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New Zealand Cuisine

NZ cuisine

Pavlova, one of the icons in New Zealand cuisine.
Pavlova, one of the icons in New Zealand cuisine.

Flag_of_New_ZealandNew Zealand cuisine is largely driven by local ingredients and seasonal variations. Occupying an island nation with a primarily agricultural economy, New Zealand yields produce from land and sea. Similar to the cuisine of Australia, the cuisine of New Zealand is a diverse British-based cuisine, with Mediterranean and Pacific Rim influences as the country becomes more cosmopolitan. Historical influences came from Maori culture. New American cuisine, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and South Asian culinary traditions have become popular since the 1970s.

In New Zealand households, dinner (also known as “tea”) is the main meal of the day, when families gather and share their evening together. Restaurants and takeaways provide an increasing proportion of the diet.

Maori Cuisine

When Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous people) first arrived in New Zealand from tropical Polynesia, they brought with them a number of food plants, including kumara (sweet potato), taro, ti- plants, as well as dogs and rats, which were also eaten. The plants grew well only in the north of the North Island, and would not grow at all in the colder parts of the South Island. Native New Zealand plants such as fernroot became a more important part of the diet, along with insects such as the huhu grub. Problems with horticulture were made up for by an abundance of bird and marine life. The large flightless moa were soon hunted to extinction. Rahui (resource restrictions) included forbidding the hunting of certain species in particular places or at certain times of year, so that the numbers could regenerate.

Preparation of a modern hangi for tourists at Mitai Maori Village, Rotorua.
Preparation of a modern hangi for tourists at Mitai Maori Village, Rotorua.

Like other Polynesian people, Maori cooked their food in earth ovens, known in New Zealand as hangi, although the word umu was also used as in other Pacific languages. Stones are heated by fire and food parcels, packed in leaves, are placed on top. The packs are further covered with foliage and cloth, or, nowadays wet sacks, then earth. Other cooking methods included roasting and, in geothermal areas, boiling or steaming using natural hot springs and pools. Occasionally food would be boiled in non-geothermal areas by putting hot stones into a bowl with water and the food; and some food was also cooked over the open fire. Some foods were preserved using smoke, air-drying, or layers of fat — particularly muttonbirds. Maori were one of the few people to have no form of alcoholic beverage.

Food and Religion

In traditional Maori religion food was noa, or non-sacred. This meant care had to be taken to prevent it coming into contact with tapu places or objects. If it did, the tapu of the place or object, and often the people associated with it, would be at risk. High chiefs, and people engaged in tapu work such as tattooing, were tapu and were restricted in how they could deal with food; the most tapu needing to be fed by others. One story tells of a war party which had to be postponed as no non-tapu people were available to load the food supplies into the party’s waka (canoe).

European Influences

When Europeans (Pakeha) first arrived in New Zealand from the late eighteenth century, they brought their own foods with them. Some of these, especially pork and potatoes, were quickly adopted by Maori and helped end the threat of food shortages that had long plagued many Maori tribes. Potatoes were particularly popular as they were grown in a similar way to kumara but produced a much higher yield with less effort. Other European foods such as wheat, pumpkin, mutton, sugar, and many types of fruit also became a common part of the Maori diet. American sailors brought new varieties of sweet potato New Zealand, and these high-yield varieties quickly superseded the original varieties of kumara.

A Maori boil-up
A Maori boil-up

Alcohol, initially rejected as ‘wai piro’ (stinking water), also became part of Maori life. Most Maori tribes grew surpluses of food for trade with other tribes and with European visitors and settlers. Some tribes grew wealthy from this trade, although the Maori food industry declined in the mid-nineteenth century because of land loss and competition from settler farmers. Many traditional food sources, such as the kereru (wood pigeon) and other birds, as well as some types of fish and plants, became scarce as forests were destroyed and species were over-hunted

Maori Cuisine Today

Present day Maori cuisine is a mixture of Maori tradition, old-fashioned English cookery, and contemporary dishes. Most large Maori gatherings feature a hangi, which is likely to contain foods brought to New Zealand by Maori and by Pakeha, including processed food and takeaways. In recent decades there has been much concern that Maori have picked up the worst of European eating habits and as a result are disproportionately likely to suffer from obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Two dishes regarded as distinctively Maori are the boil-up – of pork, potatoes, kumara, and dumplings, and pork and puha (sow thistle) which combine introduced and indigenous foods. Both dishes owe much to nineteenth century British cooking methods.

