants strive to bring to their repertoire. As any country kid in New Zealand would have figured out by now, they were foraging for Puha. Quite similar to chard or watercress when cooked, the locals would boil this with pork and whatever vegies were on hand, creating a dish called pork and puha, often affectionately referred to as “Boil Up”, (once again this dish is usually as about appealing as the name suggests!).
- 2 large waxy potatoes (we used desiree), unpeeled (it also won’t matter if they’re dirty)
First of all, we aren’t going to start a fire, heat rocks and dump them in a hole and all that jazz, but we are going to be doing a little digging. Be sure to select the “cleanest” possible dirt you can find. I know that sounds stupid but what I mean is try to take soil from an area that hasn’t been fertilized or mulched recently, that is well away from your family pets favourite “digging spot”, and to the best of your knowledge is far, far away from where your partner (or you) goes “nature potty” after a few drinks on saturday night. Sift the dirt of as many large clumps of roots and grass as possible (they’ll just burn).
Preheat your oven to 200ºc. Find a large, deep baking dish with a lid, a sturdy spade, and get to some digging. Lay a good 1 inch layer of lose dirt on the bottom of the baking dish and evenly space your potatoes on top, so they’re not touching. Next cover the spuds with more dirt, and pretty much fill the dish to the brim. Whack a lid on it and put it in the oven for 2-2 ½ hour (depending on the size of your potatoes).
During the down time prepare your garnishes, and smash a crate of Lion Red!
- 2 shallots finely diced
- 1 clove of garlic minced
- sprig of thyme chopped
- 50g butter
Put your butter into a small pot and melt it over a high heat. The butter will separate, and when the milk solids begin to stick to the bottom of the pot it’s time to dump the rest of your ingredients in. Bring the pot up to a gentle simmer and turn down the heat. Cook out slowly for 10-15minutes, or until the shallots are mostly soft with a tiny bit of crunch left in the middle. Strain off the solids with a sieve and reserve the delicious golden buttery goodness.
- One strip of Jamon (spanish ham) per potato
Line an oven tray with baking paper and lay your ham strips on the paper and bake until quite dark and crispy.
- cooked potato
- confit shallots
- water cress
- Jamon crisps
- shallot butter
- cold cream cheese
- good sea salt
Remove your potatoes from the soil and check that they are cooked through with a skewer (cooked potato should offer virtually no resistance), and wash in very hot water. Once very clean use a spoon to carefully peel the skin from the potato while trying to retain the natural shape of the vegetable. Place on a plate and use the back of the spoon to crush one side of the potato while leaving the other half intact. Dip a teaspoon into very hot water and form 3 nice egg shaped blobs of the cream cheese and place on the broken potato. Break the jamon crisps into irregular pieces and sprinkle over the broken potato. Next scoop your confit shallots into 3 irregular piles on and around the potato, drizzle the shallot butter over the plate and the potato. Season generously with sea salt and pick the nicest tips of the water cress and place randomly over your dish.
Now enjoy your ka pai kai (bloody good grub!).