What to eat when in New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country located in the South Pacific Ocean. Some people think the weather here must be tropical-like and therefore, so must be the food. Definitely not! The islands are closer to Antarctica (about 3,100 miles), so you can get an idea on how the weather can be in the islands. Traveling in New Zealand, we spent a whole month exploring part of the North Island and most of the South Island. We cooked our meals ourselves most of the time (we had rented a camper-van for this trip), but we also ate in restaurants, as well as participated at a Māori feast called a Hāngī.
To be in New Zealand and not taste the local Māori food is like missing an important cultural side of the country. You've got to experience the Hāngī. It is a Māori traditional food event using their way of cooking it. The Māori are the indigenous people who populated the islands more than 1,000 years ago.
Before the Pākehā (European) settlers arrived in New Zealand, the Māori’s staple food included kumara (sweet potato), yams and taro, as well as rat (kiore) and dog (kuri) brought in from their Polynesian homeland. They also hunted birds and gathered seafood and native plants such as wild ferns (known as bush asparagus), vines, palms, berries, and fruits to name a few. Later on, as the Europeans settled the islands, they adapted Europeans foods with their local fare.
Traditionally, Hāngī food is fish and kumara wrapped in flax leaves and cooked in a pit dug in the ground. Today, it includes a variety of meats and root crops, wrapped in foil (most likely) and cloth sacks and put in a wire basket. The basket is then put in the pit on top of hot stones and covered with wet cloth and a mound of dirt. The food is left in the ground for about three to four hours, depending on the amount of food, before unearthing. In Rotoroa, where natural geothermal features are plenty, some local tribes cooked Hangī by using thermal features in steaming food. We had the the one cooked in the pit. Photo below.
The Hāngī food is simply cooked and has an earthy and smoky taste. If you are a picky eater, the buffet style feast is mixed with European influenced food such as salad, steamed pudding, peaches and cream and Pavlova (more on that later), so you won't get hungry.
- COOKING IN THE VAN -
The best way to explore in New Zealand is by renting a camper-van, and the best way to save money is by cooking some of the food yourself. As I mentioned earlier, we ate out some of the time and cooked our meals ourselves most of the time. You don't have to cook instant meals - that can get tiring in no time. You can find fresh meats and vegetables at grocery stores or supermarkets pretty much anywhere.
The van was complete with a stove and fridge and other kitchen tools needed for cooking real meals. But if you don't want to cook inside the van, the Holiday Parks, as they call the campgrounds in New Zealand, are equipped for cooking. Take note, if you are out of condiments such as salt and pepper, you will find them there, left behind by other campers.
MEAT & VEGETABLES
Except for grains, we bought fresh meats and produce as we needed them. Cooking the meat fresh is the best way, definitely. We had breaded fish fillets as well, bought already prepared and all they needed is to pan fry them. We also bought canned corned beef for when we were too tired to cook. Just sautéed it with tomatoes and potatoes and it's a good meal for us.
So, here are some of the meals we cooked while exploring. We found meat in New Zealand is very tasty, most especially the lamb, it doesn't need a lot of ingredients to make the dish delicious. Definitely the green grass makes a lot of difference in the taste of meat here, the islands are never short of healthy grass - it's no wonder that lamb is a top export meat of New Zealand.
Sheep farming in New Zealand is quite significant, you will find these cute walking puffs of cotton balls everywhere where there is grass. They are part of the landscape in the country, especially on the South Island.
Salmon is also fresh, just pan fried, seasoned with salt and pepper and we had a delicious meal in no time. Here, we paired it with ready-to-cook risotto and just added asparagus for veggies.
One thing we missed on this trip is leafy vegetables. When we were there, root crops and different types of squash dominate the shelves. Since it was spring, asparagus are also plenty, they were tender, even the fat ones. They are good but you can get tired of eating it and will wish for some other vegetables for a change.
