With the indigenous Maori people and large numbers of immigrants from Great Britain, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, New Zealand’s contemporary cuisine combines aspects of many cultures. The long coastline and extensive farmland mean fresh seafood, meat, and dairy produce is abundant. Here are ten foods that you must try when traveling in New Zealand.
While mussels can be found all over the world, the large, delicious green-shell mussels are unique to New Zealand. They’re considered one of the most sustainable forms of seafood in the world, and are farmed in a few places throughout the country, although the small town of Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds declares itself to be the green-shell mussel capital of the world. They don’t need any fancy preparations, as they’re best eaten steamed with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Strictly speaking, a hangi is a method of cooking food rather than a food itself. But if you ask most New Zealanders to tell you about Maori food, they will mention the hangi. This traditional Maori method of cooking involves digging a pit in the ground and using heated rocks to cook the food that is placed, wrapped in foil, in the pit. Potatoes, meat, kumara (sweet potato), and pumpkin are commonly cooked in a hangi. This isn’t the type of food you can easily buy in a restaurant, as it’s most commonly cooked during cultural or family gatherings. Travelers can get a taste at a Maori cultural performance, which are popular activities around Rotorua and Taupo.
Although whitebait fish are eaten throughout the world, whitebait fritters are a much-loved delicacy in New Zealand. Whitebait (immature fish of certain species) could once be found throughout New Zealand, but agricultural pollution in rivers has led to their decline almost everywhere except the West Coast of the South Island. Juvenile fish of certain types swim upstream from the sea in spring. Whitebaiters set up fine-meshed nets to gather the small fish, which are a couple of inches long, and then fry them up in a batter.
Again, ice cream is certainly not unique to New Zealand, but many ice-cream aficionados would agree that once you’ve tried New Zealand’s version, it’s hard to go back to anything else. As New Zealand is so rich in high-quality dairy products, the ice-cream produced here tends to be very creamy, and quite addictive. A favorite flavor among locals is hokey pokey: vanilla ice cream with crunchy pieces of honeycomb candy. While you can get good ice cream throughout the country, the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington is renowned for its delicious varieties.
Although feijoas (pronounced fee-jo-a in New Zealand) originally come from South America, they grow in delicious abundance in New Zealand, and taste like summer to many kiwi kids. While you can buy them in supermarkets in season, they grow so plentifully in private gardens that it’s common to see bags of them being given away outside homes. If you’ve never tried one before, they look a bit like an elongated green fig and have the same spongy, seedy quality as figs, with the tartness of a kiwifruit. (Which, incidentally, is always called a kiwifruit in New Zealand—if you refer to a kiwi here, people will think you’re talking about the bird, or the nickname for the people).
Another delicacy for seafood lovers, bluff oysters are said by some to be the best oysters in the world. Bluff is the southernmost tip of New Zealand’s South Island, and Bluff oysters grow in the cold waters of the Foveaux Strait separating the South Island from Stewart Island. Quotas for catching them are actually quite low, and the oysters are very popular around the world, so it may not be as easy (or as cheap) to gorge yourself on Bluff oysters as you think.
New Zealand Lamb
New Zealand bears the brunt of a lot of sheep jokes, and that’s because there really are a lot of sheep there. The hardy animals thrive in New Zealand’s rugged landscapes. New Zealand lamb is known to be of high quality, and is exported throughout the world. Roast lamb was traditionally eaten on a Sunday, along with roast vegetables. While it isn’t so fashionable these days, with vegetarianism and diets lighter in meat becoming increasingly popular, the Sunday Roast is still considered a comfort food to many Kiwis.
Biscuits are what New Zealanders call cookies, and ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. The staple ingredients of these sweet treats are oats, coconut, and golden syrup. They got their name because they were commonly sold at local fetes and markets during World War I to raise money for the war effort, while New Zealand and Australian troops of the ANZAC battalion were fighting in Europe. They’re best when home-made or bought fresh from a bakery, but pre-packaged versions can also be found around the country. They're especially popular around April 25 every year, the ANZAC Day national holiday.
A pavlova is a sweet, crunchy meringue cake that’s topped with cream, strawberries, passionfruit, and kiwifruit. It’s named after early-20th-century Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s. Pavlovas are a popular addition to New Zealand Christmas lunch and birthday celebrations, and tastes best when made lovingly from scratch at home, although pre-made meringues that you add fruit to yourself still taste good and are much quicker to make.
While this a drink rather than a food, many of these Kiwi dishes are best washed down with a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc. The grape variety originates from the Loire Valley in France, but has taken off in New Zealand in a big way, and is now one of its biggest exports. While grapes are grown in many places throughout New Zealand, the vast majority of sauvignon blanc is produced in the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island, New Zealand’s largest wine-producing region.