While quality food and beverage production has long been the lynchpin of New Zealand’s prosperity and a leading export earner, it’s the fusion of unique, quality produce and ethnic influences that have allowed the Kiwi food identity to evolve.
New Zealand's worldwide reputation for award-winning produce and specialist chefs draws tourists to the source and food tourism within New Zealand is developing at a rapid rate.
National and regional events highlight the production of a wide-ranging supply of gourmet foods and boutique wines.
Seasonal festivals, regular farmers’ markets and country fairs, which showcase fresh and flavourful produce, are favourite destinations for locals and tourists.
Indigenous foods feature increasingly on restaurant menus, and traditional Māori cuisine is experiencing a contemporary twist at the hands of innovative cooks like Rotorua-based Māori chef Charles Royal.
Organics and healthy choices
A growing awareness of organics, food origin and healthy choices is driving a move towards locally-produced goods and today there is less focus on prolific production and more on quality, refinement and originality.
Innovative chefs make clever use of tasty ingredients freshly harvested from the garden, land and sea so that - accompanied by award winning wines - the New Zealand gastronomic experience is amongst the best in the world.
Kiwi home cooking
As well as an extensive list of fine restaurants, specialist food outlets and cafés, there’s also a growing trend towards private dining that provides tourists with an authentic home-cooking experience.
Many lodges, boutique hotels and bed and breakfast establishments offer guests the chance to design their own menu, gather ingredients and invite guests to a meal prepared by a specially selected chef.
Changing food habits
While most New Zealanders still prefer a relaxed eating environment in-keeping with the laid back Kiwi lifestyle, the style of eating has changed almost as much as the food itself.
Summer usually means barbecues and alfresco dining where the emphasis is on fresh and simple fare. But, rather than the once traditional sausage and chop with tomato sauce and white bread, today’s 'barbie' menu is more likely to include shellfish and quality cuts of meat complemented with gourmet sauces, herbs and spices, exotic salads and specialist vegetables and fruits.
Fresh produce is available throughout New Zealand and there’s a revival of vegetable gardening with even apartment dwellers choosing to grow their own gourmet herbs and salad ingredients.
Awareness of place of origin and self sufficiency has turned thinking Kiwis into label-reading, ingredient-aware healthy eaters. Up-market cafés are replacing burger bars and fresh juice bars can be found in a lot of shopping malls.
Many New Zealanders now do their main weekly shop at their local farmers’ market to make the most of reasonably priced seasonal produce, home-made preserves and baking, and a wide choice of exotic ingredients and products inspired by cultural diversity.
The New Zealand gourmet experience is a relatively recent one.
Less than 30 years ago 'meat and three veg' was the staple family diet, eating out was a limited experience mostly involving straight-forward fodder such as steak and chips, fish and chips, baked meats and pies - a culture which stemmed from the British colonial heritage.
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Māori food or kai was always based around the land. Māori were great hunters and gatherers and lived on birds and fish cooked with wild herbs and roots.
In the late 18th century, the first European settlers brought with them foods like potatoes, pumpkin, wheat and sugar which were quickly adopted by Māori who had long been plagued by food shortages.
British influence on New Zealand cuisine continued throughout the 20th century but by the 1960s - when affordable air travel allowed New Zealanders to travel more freely - Kiwi cuisine began to change as travellers who'd developed a taste for European and Pacific cuisine looked for more variety.
With the liberalisation of immigration laws in the 1980s and the arrival of many new Asian migrants, New Zealand cuisine expanded to include Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and regional Chinese fare.
Contemporary New Zealand chefs like Peter Gordon have taken New Zealand food to a new level by creating fusion cuisine - combining the best local ingredients with a new approach to cooking that is heavily influenced by Pacific Rim culture.
Peter Gordon is hailed as the person who introduced fusion cuisine to the UK.
Modern New Zealand cuisine
New Zealand’s gastronomic reputation and fusion cuisine are now synonymous, and many Kiwi chefs’ innovative ideas have been exported throughout the world.
There are also a number of food icons recognised the world over. Zespri Gold kiwifruit and tamarillos, green lipped mussels, paua and orange roughey fish are hot seafood favourites; hokey pokey ice-cream, boysenberries and L & P (a soft drink made in Paeroa) are staples for New Zealanders that offer new taste sensations for visitors.
Television cooking programmes, including the successful series Hunger for the Wild, serve as a timely reminder that New Zealand is rich in wild foods that provide cheap and tasty treats.
Hunger for the Wild chefs Steven Logan and Al Brown, owners of award-winning Wellington restaurant 'Logan Brown', want to encourage people to become less complacent and more involved in gathering fresh food from the wild.
New Zealand’s annual Hokitika Wildfoods Festival in the South Island, has become world renowned for odd but interesting Kiwi foods like sheep’s eyes, bug larvae, wild highland beef, curried hoki tikka, pesto ice-cream, possum pie and worm sushi.
National and regional wine and food festivals are held annually throughout New Zealand highlighting regional produce with complementary wines.
If tasting the delights of New Zealand cuisine isn’t enough, visitors can also learn to cook the Kiwi way.
Cooking classes are popular with overseas visitors. Courses include Sachie's Kitchen in Auckland - specialising in Eastern and Pacific fusion classes and Ruth Pretty’s school in the countryside north of Wellington.
Move over New York
Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, has more food haunts per capita than New York. There are more than 300 cafés and restaurants in the inner city area which spans just 2km square.
Actor Billy Boyd (Pippin the hobbit in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) fell in love with Wellington saying it had the perfect mix of good restaurants, good coffee shops and really good theatre.
NZ farmers' markets
NZ chef Al Brown
NZ chef Charles Royal
NZ chef Peter Gordon