- EATING OUT -
LAKE CRUISE & DINNER
In Queenstown, we took a 1912 vintage steam ship cruise that included a farm tour and dinner. We love taking a cruise in an old boat so we take advantage of it we find one. This cruise included dinner, which was a buffet with a large variety of meats prepared in various different ways. The cruise was fun and the food delicious. For carnivores like us, meat in New Zealand is definitely superb - no offense to vegans and vegetarians.
Seafood is of course the freshest you can get in New Zealand, and with over 8,000 miles of coastline, that’s to be expected. We took advantage of eating many different kinds such as fish and chips (introduced to the islands by the English), smoked salmon on bagel, seafood basket battered and fried - squid, shrimp, bay scallops, oysters and imitation crab (I know, the last one is a little disappointing but still good) and green lipped mussels.
For mussel lovers, here is the village you have to visit. We especially stopped in the village of Havelock, located at the head of Pelorus Sound, for their green-lipped mussels. This mollusk is known among the Māori as Kūtai and Havelock is famous for this type of mussel. The village is literally known as the “Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World.”
There is a restaurant in the village called the Mussel Pot, known for various mussel dishes. If you haven't seen a humongous mussel, you will find it here. Goodness! We haven't seen or eaten anything like it. Hermann calculated one of the mussels at about 3-1/2 inches long, at least.
I found I liked the small ones better though, they were more tender and sweet. To take advantage of what they had on offer, we ordered a sampler platter cooked in different way - smoked, steamed, marinated and fried. It came with mussel chowder too. If you haven’t had mussel chowder before, it's delicious! I could make a meal out of it. For that alone, it was worth stopping for the night in the village. Everything was well-prepared and delicious.
In Downtown Christchurch, we had a great sea food lunch at a restaurant in the Botanic Garden. This was our downtime after exploring the historic site. Are you drooling yet? There's more!
FRUITS & SNACKS
A wide variety of fruits are grown in New Zealand, but one fruit we enjoyed there is the Kiwi Fruit. This fruit is originally native from China where it is called Chinese Gooseberry. It was introduced to New Zealand in 1904 and later became the country's national fruit. Farm growers called it "Kiwi Fruit" for export marketing. they are the sweetest we ever had, especially the golden ones. We ate them by by themselves or mixed with other fruits, drizzled with local honey. Sometimes we mixed them with other fruits along with sliced ham and cheese, and that would be our lunch.
New Zealand Meat Pie & Burger
For snacks, one of our favorites while in New Zealand was meat pie, and the best one we had was a pork belly meat pie in Queenstown. It was so good I would love to come back to Queenstown just for that alone. Also, the best burger we ever had anywhere else was the Angus beef burger at McDonald's (believe it or not) in Wellington. I didn't take a picture unfortunately. The one below (photo at right) is an egg and bacon burger that our friend living in New Zealand ordered when we went out together in Huia. Fancy looking burger isn't it?
DRINKS & DESSERT
Marlborough is New Zealand's most famous wine growing region. They specialize in Sauvignon Blanc but they also produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wines. Hermann sampled some of these local wines while we were there. He also sampled some local craft beers that quenched his thirst after roaming around New Zealand all day.
Mānuka honey is New Zealand’s famous honey which comes from Mānuka flowers. This expensive honey is renowned for its medicinal and antiseptic properties. The Mānuka was named “tea tree” by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks, an English botanist.
Pavlova is a favorite dessert among locals, especially at Christmas. It has a round-meringue-base topped with cream and fresh fruit. This sweet dessert was named after the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Its origin is still debated between New Zealanders and Australians. They both claim it as theirs. This pavlova we had at a Hāngī feast in Rotorua - it was garnished with kiwi fruit and passion fruit.
Steamed pudding is a traditional English dessert introduced in New Zealand. It was created by Aunt Betty who shared her recipe with her out-of-work brother, Fred Willets who was living in Nelson. He started making it in the 1990's. Today, this sweet dessert are being exported to the United Kingdom. It is quite good I might say. Not a typical pudding, but like a soft moist cake loaded with butter, eggs, spices and/or brandy.
For more stories of our road trip in New Zealand, check the book below.