New Zealand on a Plate

 

 

By guest author Natasha Frost, Writer, Briefings from the New York Times

Why Aotearoa is spectacularly situated to offer some of the world’s most interesting, varied, delicious food.

36 Hours is a weekly New York Times column about spending a weekend in a city somewhere in the world. This week’s, by me, is about Wellington, the New Zealand capital.

Over three days, I suggest, you might consume fig leaf ice cream; a whitebait fritter; tea leaf salad; toast with avocado, labneh and hot pickled carrots; a bowl of barbecue pork wonton noodle soup; beetroot salad; silky Syrian walnut-and-red-pepper dip; and maybe a craft beer or two. Oh, and a flat white.

It was a menu worthy of the Very Hungry Caterpillar — and one that was met with the gentle admonition from the editor that our itinerary leaned “a little food/drink heavy.” A painstaking explanation of where to procure picnic supplies at a chef wholesalers’ might be usefully switched out for a suggestion for a nice walk, she said.

I am, admittedly, someone who likes to know where my next three meals are coming from. But on a trip to New Zealand, I’d argue, it’s worthwhile taking the time to plan out what you eat and drink, and to make the most of the country’s cuisine.

New Zealand cuisine is sometimes unfairly maligned as little more than lamb shanks with mash, pavlova (if the Aussies haven’t already laid claim to it) and that gas station staple: the leaden, burn-the-skin-off-your-tongue steak-and-cheese meat pie.

You can still get all those things, of course. But I would argue that New Zealand is spectacularly situated to offer some of the world’s most interesting, varied, delicious food — and that things keep getting better.

New Zealand food reflects its unique position. It is a long, skinny island nation, where you are almost never very far from the beach. It’s very rural — lots of sheep and cattle farming, thus high-quality meat and dairy — with a colder climate that rewards its residents with glorious stone fruit, grapevines and other produce. Its Indigenous culture, compared to many other countries, is protected and celebrated. And it is a nation where more than a quarter of people were born outside the country.

“There’s a very high expectation of fresh produce — things that were probably only picked the day before,” said Jesse Mulligan, a food reviewer for The New Zealand Herald, which is based in Auckland, the country’s largest city. “You really taste that with something like asparagus, which tastes better the faster you get it to the plate.”

Most New Zealand supermarkets, all of which run as a punishingly expensive duopoly, have enormous, groaning seafood counters, under signs that read “kai moana” — the food of the ocean. You find the usual woolly imported frozen prawns, but also many ingredients you simply cannot find elsewhere: pipi, a small native clam; paua, a dark, velvety abalone; native crayfish; kina, a kind of iodine-rich sea urchin; local oysters; green-shelled mussels the size of a business card.

The celebration of New Zealand’s specialty fish and shellfish is a relatively recent development, said Lauraine Jacobs, a veteran New Zealand food writer. “When I grew up, I don’t think anyone ever ate paua,” she said. “Crayfish was probably as close as you’ve got to it — but now kina has become a real delicacy, and paua is so hot everywhere.”

Fresh shellfish at Depot restaurant in Auckland.Credit…Mark Coote for The New York Times

Exceptional ingredients make a fabulous starting point. But as much as New Zealand cuisine is local, it is also profoundly global, telling the story of successive waves of migration, from the smoke-and-fire techniques of Maori, the country’s first people, to the new flavors that continue to be brought by new arrivals.

In Auckland, you find world-class regional Chinese food along Dominion Road, for instance. On the city’s North Shore, you might eat succulent xiao long bao, or impeccable Korean cuisine, while South Auckland is the place to go for Vietnamese pho or foods from Pacific islands.

In every instance, the migrant restaurant owners have made an accurate calculation that their own communities are large enough that they do not need to adjust the flavor profile for the palates of unfamiliar diners, said Jean Teng, a food writer for Metro Magazine. “There’s the population to support it — they don’t really need to cater to white people,” she said. “That’s fine, and they can survive like that.”

Those same flavours eventually filter outside the community, into dishes like “lamb shank curry” or “sashimi Samoa” — two recipes that can be found in the RNZ Cookbook, a new book that showcases 180 New Zealand dishes previously aired on the national broadcaster.

“While you might not necessarily be able to point to something that is a cohesive national menu now, there’s heaps for local chefs to draw on,” Mulligan said. “You can combine a little bit of those imported tricks with local produce, and call it New Zealand cuisine.”

It helps that New Zealanders like to eat. Auckland is a city of barely 1.5 million people, comparable in size to San Antonio, Tex., yet narrowing down a list of the top 50 restaurants, as the magazine Metro does each year, is a struggle. (Depot, a solid Auckland stalwart that is often heralded as a classic example of modern New Zealand cuisine, this year slid off the list.)

In this year’s list, you find food from Andalusia, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, the Philippines and Persia. (This is not exhaustive.)

“New Zealanders are curious,” said Jacobs. “They’re very aware of what is around them and what is actually beyond them. New Zealanders will try all sorts of things.”

She gives the example of the steamed hangi bunsfrozen Taiwanese-style bao filled with meat cooked in a traditional Maori style — that fly off the shelves of her local supermarket.

It is only fairly recently that, after 150 years of being ignored by non-Maori chefs and food writers, Maori cuisine has begun to be given its due outside Maori communities. Gradually, native ingredients like kawakawa or fiddlehead ferns, as well as traditional cooking techniques, have inspired non-Maori New Zealand chefs like Al Brown or Ben Bayly. More recently, a new cookbook about Maori cuisine by Christall Lowe, “Kai,” has been astonishingly popular.

“She has absolutely captured, in my mind, where New Zealand food has come to,” Jacobs said. “And it’s the first time we’ve seen it in a mainstream cookbook.”

All of this — and we didn’t even get to New Zealand’s craft beer scene. Perhaps another time.

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