Pakeha Cuisine

The majority of New Zealanders are Pakeha of British descent, so it is not surprising that the cuisine owes much to British cuisine.

Settler Food

Nineteenth century British settlers in New Zealand tried as much as possible to reproduce the foods of their homeland. In the early stages of colonisation this was difficult as many ingredients were unavailable. Pakeha settlers ate native birds and fish, and used local ingredients in substitution for those which were unavailable, for example brewing tea and beer using unconventional plants. Most of these innovations were abandoned as the Pakeha population increased and conventional ingredients began to be mass-imported or produced in New Zealand. One innovation which was commonly served on New Zealand tables until the mid 1980s was colonial goose, a stuffed leg of lamb which substituted for goose. A major difference between British and Pakeha food was that meat was much more readily available to all social classes in New Zealand. Whereas in nineteenth century Britain, labourers ate meat in very small quantities, in New Zealand they could have it for every meal. Since meat was a high status food in Britain, British settlers in New Zealand ate vast quantities of it.

It is noted Scotland provided the largest number of British ancestors of today’s Pakeha. The Scottish legacy on food could be seen through a traditional preference of sweet foods, and a wealth of baking dishes to celebrate important occasions, reflected through cakes, scones, muffins and other mainly sweet baking dishes. The country’s most iconic recipe book, the Edmonds Cookery Book, originally began as publicity material for a baking powder company, and contains a high proportion of baking recipes.

Asia-Pacific Fusion

For most of the twentieth century, Caucasian New Zealand cuisine remained highly derivative of British food. From about the 1960s, the advent of affordable air travel allowed New Zealanders to travel overseas more easily. Most Caucasians went to Europe on OE, where they discovered French and Italian cooking, and also the Indian and Chinese restaurants of Britain as well as the New British cuisine. When the sojourners returned home they helped create a demand for better quality food and more variety. They also tried to discover what New Zealand cuisine was, experimenting with hangi and gaining a greater appreciation of New Zealand produce.

The United Kingdom’s joining of the European Economic Community (EEC) (now the European Union) in 1973 sounded the death knell of New Zealand’s identity as an agricultural producer for the British Isles, and the formal cultural ties, including cuisine, with the United Kingdom started to become diluted. During this period, certain non-British or Irish European dishes, such as beef bourguignon, had shed the ‘ethnic’ connotation and entered the mainstream New Zealand cooking.

The 1980s was marked with economic liberalisation dubbed Rogernomics (named for the then Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas) that abolished farm subsidies, forcing many farmers to find alternative means of survival. Many chose to produce specialty cheese types like Havarti, Brie and Stilton, or diversified into growing olives or grapes instead of traditional meat and dairy farming. Avocado oil for cooking was commercialised in New Zealand in 1999 by a group of growers based in the Tauranga region.

Rogernomics also abolished much of import tariffs and instituted a more relaxed agricultural product import quarantine regime. This allows hereunto prohibited or prohibitively expensive specialty foods, such as genuine serrano ham from Spain, extra virgin olive oil from Italy, and mango from Thailand, to be available in New Zealand at reasonable costs. These two developments from Rogernomics have given birth to a proliferation of specialist food products available in New Zealand.

On top of changes in available ingredients, the 1980s also witnessed a wholesale liberalisation in attitude towards the formerly ‘foreign muck’ cooking styles and segmentation of lifestyles according to income and socio-economic status. New Zealand had by this time developed a largely distinct cultural outlook away from the British Isles, and this also made foreign cooking styles more acceptable among the general public. The same era also saw the moneyed populations feeling free to openly emulate the luxurious eating and drinking habits of upper and upper middle classes overseas, as the traditional New Zealand preference of egalitarianism, manifested in widespread prejudice against any deviation from lower middle class lifestyles, waned in influence. In the words of New Zealand-based anthropologist David Veart, this period of seachange in New Zealand’s culinary culture was akin to “being let out after a long school detention”.

