Food & Drink

What the hell is New Zealand food? Here are the 8 dishes you need to know

New Zealand might be best known for its unbelievable natural scenery, movies that are much too long (see Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit... THE PIANO!), rugby “war dances”, an annoyingly catchy pop star called Lorde, and, of course, a massive sheep population. And though we were also the first to split the atom and give women the right to vote, that somehow gets lost in the shadow of Peter Jackson and Flight of the Conchords. ANYWAY, what do these Kiwis eat? Here’s your guide to a cuisine that draws on Polynesia, Asia, and its European colonial roots:

Pavlova
What it is:
An extremely popular dessert created in honor of a Russian ballerina who toured New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s (hence the Slavic name). Australia claims they were the first to make this delightful, meringue-based treat, but they were not. However, if you want to annoy a Kiwi, argue the point. Fists will fly.
What’s the deal: Covered in fruit -- typically kiwifruit, passion fruit, and strawberries -- pavlova is superior to the average meringue because of the addition of corn flour, which creates a crispier outer layer and an addictive, marshmallow-like center. It’s generally most popular around the holiday season (in the Southern Hemisphere that’s the middle of Summer), so it will be served at Christmas family/friend gatherings. A perfect accompaniment to Sauvignon Blanc (another New Zealand specialty) and an uncomfortably long conversation with your tipsy aunt.

Hangi
What it is:
Basically, hangi lets you embrace some deep-seated instincts: dig a deep pit, use a fire to heat a bunch of stones, wrap meat and vegetables in flax or leaves, put them in big baskets, cover the food and stones in dirt, and wait a few hours. The smell of dirt and food mingles, and it provides the authentic experience of truly (Middle) earthy food.
What’s the deal: Apart from the novelty of digging your dinner out of the ground, you get a uniquely New Zealand take on a pan-Polynesian method (it’s called 'umu' in other Pacific languages). Kumara, which is an extremely tasty type of sweet potato, and big cuts of lamb (the New Zealand meat) are both perfectly suited to the hangi.

The Kiwi Meat Pie
What it is: Traditionally, the meat pie is a soft pastry with a crusty exterior wrapped around a filling (often minced beef). Pies are served with a big dollop of tomato sauce, which is NZ’s version of ketchup, at pretty much any hour of the day. Kiwis loved the pie so deeply they created a chain of now defunct fast-food restaurants, Georgie Pie (RIP).
What’s the deal: New Zealand has perfected two of the best things to emerge from England: rugby and the meat pie. The Kiwi meat pie is the ubiquitous snack, found everywhere from gas stations to cafes. As with other foods inherited from the motherland -- bangers and mash or fish and chips -- it’s the local interpretation that makes all the difference. In the case of the pie, NZ has gone with the “more is more” approach, drawing from many cuisines. Some of my favorite pie varieties? Thai satay vegetable. Wild pork and apple. Sausage, bacon, tomato, and a whole egg. Curried chicken. Venison and red wine with vegetables. Steak and cheese. Lamb shank and gravy. Three quick facts: there is no better food in the world after having a couple of beers; US potpies are regularly underwhelming; I am very homesick right now.

Hokey Pokey Ice Cream
What it is: Creamy vanilla ice cream with honeycomb toffee, either in small chunks or balls, scattered throughout the cold stuff. It’s very popular during Christmas holiday (remember: Summer!) trips to the beach.
What’s the deal: A simple, yet long-standing tradition that has now been exported from NZ to parts of Asia and other Pacific Islands, hokey pokey ice cream is, in a way, the anti-Ben & Jerry’s. While Vermont’s finest bombard their ice cream with a shock and awe approach to the ingredients, hokey pokey ice cream is a bit minimalist: delicious vanilla complemented by little caramel-meets-rock-candy islands. For Kiwis living abroad, hokey pokey ice cream is probably the most nostalgia-inducing food on this list, as it’s one we’re unlikely to find in most of the world.

whitebait fritters
Wikimedia

Whitebait Fritter
What it is: Juvenile fish cooked in egg whites to create what is essentially a crispy omelet. Served with a salad, fresh lemon, and tartar sauce, this is a quintessential New Zealand delicacy.
What’s the deal: New Zealand has incredible seafood drawn from the Pacific Ocean, but the essential ingredient here comes from NZ’s rivers. These little, translucent fish are known by a collective term, whitebait, with the most common being the inanga. And at up to $35 a pound, whitebait is a gourmet alternative to a common New Zealand seafood specialty: fish and chips.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc paired with EVERYTHING
What it is: Not an edible delicacy, obviously, but if you were to visit New Zealand, you might find yourself treating this wine as if it’s as essential as solid food. A dry white first produced in the Bordeaux region of France, some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc now comes from NZ’s South Island. Pair it with some fresh Greenshell (aka green-lipped) mussels, crayfish, or goat cheese -- or all of them!
What’s the deal: In his book Judgment of Paris, wine critic George M. Taber claims that drinking a NZ Sav Blanc is like having sex for the first time. (I know that he meant this as a compliment, but it doesn’t necessarily work as a simile.) Without reverting to comparisons to coitus, I will say that if there is a distinctive Kiwi liquid, this is it. Alongside Bret from Flight of the Conchords, Sav Blanc is by far our most palatable export. Russell Crowe would be our least. Yes, he’s originally from New Zealand. We know. We're sorry.

Possum Stew
What it is: The name pretty much says it all. While possum stew isn’t exactly the most common thing in the Kiwi Crock-Pot, it’s worth noting that there is a portion of Middle Earth willing to grab a big spoon and dig into the thick broth, vegetables (potato and onion), and possum meat.
What’s the deal: Due to the country’s history of settlement by Scottish and Irish immigrants, stews became a part of the NZ diet in the 19th century. It’s a pretty niche dish, but if you are willing to try this steaming, creamy pot, you will be not only getting to the dark heart of the European settler, but you will also be helping to eradicate one of New Zealand’s great pests: possums.

Anzac Biscuit
What it is:
A crunchy cookie named after the WWI-era Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) that's made of rolled oats, syrup, coconut, and the other things that make up a cookie (sugar, flour, and butter). Notably, there are no eggs among the ingredients due to the food restrictions during the time of the Anzac biscuit’s creation.
What’s the deal: How often in your life will you eat a cookie dedicated to New Zealand and Australian soldiers, men who fought at Gallipoli, one of the most epic/tragic battles of the “Great War”? Moreover, when will you eat a cookie that is directly linked to a national holiday (Anzac Day, April 25th)? Also, the rolled oats make you feel as if it’s at least a little bit healthy. And it’s definitely better for you than an American biscuit.

Christopher Garland (starting in the Fall) will be an assistant professor of professional writing and public discourse at the University of Southern Mississippi. Born and raised on meat pies and roast pork in New Zealand, he’s slowly embracing pecan pies and pulled pork. Follow him at @CJohnGarland for opinions on rugby, college basketball, and alligators.