Pulling from the land, sea and Māori tradition, New Zealand is an exciting food destination defined by innovative chefs, a fervent appreciation for locally sourced products and a diversity of ingredients to work with in the kitchen.
Its thriving agricultural economy and 14,000 kilometers (about 8,700 miles) of coastline put dishes like green-lipped mussels, slow-roasted sweet potatoes and fish and chips on menus throughout the island nation, while an abundance of sweet treats, such as pavlova and hokey pokey, balance out the often organic and healthy Kiwi diet.
Adding to the foodie adventure, New Zealand’s variable climate and cooler seas from north to south bring new ingredients and local specialties to regional tables across the nation. Avocado, nuts and citrus fruits are freshest in the north near Auckland, while lamb and beef are best sampled on New Zealand’s South Island and in the Hawke’s Bay region. The seafood varies by latitude as well, with snapper, hapuku, tarakihi and flounder more common in the north and grouper, sole, brill, blue cod and turbot plentiful in the south.
While the fjords of Milford Sound and the neck-craning heights of Mount Cook leave lasting impressions long after your trip comes to an end, prepare yourself for New Zealand’s cuisine to do the same.
The Dining Experience in New Zealand
With its extensive list of fine restaurants, locally produced ingredients, Pacific Rim and Māori influences and award-winning wines to pair with every meal, the gastronomic experience in New Zealand is top notch.
As New Zealanders have become increasingly more ingredient aware, chefs are careful to stock only the freshest, highest-quality products on their menus. This means many of New Zealand’s dining establishments are of the farm-to-table and sea-to-table varieties, and their menus often list exactly what farm or angler the food came from.
Yes, the dining landscape in New Zealand is sophisticated and quality oriented, but it’s also relaxed and laid back, especially during the summer months, when meals are popularly enjoyed alfresco.
Typical New Zealand Dishes
No matter where you are in New Zealand, make sure to try these quintessential Kiwi delicacies:
· Hokey Pokey
When the sweet craving hits, head to the nearest supermarket or ice cream parlor for a cone of hokey pokey, one of New Zealand’s most popular sweet treats. It’s so popular, in fact, that 5 million liters of this caramelized honeycomb-flavored ice cream are sold each year.
· Kiwi Burger
The Kiwi burger is not your typical cheeseburger. Beyond the usual hamburger toppings of cheese, pickles and tomatoes, New Zealanders throw on a fried egg and sliced beetroot. Though it might sound strange, it’s a classic kiwi dish you shouldn’t go home without trying at least once.
Get the steak, chops or rack, but whatever you do, order lamb in New Zealand. It can be found on menus throughout the country, but the South Island is where New Zealand’s lamb originates. It’s, therefore, one of the best places to try it, especially around Canterbury.
While New Zealand and Australia are in hot debate over who invented this dish, there’s no doubt the Kiwis have an unwavering affection for it. Pavlova is a meringue-based dessert topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit. It’s a staple at New Zealand Christmas tables.
This 2,000-year-old Māori culinary tradition is best enjoyed when cooked by the Māori themselves in Rotorua (central North Island). The dish is prepared by slow roasting chicken, pork, mutton and vegetables for six hours in an underground earth oven.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you have the pleasure of experiencing an authentic hangi in New Zealand, make sure kumara makes its way onto your plate. Locals love this New Zealand sweet potato, especially when it’s cooked in an earth oven.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Though New Zealanders of the North and South Islands treasure many of the same national delicacies and have nearly identical diets, there are a few places where it’s worth the trouble to sample region-specific New Zealand specialties.
· Green-Lipped Mussels
Endemic to New Zealand, these tasty shellfish are best enjoyed on the South Island in Marlborough, where 80 percent of New Zealand’s mussel production takes place. Enjoy them freshly steamed, in a chowder or straight out of the ocean while aboard a mussel cruise through the Marlborough Sounds.
· Whitebait Fritters
When on the western coast of New Zealand’s South Island, try the whitebait fritters. Think of this local delicacy as a fish omelet. The crispy egg dish is made with the translucent juvenile fish harvested by the anglers you see camped out along the jetties and nearby river mouths.
· Bluff Oysters
Bluff is a town on the South Island, and New Zealand’s oyster production is based here. Having earned the reputation as one of the world’s finest oysters, the Bluff variety is an absolute must-add to any culinary trip through New Zealand.
New Zealand Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
· Entree: Appetizers
· Mains: Main course
· Lemon & Paeroa (L&P): Soft drink made with lemon juice and carbonated mineral water
· Takeaway: Food picked up from a restaurant and taken home to be eaten
Words to Know When Dining Out
While English is one of New Zealand’s two national languages—the other is Te Reo, the language of the indigenous Māori—the following are a few local phrases to try around town and at restaurants:
· Thanks: Ta, or Chur
· Great: Sweet as
· Sure, or That’s awesome: Choice as
· Bottle of beer: Stubbie
Unlike in the United States, servers in New Zealand make a livable wage and don’t work for tips. Though you certainly can leave a tip, it’s never obligatory and actually quite rare. If you do tip, 10 percent is more than enough.
Dining out in New Zealand comes with unique cultural quirks. For example, when you need something from your server, never shout or wave him or her over. Instead, wait until you’ve made eye contact, and then give a nod or raise your hand. Additionally, it’s not typical to ask for your bill from the table, and it’s even rarer for it to be brought to you at the end of the meal. New Zealand custom is to pay at the cash register when you’re ready.