New Zealand cuisine - your guide to the best food in New Zealand
New Zealand Cuisine 101
The first bite of a crunchy apple, the enticing smell of sizzling onions, the sound of a cork popping – food and drink can evoke strong emotions and memories. For those lucky enough to travel the world exploring new places and cultures, sampling the local cuisine is often a big part of what makes an unforgettable trip. The tastes, smells, sights and sounds of the local food linger with us long after our plane has departed, and we’ve returned to our kitchens at home.
Likewise, New Zealand cuisine can shape the experience visitors have here in our beautiful little country. As committed foodies and proud Kiwis, we love sharing the best food in New Zealand with our guests, so if you’re keen to sample the unique culinary delights on offer during your trip, you’ve come to right place…
We’ve put together an article that highlights the best of New Zealand cuisine and gives you an idea of what to expect from a quintessentially Kiwi diet. Read on to discover the unique flavours of New Zealand – our fresh seafood, local meat, crisp fruit and vegetables, world-famous wine and beer, and delicious Kiwi desserts and treats. Your taste buds can thank us later!
New Zealand’s love affair with food
As a nation, our shared passion for food and drink connects us and defines our everyday lives probably more than we know. Enjoying a homecooked meal around the table with family, catching up with friends at a local coffee shop or savouring a cold beer in the sunshine with workmates – life’s simple pleasures played out as we enjoy delicious Kiwi food and drink together.
Aside from providing a valuable source of social interaction, New Zealand cuisine also needs to fuel the nation’s adventurous pursuits. We Kiwis are an active bunch and seeing as our natural habitat is mountains, lakes, oceans and forests, it’s vital that we keep our strength up with hearty fare and nourishing treats.
Fortunately, there are plenty of delicious options to satisfy all appetites, both large and small. As a relatively petit island nation with a strong agricultural industry, much of New Zealand’s food is homegrown. Our diet is largely seasonal, shaped by the availability of local ingredients. Of course, not everything we eat is homegrown, but much of it is sourced from the fertile land and abundant seas surrounding our country.
Traditional New Zealand cuisine
Some of the best food in New Zealand is traditional and perhaps deceptively simple. When prepared by skilled hands and served with love, the appetising flavours are immensely appealing. Our cuisine is influenced by a variety of cultures - the original Maori inhabitants, 18th century European settlers and New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours all play a role in the food that we enjoy today.
Some of our most traditional kai (food) is cooked in underground pit ovens heated by hot stones, known as a hangi. Traditionally, Maori people would wrap fish, chicken and root vegetables in flax leaves and place them in the ground before covering over with earth to cook. Today, the food is usually placed in wire baskets in the underground oven. Alongside the more traditional meats and vegetables; pork, lamb, pumpkin, potatoes, cabbage and stuffing are also added into the mix today. The food is left to cook for three to four hours, resulting in beautifully tender meat and flavour infused vegetables. In effect, the perfect slow-cooked Sunday roast!
You can sample a traditional hangi feast and delve a little deeper into Maori culture on our Sweet North Island adventure.
New Zealand Seafood
Surrounded by oceans teeming with life and crystal-clear lakes and streams, it’s no surprise that New Zealand seafood is first on the menu for many Kiwis and visitors alike. The world’s top chefs go to great lengths to serve up fresh New Zealand seafood to discerning diners at international restaurants and eateries. Some of our must-eat seafood and fish includes delicacies such as green-lipped mussels, scallops, crayfish, Bluff oysters, whitebait, Mt. Cook salmon and North Island snapper.
New Zealand Mussels
Easily identifiable from other mussel varieties, New Zealand green mussels have a dark green shell with a bright green lip. Most New Zealand mussels are sourced from the Marlborough Sounds region but are also available throughout New Zealand along our rocky coastlines. Known not only for their flavour but also for their health benefits, New Zealand green-lipped mussels are best eaten fresh, lightly steamed with a little garlic lemon butter to taste!
New Zealand Fish
Plentiful and delicious, fresh New Zealand fish is a core staple of the New Zealand cuisine. Local favourites include healthy and delicious Mt. Cook king salmon, mildly flavoured snapper and of course the nation’s favourite blue cod – perfect crumbed or battered and served with a large side of hot chips and aioli.
New Zealand fish and chips is the original fast food for many Kiwis, best devoured by the sea, sans cutlery. Come the long summer evenings you’ll see families enjoying a fish and chip supper together at the beach, fending off seagulls and licking their salty fingers. Look for a place that sells fresh fish with a line of locals waiting. Chances are you won’t be disappointed by this long-standing New Zealand tradition.