Other Cuisines in New Zealand

New Zealanders come from many ethnic backgrounds, and most immigrants to New Zealand have tried to reproduce their native cuisines or national dishes in New Zealand. Similar to early Pakeha settlers, this often proved difficult. Larger ethnic groups, such as the Chinese, were able to import some ingredients, but often dishes had to be modified to use local ingredients. Ethnic restaurants have served as community meeting places and have also given other New Zealanders a chance to try different cuisines. However for most of its history there were few ethnic restaurants in New Zealand other than inauthentic Chinese, Indian and Italian eateries.

The Immigration Act 1986 completely abolished nationality preference for immigration, and immigration from East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia has skyrocketed after the law was enacted. Many of these immigrants have brought their different cuisines to New Zealand, and often opened ethnic restaurants and takeaway eateries, giving New Zealanders a chance to try more authentic editions of Japanese, Thai, Malay, regional Chinese, Indian, and other Asian cuisines. Over time these ethnic cuisines have been gradually accepted by Pākehā and Māori New Zealanders. Consequently, most New Zealand cities have a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, and foods such as kebabs, couscous, and sushi are served virtually everywhere. Many ethnic origin dishes have been willingly adopted by New Zealanders as their own, including sushi, antipasto, butter chicken, pad thai, pasta, such that they appear in home cooking, as well as in generic New Zealand restaurants.

Ingredients for many ethnic dishes have become much easier to find in major cities, mostly through speciality or ethnic food stores started by many of the post-1987 migrants to New Zealand, but in some cases also through mainstream New Zealand supermarket chains. Similar to Australia, in time the increasing availability of ingredients gave birth to a more authentic style of ethnic cooking, and some ethnic food ingredients have been adopted for local cooking: ingredients such as extra virgin olive oil and sun dried tomatoes, and to a lesser extent fish sauce and rice paper were already seen as ordinary ingredients by the year 2000, whereas even by the late 1980s many people would still have regarded them as highly exotic.

Contemporary Scene

Hamburger in New Zealand
Hamburger in New Zealand

As a result of various developments, the food scene of New Zealand in the early 21st century is in a state of flux: cosmopolitan Pacific Rim fares reign is now the norm in much of metropolitan eating out scenes, and traditional hearty settlers food, now dubbed Kwisine Kiwiana, but reinterpreted through Pacific Rim cooking knowledge, is a popular cooking style for eating out scenes even in the most remote rural regions. Most of the home cooking prepared at households in Auckland is now a mix of traditional Kiwiana dishes heavily modified by Mediterranean and Asian techniques and ingredients, and adapted versions of Mediterranean, Chinese, and Indian dishes. In the more culturally traditional parts of the country, such as rural Canterbury and the West Coast however, traditional Kiwiana fares are still the norm at many homes.

Certain vestiges of traditional Kiwiana dishes remain popular throughout the country, such as fish and chips,meat pies,custard squares,pavlova, and others. An active nostalgia movement supports the traditional Kiwiana cuisine, as spearheaded by the popularity of television series Kiwi Kitchen presented by Richard Till, which is believed to be a public response to a common perception that the traditional Kiwiana dishes are disappearing from the New Zealand tables. Home baking is particularly believed to be the last bastion of New Zealand cuisine still unaffected by international trends.

Concurrently, food habits are changing in Australia to lighter fares influenced by the Mediterranean, and subsequently Southeast Asian, styles of cooking. The proximity, common history, and strong modern political, economic, cultural, and family ties between the two countries means many New Zealand diners and chefs have always been well informed of the trends in the Australian dining scene. Many chefs had worked in Australia and endeavour to learn from their trans-Tasman counterparts, and in time the changing Australian culinary scene has trickle-down effects on the New Zealand cuisine as well.

In general, there are minimal differences between the food preference of New Zealand and Australia. The food trends in New Zealand tend to trail its trans-Tasman counterparts by a few years to a decade, such as the Mediterranean cookery did not become mainstream in New Zealand until the dawn of 1990s, while its influence was already felt in Australia by the 1980s; and while Australia has by the early 21st century developed a well established niche specialist produce distributing channel, a similar system is still in its infancy across the Tasman. However, in recent times Auckland and Wellington have food fashions moving essentially in sync with that of Sydney and Melbourne.

