New Zealand’s food scene is brilliant all round, from the quality of the ingredients, its cooking, presentation and the places where it’s served.
Kiwi gastronomy has its roots in the British culinary tradition, an unfortunate heritage that still informs cooking patterns for older New Zealanders. Indeed, it is only in the last 25 years or so that New Zealand’s chefs have really woken up to the possibilities presented by a fabulous larder of super-fresh, top-quality ingredients. Along with tender lamb, succulent beef and venison and superb shellfish you’ll find some of the world’s best dairy products and stone and pip-fruit which, at harvest time, can be bought for next to nothing from roadside stalls.
All this has been combined into what might be termed Modern Kiwi cuisine, drawing on Californian and contemporary Australian cooking, and combining it with flavours drawn from the Mediterranean, Asia and the Pacific Rim: sun-dried tomatoes, lemongrass, basil, ginger, coconut, and many more. Restaurants and cafés throughout the country feel duty-bound to fill their menus with as broad a spectrum as possible, lining up seafood linguini, couscous, sushi, Thai food, venison meatballs and chicken korma alongside the rack of lamb and gourmet pizza. Sometimes this causes gastronomic overload, but often it is simply mouthwatering.
Meat and fish
New Zealanders have a taste for meat, the quality of which is superb, with New Zealand lamb often at the head of the menu but matched in flavour by venison and beef.
With the country’s extensive coastline, it’s no surprise that fish and seafood loom large. The white, flaky flesh of the snapper is the most common saltwater fish, but you’ll also come across tuna, John Dory, groper (often known by its Maori name of hapuku), flounder, gurnard, blue cod and the firm, delicately flavoured terakihi. Salmon is common, but not trout, which cannot be bought or sold, though most hotels and restaurants will cook one if you’ve caught it. This archaic law was originally intended to protect sport fishing when trout were introduced to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. All these fish are very tasty smoked, though terakihi, hapuku, blue cod, marlin and smoked eel take some beating.
One much-loved delicacy is whitebait, a collective name for five species of tiny, silvery, native fish mostly caught on the West Coast and eaten whole in fritters during the August to November season.
Shellfish are a real New Zealand speciality. You’ll occasionally come across tuatua, dug from Northland beaches, on menus, but you’re more likely to come across the fabulous Bluff oysters, scallops and sensational green-lipped mussels, which have a flavour and texture that’s hard to beat and are farmed in the cool clear waters of the Marlborough Sounds, especially around Havelock. Live green-lipped mussels can be bought from any decent supermarket.
Wonderfully rich and delicate crayfish is also available round the coast and should be sought out, particularly when touring Kaikoura and the East Cape.
Maori and ethnic food
In New Zealand restaurants you’ll find few examples of Polynesian or Maori cuisine, though the cooking style does now have a foothold in forward-looking establishments where you might find a fern frond salad, or steak rubbed with peppery horopito leaves. To sample Maori food you’ll really need to get along to a hangi, most likely in Rotorua. One Pacific staple you’ll certainly come across is kumara (sweet potato), which features in hangi and is often deep-fried as kumara chips.
A major influx of immigrants from south and east Asia has really changed the Kiwi restaurant scene over the last couple of decades. There’s barely a town in the land without an Indian restaurant and Chinese restaurants are almost equally widely distributed. Thai is also common though you’ll need to go to larger towns to find Malaysian, Singaporean, Japanese and Korean places. In the bigger cities there has recently been a resurgence of Mexican places after being out of favour for a couple of decades.
Self-catering vegetarians can eat well, though in restaurants they are less well served. Outside the major centres you’ll find hardly any dedicated vegetarian restaurants and will have to rely on the token meat-free dishes served in most cafés. Vegans may develop an unhealthy reliance on nachos and the ubiquitous veggieburger, though these days many new “organic” outlets offer home-made vegan and vegetarian pies.
If you are taking a multi-day expedition on which food is provided, give them plenty of notice of your dietary needs.
