Food in New Zealand
Modern New Zealand cuisine is mainly influenced by the country’s British heritage, although immigrants have begun to give it Mediterranean and Asian-Pacific accents since the 1950s. The Māori have their own traditional cuisine. The evening meal, called dinner or tea, is considered the main meal of the day; breaks between meals are called morning/afternoon tea or smoko.
There is no culture of eating out in New Zealand: restaurant dining is generally only done on special occasions such as birthdays or romantic dates, although eating out is becoming more common. New Zealanders generally do not ask for the restaurant bill at the table, but leave the table and ask for the bill at the counter or bar.
New Zealand has a very special coffee culture, with probably some of the best espressos in the world. Coffee shops often offer excellent meals, ranging from a muffin to a full meal.
In small towns, food is always available at the local pub/hotel/bistro, even if the quality is usually of the “burger chips” variety.
There are many fast food and ready meal establishments. Every major city has a KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Subway, and most have Burger King and Domino’s. There are a number of local fast food chains; Burger Fuel and Burger Wisconsin are both worth a try, while American pizza chains have competition from the local Satanic-themed Hell Pizza chain.
Most cafés and restaurants in New Zealand regularly cater for vegetarians, gluten-free people and most people with simple allergies. Cafés and restaurants that cater to vegans and meet religious dietary requirements (e.g. halal, kosher) are hard to find outside the major cities.
Cuisine in New Zealand
Distinctive New Zealand foods are:
- ANZAC biscuits – simple hard biscuits made mainly from oatmeal and bound with golden syrup. Originally made for and by ANZAC troops during the First World War. They can also be found in Australia.
- Fish and chips – originally a British dish, New Zealand has its own unique style. The menu consists of portions of breaded (or crumbled, if you prefer) fish fried in oil, accompanied by large chips and various other meats, seafood, pineapple slices and even chocolate bars, all wrapped in newsprint (today we use plain food paper, but traditionally it was yesterday’s newspaper). Traditional condiments in New Zealand are tomato sauce (ketchup) and tartar sauce. Unfortunately, the quality can range from very good to very poor; it’s best to ask locals for recommendations from fish-and-chips shops.
- Kiwi – a plum-sized, green fleshed fruit with fine black seeds in the flesh, native to China, selectively grown in New Zealand and first known to hobby gardeners as Chinese gooseberry. Today it is grown commercially, with production concentrated on Te Puke, but also in many other fruit-growing areas. New Zealand kiwi is in season from mid-March to September; out of season it is imported from the Northern Hemisphere. The slices are often served on pavlova (see below).
- Kumara or sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) – is roasted like potatoes and often served instead or as a side dish. It can also be deep-fried like crisps and is known as “kumara chips”. It is served with sour cream, but is rarely cooked well, as kumara is cooked at a different temperature than potatoes, so it takes an experienced cook to make the dish perfect. The “red” variety with dark red/purple skin is the most popular variety in New Zealand and is rather sour compared to the well-known Beauregard sweet potato from overseas (this variety is sold in New Zealand as “orange” kumara).
- Paua’s Fritter – Essentially chopped abalone wrapped in batter and deep fried. Available in many chip shops, but note that a cheaper alternative to abalone is often used instead. As a general rule, a donut that costs less than $10 does not use real abalone.
- Pavlova or pav – a dessert cake made of beaten egg whites and sugar, baked slowly to form a crisp meringue on the outside but a soft marshmallow in the middle, topped with whipped cream and decorated with sliced fruit. Pavlovas can be very tricky to cook and are known to go off if cooled too quickly. So don’t expect New Zealand’s homemade medium pavlovas to look like the picture. The dessert is also common in Australia, and there is a lot of debate between the two countries about where it was invented!
- Pies – New Zealanders eat a large number of pies without puff pastry with fillings such as beef, lamb, pork, potatoes, kumara, vegetables and cheese that fit nicely in one hand (about 170 g). They are sold in almost every coffee shop, dairy, petrol station and McDonald’s restaurant (it’s a long story) in New Zealand. Some companies now sell a range of “gourmet” pies and there is an annual competition for the best pie in various categories.
- With no point in the country more than 130 km from the sea, fish (ika) and seafood (kaimoana) are fresh, varied and (for the most part) abundant. Crustaceans are harvested from rocks and tidal beaches, as are crayfish (lobster, Jasus edwardsii) and coastal fish caught with lines or nets. Species such as paua (black-footed abalone, Haliotis iris) and toheroa are overfished and harvest restrictions are strictly enforced, while green mussels (Perna canalicula) are commercially farmed and sold live or processed in supermarkets.
