I’ve been to France. I’ve been to Italy. I still think New Zealand’s got the best food in the world. Yes, it’s largely descended from the cuisine brought over by British settlers, but don’t let that cloud your judgement. It combines the most exquisite tastes of Europe, Asia and the Pacific with fresh Kiwi ingredients and fresh Kiwi innovation.
When you’re travelling around New Zealand, you’ll be astounded by the number cafés there are – and the number of cafés that serve quality, delicious food. You always hear about New Zealand’s ‘booming’ café culture, but it wasn’t until I visited Europe that I realised just how good New Zealand’s cafés are. If you want nice food of a lunchtime in a nice environment, but you don’t want to enter a proper restaurant, New Zealand has far more options than Europe does.
New Zealand’s famous for having great coffee, but it also has a great tea culture. There are certain places, such as Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, where it is all but impossible to find a bad café. The quality of restaurants varies more. New Zealand does not have any Michelin stars, but it sure deserves some. Perhaps the fact that it doesn’t have any is a good thing – it means that you can experience main meals at New Zealand’s finest restaurants for $35 – $45. That’s like ₤20.
Of course, not all New Zealand food is classy. Iconic examples of Kiwi cuisine include:
- the pie, (usually hand-sized, bought in a scorching plastic wrapper from a warmer in a dairy*, for a sum so small you’re better off not wondering what’s in it)
- the chocolate fish, (a sickly, fish-shaped marshmallow in a chocolate shell)
- Hokey Pokey ice-cream, (which is ice-cream with chunks of honeycomb toffee in it)
- L&P, (or Lemon & Paeroa, a soft drink originally from the town of Paeroa that’s far nicer than your usual lemonade – when you’re in New Zealand, always choose it over Sprite if you can)
- Marmite, (which, I’m told, is distinctly different from the British Marmite you get everywhere else in the world)
- the kumara, (a kind of sweet potato introduce to New Zealand by the Maori)
- the sausage sizzle, (which takes the cheapest, dodgiest sausages and makes them irresistible, usually to raise money for something)
- pavlova, (a meringue-based dessert definitely not invented by the Australians)
- fish and chips, (usually better than British fish and chips, due to the quality and freshness of the fish)
The sea plays a big part in the food of New Zealand. New Zealand is, after all, completely surrounded by it. Fresh seafood is easy to come by and New Zealand is famous for oysters, crayfish and whitebait fritters. But if, like me, you’re not that into seafood, (apart from fish and chips,) New Zealand is also famous for beef and lamb. A good lamb roast with mint sauce is a staple of the Kiwi family table. Then there’s the barbecue. It’s just not summer in New Zealand without the smell of a barbecue somewhere in the neighbourhood. Steak hissing as the onions caramelise, butter melting on the barbecued cobs of corn…
As well as producing the world’s best meat and seafood, New Zealand makes some pretty good wines. My parents recently spent their 25th wedding anniversary on Waiheke, an island off the coast of Auckland famous for its vineyards. There, they tasted wine that, in a blind tasting in France, had been judged better than Château Lafite.
To go with the wine, New Zealand also makes some pretty good cheeses, olive oils and avocado oils. But what makes New Zealand food the best in the world is not its imitation of European cuisine, it’s its variety – its fusion of world cuisine. New Zealand is a country of immigrants, a great many of which are Asian.
Asian food is abundant, especially in Auckland, and has greatly influenced the everyday and restaurant food of New Zealand. Sushi bars are everywhere. If you want a cheap, healthy, fresh and tasty lunch in New Zealand, is sushi is your best bet. If want a cheap dinner out, Asian restaurants offer huge plates of yummy food for $10 – $20. Thai restaurants are common, along with Indian and Chinese takeaways, but you also get lots of Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Korean places. The favoured curry in New Zealand is Butter Chicken.
But Kiwi cuisine doesn’t owe everything to its smorgasbord of Asian and European immigrants. New Zealand’s native inhabitants, the Maori, have their own methods of cooking that are practised to this day, and not just for tourists. The traditional hangi involves burying meat and vegetables in a pit with heated stones until they’re cooked. I’ve tried food done like this and it was so succulent. I’ve also tried (in Rotorua) corn-on-the-cob cooked in a natural volcanic hot pool – how cool is that?
A few months ago, I went to the Seriously Good Food Show, an expo in Tauranga that showcased some seriously good New Zealand produce. New Zealand may be a small country, but the food it produces can compete with and surpass the best from around the world.
* In New Zealand, as well as being a type of farm, a dairy is a convenience store – probably because it sells milk.