The quality of cafés and restaurants in New Zealand is typically superb, portions are respectable, and many are good value for money. In most restaurants you can expect to pay upwards of $25 for a main course, perhaps $55 for three courses without wine. There is no expectation of a tip, though a reward for exceptional service is welcomed. On public holidays you’ll normally be expected to pay a surcharge (typically 15 percent) to ensure staff get financially compensated for their giving up their statutory holiday.
The traditional staple of the Kiwi dining scene is the tearoom, a self-service cafeteria-style establishment with no atmosphere but cheap pre-packaged sandwiches, unsavoury savouries, sticky cakes and other crimes against the tastebuds. The coffee is middling at best. You’ll still find such places in rural towns: long-distance buses sometimes made their comfort stops at such places.
In more urbane areas, tearooms have largely been replaced by cafés selling everything from often excellent espresso and muffins to full breakfasts and lunch with a range of wines. Many close around 4pm, but others stay open and transform themselves into restaurants. There is minimal distinction between the two so you may find yourself eating a full meal while elbow to elbow with folk just out for a beer or coffee. At a café you normally order and pay at the front counter and then are brought your food. In restaurants full table service is the norm.
Restaurants, and many cafés, have alcohol licences, but some still maintain the old BYO tradition. Corkage fees are typically $5–15 per bottle, though some places charge per person.
Most bars serve pub meals, often the best-value budget eating around, with straightforward steak and chips, lasagne, pizza or burritos all served with salad for under $20. The country’s ever-burgeoning wine industry has also spawned a number of moderate-to-expensive vineyard restaurants, particularly in the growing areas of Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough. The food is almost invariably excellent, with many of the dishes matched to that vineyard’s wines.
Snacks and takeaways
In the cities you’ll come across food courts, usually in shopping malls with a dozen or so stalls selling bargain plates of all manner of ethnic dishes. Traditional burger bars continue to serve constructions far removed from the limp international-franchise offerings: weighty buns with juicy patties, thick ketchup, a stack of lettuce and tomato and the ever-present Kiwi favourite, slices of beetroot. Meat pies are another stalwart of snacking; sold in bakeries and from warming cabinets in pubs everywhere, the traditional steak and mince varieties are now supplemented by bacon and egg, venison, steak and cheese, steak and oyster, smoked fish and kumara and, increasingly, vegetarian versions.
Fish and chips (or “greasies”) are also rightly popular – the fish is often shark (euphemistically called lemon fish or flake), though tastier species are always available for slightly more. Look out too for paua fritters – battered slabs of minced abalone that are something of an acquired taste.
Self-catering and farmers’ markets
If you’re self-catering, your best bet for cheap supplies is the local supermarket: Pak ‘n Save is usually the cheapest; New World usually has the widest variety of quality foods. In emergencies you can top up with supplies from the plethora of convenience corner shops (known as “dairies”) stocking bog-standard essentials. These, along with shops at campsites and those in isolated areas with a captive market, tend to have inflated prices.
Gourmet foodstuffs are best sought at the wide range of small independent outlets, offering predominantly local and/or organic supplies. These can be supplemented with visit to farmers’ markets: every town of any size now seems to have one, usually on Saturday or Sunday morning – we’ve mentioned several throughout the guide.
Licensed cafés and restaurants all over the land make a point of stocking a wide range of New Zealand wines and beers, but for the lowest prices and a genuine Kiwi atmosphere you can’t beat the pub. It’s a place where folk stop off on their way home from work, its emphasis on consumption and back-slapping camaraderie rather than ambience and decor. In the cities, where competition from cafés is strong, pubs tend to be more comfortable and relaxing, but in the sticks little has changed. Rural pubs can initially be daunting for strangers, but once you get chatting, barriers soon drop. Drinking hours are barely limited at all; theoretically you can drink in most bars until at least midnight on weeknights and until 4am or later at weekends though places often close much earlier if there are few customers. The drinking age is 18. Smokers are banished to the open air, often in small, purpose-built shelters.
