When Monique Fiso digs up a hangiu2014a traditional Maori pit ovenu2014sheu2019s not only unearthing a meal; sheu2019s excavating au00a0 long-buried food tradition.
Fiso, a chef of Samoan-Maori descent, started laying hangis in 2016 when she returned to New Zealand after seven-plus years of cooking in Michelin-starred kitchens in New York. The pits, which are filled with heated stones and food stored in baskets before being covered with wet burlap and buried, are the centerpiece of her evolving pop-up culinary event series, Hiakai (Maori for u201chungryu201d). In addition to the hangi, in which she cooks free-range chicken with kawakawa (a peppery herb) and kumara (a native sweet potato) for up to five hours, Fiso highlights techniques and ingredientsu2014such as rewena, a sourdough potato bread, and fresh-caught river eel smoked with manuka woodu2014that are both high-end and grounded in history.
Hiakai began as a roving dinner series, but after feedback from her guests, Fiso expanded the meals into 24-hour events. She partnered with the Unique Whanganui River Experience tour company and found a permanent home for Hiakaiu2019s summer sessions, Puraroto Campground. The site sits atop a cliff overlooking the river, which is called Te Awa Tupua by Fisou2019s Maori community, the Nga Rauru iwi.
u201cI wanted to it be more than just throwing up some tents next to where everyone was having dinner,u201d Fiso explains. u201cGuests who attend Hiakai dinners usually have a strong interest in Aotearoa history and Tikanga Maori [the Maori names for New Zealand and their traditional way of doing things].u201d
Diners convene in the tiny village of Pipiriki before heading upriver in a jet boat to the campground, where private tents are set up in a clearing beneath enormous pines. Breakfast, lunch, and an artful seven-course dinner are included, as are a guided canoe trip and a lesson in Maori history. u201cI wanted to make it an immersive experience,u201d Fiso says, u201cfrom start to finish.u201d