One major recent development in the food scene is the emergence of a genuine cafe culture and disappearance of the traditional institution of tearooms at large. Before the 1990s, tearooms proliferated throughout the country offering cream tea, with scones, cream, and cucumber sandwiches, muffins, and custard squares, with filtered coffee or tea as drinks. New Zealanders have copied the Australian habits of adopting Mediterranean practice of drinking espresso derived coffees. In time, cafes became wildly popular and many tearoom owners converted their businesses to cafes and learned to use espresso machines in a rush. Cream tea has gone out of fashion in the contemporary New Zealand dining scene, and scones are baked at homes rather than served in eateries.

Vegetarianism had been regarded as an alternative lifestyle for many years; but became more mainstream during the 1980s even though consistent vegetarians are still rare. Despite exhortations by the NZ Ministry of Health and their allies for people to eat less meat, and more cereals, fruits, and vegetables, a highly meat-based diet remains a part of New Zealand culture, albeit with decrease of red meat consumption and intake of fish and chicken has been on the rise.

Gluten free foodstuffs have become part of the dietary trends in New Zealand, with cafes and restaurants increasingly offering gluten free versions of popular foods such as cakes, pizza, and hamburger buns. Some supermarkets, delicatessens and bakeries similarly offer gluten free products and there has been a rise in speciality stores.

Patterns of Eating

Fish and chips, a popular take-away food in New Zealand.
Fish and chips, a popular take-away food in New Zealand.

Most New Zealanders eat their main meal – known as dinner, or sometimes tea – in the evening. Most families living in one household try to eat dinner together several times a week. The formality and structure of these meals varies from family to family. Although, a few New Zealanders cook most things ‘from scratch’, most New Zealand home cooks are dependent to some extent on pre-made ingredients (in particular, packaged soup and sauce mixes). Cakes are very rarely made from packet mix – this has never really taken on in New Zealand. Most families eat takeaways (take-out), such as fish and chips, Chinese food, or pizza about once or twice a week. In flats (households shared by a group of unrelated young people), flatmates will generally either take turns cooking or each cook and eat individually.

In the summer, the barbecue is common, generally as a social event. Guests will usually be invited to bring beer (or wine), and on occasion meat, which the host will cook. Sometimes guests contribute a salad to the gathering instead. It is traditional for the men to cook the meat, and for the women to do everything else, although these patterns are changing. Similar Maori gatherings will often feature a Hāngi, a pit in which meats or fish are cooked with vegetables. A deep hole is dug in the ground, lined with red-hot stones and covered with vegetation. The food is then placed on top. The whole oven is sprinkled with water and sealed with more vegetation. The hole is then filled with earth and left to steam for several hours. Traditionally, men dig and prepare the hole, and women prepare the food to go in it. All members of an extended family (whanau) help out for such a feast. The occasion is relaxed, friendly and fun, with people often eating the meal under a marquee.

Many New Zealand gatherings feature a custom known as bring a plate or potluck in which each guest will bring a plate of food to share. This allows people to host large groups without incurring serious expense. Similar customs include guests bringing salads or meat to a barbecue. Most New Zealand parties are BYO (bring your own alcohol), but in this case the drinks are not usually shared. This is especially the case with parties hosted by young people, who cannot usually afford alcohol for more than a few people. One exception is sometimes the 21st birthday party, which will often be funded by the host’s family. Weddings are also normally catered for by the hosts and their family.

New Zealand’s eating out culture has developed strongly after the mid 1970s, thanks partially to the liberalisation of liquor licensing laws and popularisation of cafes and other similar casual dining establishments. It is common for people to visit cafes regularly for lunch or morning or afternoon snacks. On the other hand, visits to restaurants are still regarded as special occasion treats for most of the population.

There is a ‘fast food’ culture similar to that in the United States, Australia and Britain. Many American fast food chains have a presence in New Zealand, and local variants based on quality local produce (such as Burger Fuel and Hell Pizza for example) have arisen. The pie is possibly the nearest thing New Zealand has to street food, though its popularity has waned. A fast food chain based on pies, Georgie Pie, was founded in 1977, but went out of business in the mid-1990s. Currently another fast food chain selling pies exists: Australian-based Jester’s produces pies throughout New Zealand’s North Island, predominantly Auckland.

In the main centres, food courts have become popular, with several in Auckland alone. Immigration has led to an increase in choice and quality, with many food halls offering cuisines including Thai, Indian, Turkish, Malaysian, Japanese and Chinese, as well as distinctly New Zealand fare such as roast dinners.

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