Beer is drunk everywhere and often. Nearly all of it is produced by two huge conglomerates – New Zealand Breweries and DB – who market countless variations on the lager and Pilsener theme, as well as insipid, deep-brown fizzy liquid dispensed from taps and in bottles as “draught” – a distant and altogether feebler relation of British-style bitter. One eternal favourite is Steinlager, now marketed in a “no-additive” version Pure. There really isn’t a lot to choose between the beers except for alcohol content, normally around four percent, though five percent is common for premium beers usually described as “export”.
Draught beer is usually sold in pints (just over half a litre). Keep in mind that a half-pint will always be served as a ten fluid ounce glass and therefore will be a little over half the price of a pint. In rural areas, traditions die hard and you can buy a one-litre jug, which is then decanted into the required number of glasses, usually a seven (originally seven fluid ounces, or 200ml), a ten, or even an elegantly fluted twelve.
Prices vary enormously, but you can expect to pay $6–9 for a pint. It is much cheaper to buy in bulk from a bottle shop (off-licence or liquor store) which will stock a fair range of mainstream and boutique beers, usually in a six-pack of 330ml bottles (around $12–15) or multiple thereof.
Kiwis are justifiably loyal to New Zealand winemakers, who now produce wines that are among the best in the world, especially white wines. New Zealand is rapidly encroaching on the Loire’s standing as the world benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc, while the bold fruitiness of its Chardonnay and apricot and citrus palate of its Rieslings attract many fans. Restaurant menus are packed with New Zealand whites, but red wines have traditionally been of the broad-shouldered Aussie variety. This has largely changed as improved canopy management and better site selection have brought Kiwi reds up alongside their Australian cousins, though sometimes at a higher price. There are certainly some superb wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (particularly from Waiheke Island and Hawke’s Bay), but the reds garnering the most praise are Pinot Noirs from Central Otago, Marlborough and Martinborough, and Hawke’s Bay Syrah – essentially a Shiraz but made in a subtler fashion than the Aussie style.
A liking for champagne no longer implies “champagne tastes” in New Zealand: you can still buy the wildly overpriced French stuff, but good Kiwi Méthode Traditionelle (fermented in the bottle in the time-honoured way) starts at around $13 a bottle. Montana’s Lindauer Brut is widely available, and justly popular. Many people round out their restaurant meal with dessert wines (or “sticky”), typically made from grapes withered on the vine by the botrytis fungus, the so-called “noble rot”.
Most bars and licensed restaurants have a tempting range of wines, many sold by the glass ($7–12; $8 and up for dessert wine), while in shops the racks groan under bottles starting from $11 ($15–25 for good quality).
If you want to try before you buy, visit a few wineries, where it is usually free to sample half a dozen different wines. There is sometimes a small fee, especially to try the reserve wines, but it is always redeemable if you buy a bottle or two. A good starting point for information on the Kiwi wine scene is wnzwine.com.
The big success story for New Zealand spirits is 42 Below vodka (w42below.com). It’s pretty good, and comes in numerous infused flavours including and kiwifruit, passionfruit, and Kiwi favourites such as feijoa and manuka honey. They also make delicious South Gin (wsouthgin.com).
A few places, mostly in the south of the South Island, produce a little single malt whisky, the best being Oamaru’s New Zealand Malt Whisky Co. (wthenzwhisky.com). Minor players dabble in fruit liqueurs; some are delicious, though few visitors develop an enduring taste for the sickly sweet kiwifruit or feijoa varieties, which are mostly sold through souvenir shops.
Tea and coffee
Tea is usually a down-to-earth Indian blend (sometimes jocularly known as “gumboot”), though you may also have a choice of a dozen or so flavoured, scented and herbal varieties. Coffee drinking has been elevated to an art form with a specialized terminology: an Italian-style espresso is known as a short black (sometimes served with a jug of hot water so you can dilute it to taste); a weaker and larger version is a long black, which, with the addition of hot milk, becomes a flat white. Better places will serve all these decaffeinated, skinny or made with soya milk. Flavoured syrups are available but are not common.