This summer, I took an amazing trip to New Zealand. As someone with a lot of food restrictions going into unknown territory where I would not be cooking my own food every week, this was definitely a challenge. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find delightful meals that accommodated my needs in unique ways. Foremost among the surprises was hangi, a traditional Maori way of cooking.
The first week of my stay in the land of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films was spent in Christchurch. The meals here were certainly within the weird food restrictions I have, which include no dairy or eggs, no peppers, limited gluten, and a host of other ones that seem minor but make an impact when going out to eat. I definitely have had moments of feeling like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. The bigger challenge actually lay in the 12 or so days of driving and ferrying with my fiancé from Christchurch in the South Island to Auckland in the North Island by way of a recreational vehicle with limited food storage and cooking capacity.
Breakfasts usually involved muesli, fruit, and peanut butter, and we struggled to find a good balance between enjoying Thai or Indian, or cooking in the camper. So when we were researching where to stay in Rotorua, a town in a region known for its geothermal energy and hot pools, we came across the Cosy Cottage Thermal Kiwi Holiday Park. Other than the allure of being able to freely use geothermal pools at the campsite, there was also a hangi for us to use. Since I had never heard of a hangi, I immediately asked what it meant.
Chris, my fiancé, said it was a way of cooking that makes use of the geothermal heat of the region. Traditionally, it involves digging a pit, lining it with heated stones, putting the food you want to cook inside cabbage tree leaves (or other thick, lettuce-type leaves), and then placing the leaf-engulfed food onto the stones to be cooked. Here, the stones have been replaced, cooking with steam instead. Depending on what you’re cooking, it could take anywhere from half an hour up to eight hours.
Knowing that we were going to get to use it, and the fact we had already-cooked gluten-free penne noodles on hand, we decided to use the noodles and buy other things we could cook in the hangi to create a better meal than just noodles and tomato sauce. We bought sweet potatoes (which are called kumara in New Zealand), beets, capers, garlic-infused olive oil, and cherry tomatoes to go with the noodles in addition to the sun-dried tomatoes with herbs we had bought at a winery we visited two days earlier. In addition to wanting to cook the sweet potatoes and beets, we also wanted to cook pears and strawberries for dessert.
Once we arrived at the campsite and had prepared the sweet potatoes and fruit, we were ready to try cooking in the hangi. The one we used at the campsite was a little less traditional than what I described above. Here, the stones had been replaced, cooking with steam instead—it came up through what looked like an outdoor oven. It was made of steel, with lids at the top we could open the way you’d open a car’s hood. Food goes into a pot and is put inside the hangi and we’d close the lid.
There were four openings that could cook up to four meals at the same time and a menu off to the side that had suggestions of what to cook and for how long. The menu included stews and meats (all-day affairs), root vegetables (cook for 90 minutes), and fruits and softer vegetables (up to 30 minutes). We could cook the sweet potatoes for 90 minutes, with the pears and strawberries going in the last 30 minutes right on top of the sweet potatoes, and we were able to use another pot to heat up the noodles. All this was cooking while we relaxed in the hot pools right down the path.
Once everything was heated, we assembled pasta with sweet potatoes, capers, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes; enough olive oil to cover the noodles; and a little bit of salt and pepper mixed in for good measure. The fruit we kept for dessert. This meal was by far my favorite of the whole trip until we had second breakfast at Hobbiton. (Yes, Hobbiton!) Thankfully, there was enough of everything to keep in our tiny fridge as leftovers for at least two more meals. And although we don’t have hangi here in the States, the meal is easily recreated on stovetop. At the very least, cooking it here runs less risk of steaming up your glasses to the point of not being able to see!