New Zealand cuisine derives from various sources, most especially British and Maori. At its best it emphasises the quality and freshness of New Zealand produce from land and sea, which is readily available in an island nation which bases its economy on agriculture. Owing to its colonial origin (shared with Australia), New Zealand cuisine is traditionally simple fare such as meat and three veg. Dinner is the main meal of the day, when families gather and share their evening together. With the New Zealand penchant for travel, and multicultural social trends, traditional eating habits are changing; but most people still eat their main meal in the evening.
Some visitors to New Zealand become confused between tea – which many New Zealanders drink – and tea the meal (interchangeable with dinner). Tea is a New Zealand institution – visitors whether from home or abroad can barely get in the door, before the host heads to the kitchen to put the kettle on.
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 taro and kumara (sweet potato), and also dogs and rats, which could also be food sources. The plants did not grow as well in New Zealand’s temperate climate as they did in the tropics, and would not grow at all in the colder South Island. Bananas and coconuts – which they also brought with them – would not grow even in the North Island. Foods such as fernroot became a more important part of the diet than in other Pacific Islands, and some native New Zealand plants were also eaten, along with insects such as the huhu grub. Problems with horticulture were made up for by an abundance of bird and marine life. Larger species, such as the moa, were quickly hunted to extinction, and so systems of tapu and rahui were developed to ensure the survival of remaining species. These included forbidding the hunting of certain species in particular places or at certain times of year, so that the species could regenerate. Like other Polynesian peoples, 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. 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 peoples to have no form of alcoholic beverage.
Food and religion
In traditional Maori religion, food was noa, or non-sacred. This meant it could not come into contact with tapu (sacred) places or objects. If it did, the tapu would be removed and the power of the place or object, and often the people associated with it, would be destroyed. High chiefs, or 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.
Maori Cuisine Today
Present day Maori cuisine is a mixture of Maori tradition, old fashioned English cookery, and contemporary dishes. Most large Maori gatherings will feature a hangi, which is likely to contain foods brought to New Zealand by Maori and by Pakeha. There will probably also be a wide selection of cakes and other sweet foods of the kind beloved by nineteenth century English people – which many Maori have become very fond of. In less formal occasions, distinctively Maori dishes include the boil-up – of pork, potatoes, kumara, and dumplings, which is also similar to traditional British cooking methods, and pork and puha – sow thistle, which combines an introduced meat with an indigenous vegetable. 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.
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. As with 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 many years there were few ethnic restaurants in New Zealand other than inauthentic Chinese, Indian and Italian eateries. In the last few decades, however, New Zealand has become more ethnicly diverse and New Zealanders’ tastes have become more adventurous, so that most New Zealand cities have a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, and foods such as kebabs and sushi are found virtually everywhere. Ingredients for many ethnic dishes are also easy to find in major cities, mostly through speciality or ethnic food stores, but in some cases also through supermarkets. Some are produced locally, such as olives and sundried tomatoes.
New Zealand cuisine in other countries
New Zealand cuisine has made little impact on the world at large. The country’s most famous culinary export, the Pavlova, has been the object of a decades-long battle with Australia over where it was invented, and in other parts of the world is not particularly associated with Australasia. Fusion cuisine and the ‘Pacific Rim’ style of cooking are both sometimes said to have had a New Zealand influence, but both movements were international and had little obvious New Zealand input other than that of chef Peter Gordon. Recently New Zealand cuisine has had a minor impact on British fast food with the establishment of a gourmet burger chain, GBK. Founded by New Zealanders, this is openly modelled on similar chains in New Zealand.
Perhaps even better known than New Zealand lamb, mussels and other foods are the country’s wines. There are 10 major wine-producing areas in New Zealand, with Marlborough famed for its sauvignon blanc, Gisborne for its chardonnay, and Central Otago and Martinborough building a reputation for pinot noir and pinot gris. Hawkes Bay is known for its bold cabernets and Auckland’s Waiheke Island is home to one of the top 20 cabernet blends in the world. Marlborough and Hawkes Bay are New Zealand’s two premium wine-growing regions.
Patterns of eating
Most New Zealanders eat their main meal (dinner) – sometimes known as 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. Some families sit at a dining table, say grace, ensure children use cutlery correctly and generally obey strict table manners; others will be more informal but still sit around a table; and others will sit on couches and armchairs with their plates on their laps, watching television. Typically the food is cooked by the mother of the family, with or without assistance from other family members, but in some cases other family members will cook. As social times change, fathers are doing more of the family cooking. 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 takeaways, or pizza about once 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 barbecues are common, generally as a social event. Guests will usually be invited to bring beer (and/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 hangi (pronounced hung-ee), 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’ 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.