- Whitebait – the translucent sprats or fry of native freshwater fish species that migrate each year after spawning in the sea. After being caught in nets at the mouths of coastal rivers or in hand nets in spring (September to November), the coveted delicacy is shipped across the country. They are often served as “white bait fritters” (a white bait fried in egg batter). They may be available in season at a local fish market and are cooked without gutting or removing the head as they are tiny (2-7 mm wide).
- The hangi or earth oven is the traditional Māori way of preparing food for large gatherings. Meat, vegetables and sometimes puddings are slowly steamed for several hours in a covered pit that has previously been lined with stones and in which a hot wood fire has been lit. The wood used for the fire is usually mānuka (New Zealand tea tree), which gives hangi its unique smoky flavour.
The Edmonds Cookery Book is one of the most comprehensive guides to traditional New Zealand cooking. First published in 1908 and revised more than a dozen times, it is apparently more widely used in New Zealand households than the Bible.
Drinks in New Zealand
New Zealanders have a reputation for enjoying their beer. The average Kiwi consumes 71 litres per year. Although there are only three major breweries left, there are many regional brands, each with its own flavour and following. Home-brewed beer is also becoming more popular and available, especially in the larger cities (Wellington in particular). Look out for New Zealand beers like Tuatara, Garage Project or Epic, to name a few. International brands such as Heineken, Guinness, Carlsberg and Budweiser are also available.
The New Zealand wine industry has developed into a major export industry. The country is now known worldwide as one of the leading producers of Sauvignon Blanc, accounting for over 70% of the national harvest of this grape variety. The Hawke’s Bay area is known for its Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and more recently Viognier. Marlborough is the largest wine region and is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. Waipara, north of Canterbury, specialises in Riesling and Pinot Gris, while Wairarapa and Central Otago specialise in Pinot Noir. Many wineries now offer cellar tours, wine tastings and vineyard wine sales.
The minimum legal age to purchase alcohol in New Zealand is 18, and alcohol may only be supplied to persons under 18 by a parent or guardian. Bars and retailers generally require photo identification from any customer who appears to be under 25 years of age. Only a passport, New Zealand driver’s licence or New Zealand hospitality card (HANZ) will be accepted as identification.
The national opening hours for the sale of alcohol are 8am to 4am the next day for business licences (bars, pubs, restaurants) and 7am to 11pm for business licences (liquor shops, supermarkets), although there may be local restrictions. All unlicensed shops must close and there are restrictions on the sale of alcohol in licensed shops all day on Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday and before 1pm on Anzac Day (25 April). If you want to visit a winery on these days, you may be out of luck.
Be careful where and when you engage in public activities. New Zealand has recently introduced alcohol-free zones, which means that alcoholic drinks cannot be consumed or even transported in certain streets, such as city centres and popular beaches, at certain times of the day and night. The police may ask you to empty your bottles and stop you if you do not respect this prohibition.
Coffee shops are available during the day in many major cities and tourist destinations. The coffee culture is notable in downtown Wellington, where many office workers take their tea breaks. Most types of coffee, cappuccino, latte, espresso/short black, long black, white, Viennese, etc. are available. Flat White is probably the most popular. Cappuccinos are usually served with a choice of cinnamon or chocolate powder sprinkled on top. It is customary to ask which you would like. Cuddles are a frothy whey for children, sprinkled with chocolate powder.
Tap water in New Zealand is considered some of the cleanest in the world and is safe to drink in all cities, as most of it comes from artesian wells or freshwater reservoirs. However, some comes from rivers that are chlorinated to make them safe but are not always very pleasant tasting. Some of Auckland’s water comes from the Waikato River, a long river that rises in Lake Taupo in the centre of the North Island. But when it arrives in Auckland, it has been treated so that its quality is no worse than that of the Thames in London or the Hudson in New York. Auckland’s water is also drawn from runoff reservoirs in the Waitakere and Hunua mountain ranges. Tap water in places like Christchurch and Hastings is not chlorinated at all, being drawn from the pure artesian aquifers of the Canterbury and Heretaunga Plains. Bottled water is available if you prefer.
L & P (Lemon & Paeroa) is a sweet, carbonated, lemonade-like drink that is said to be “world famous” in New Zealand. It is sold in a brown plastic bottle with a yellow label, similar to the traditional brown glass bottles it used to be sold in. Originally produced under its name, Paeroa in Waikato, it is now manufactured in Auckland by Coca-Cola.