New Zealand Crayfish
Crayfish or lobster is one of New Zealand’s most delicious ocean delicacies and collecting it is a favourite pastime for many Kiwis. Found along New Zealand’s long coastal stretches, there are strict guidelines in place to future proof the sustainability of these tasty crustaceans. For an ‘only in New Zealand experience’, be sure to try the crayfish in the South Island coastal town of Kaikoura. The name Kaikoura means ‘to eat crayfish’, so really where better to indulge? Boiled or grilled, serve with a squeeze of lemon or lime and a sprinkle of salt to really bring out the flavour.
New Zealand Whitebait
Whitebait is a curious little example of the Kiwi laid-back luxury, highly sought after and available only in season. Made up of tiny juvenile fish, the favourite way to consume New Zealand whitebait is the fritter. There are varying schools of thought on the best way to fry a fritter and many Kiwis will claim that they have the BEST whitebait fritter recipe. However, it’s generally agreed that a fresh whitebait fritter with a squeeze of lemon, served between buttered bread is the way to go.
New Zealand Meat
Meat is somewhat of a polarising topic these days, but here in New Zealand, it’s still a staple of the Kiwi diet. We’re gradually adapting to the view that consuming less meat overall is a better health choice, but with beef, lamb, pork and venison in ready supply, you’re not likely to encounter a nation of vegetarians any time soon. That said, it’s worth noting that vegetarians and vegans are well catered for in New Zealand and you’ll be delighted by the tasty non-meat options available.
Even if we’re not consuming meat every day, when we do, we want it to be worth it. Our team of New Zealand Trails foodies always look for New Zealand meat that’s fresh, local and sustainably farmed. When enjoying a traditional Kiwi BBQ, we’re all about quality over quantity – no cheap sausages here thank you very much.
New Zealand meat very much spans the divide as far as styles of cuisine go. Anything from a meat pie or gourmet burger, right through to a perfectly cooked fillet in a top-notch restaurant, there’s something to satisfy all palates.
New Zealand Lamb
Savoured around the world, you can really taste the difference with New Zealand lamb. In fact, lamb is now one of the country’s biggest exports with many supermarkets and restaurants clamouring to stock naturally raised, free-range New Zealand lamb. With abundant green pastures and high-quality farming practices, it’s no wonder it tastes so good.
A classic Kiwi favourite, the perfect roast lamb is full of flavour and melt in the mouth tender. Marinate prior to cooking for a little extra punch, before serving up with golden roast vegetables and a large glass of New Zealand wine, preferably a Central Otago Pinot Noir, if given the choice!
New Zealand Venison
Whether it has been caught from the wild or farm-raised, New Zealand venison is a versatile lean meat with a delicate flavour and endless cooking possibilities. Between 1861 and 1919, around 250 red deer were released into the New Zealand backcountry, to be hunted for trophies and as a tourist attraction. Today, there are lots of keen hunters who catch wild deer for their families and friends to enjoy, as well as supplying local restaurants with premium quality New Zealand venison.
Seen as somewhat of a delicacy by many Kiwis, it’s not a regular indulgence for us but is often served up on a special occasion. Our favourite way to enjoy venison is sautéed with a rich cherry sauce and served alongside seasonal vegetables or stir fried as part of a fresh spring salad – quick and delicious!
New Zealand Fruit and Veg
With a climate that ranges from sub-tropical in the far north, to alpine in the deep south, it’s not surprising that New Zealand fruit and veg is as diverse as the landscape it’s harvested from! From zingy kiwifruit and zesty lemons to comfortingly plain potatoes and basic brown onions; New Zealand cultivates fruit and veg on a large scale, both for export and local consumption.
There are also plenty of green-fingered Kiwis who keep their own vegetable plots and enjoy tending their little corner of paradise, sharing the literal fruits of their labour with family, friends and neighbours.
Honesty’s the best policy
It’s not uncommon here to see road-side stalls selling huge avocados, homemade jams, green silverbeet and other colourful fruit and veg to passers-by. We have what’s known as an honesty box system where visitors deposit their coins into an unmanned box to pay for their produce, reliant on the honour of the purchaser to do the right thing. You’ll also notice lots of pick-your-own fruit paddocks, where again farmers are hoping that you’ll pay for what you pick as opposed to adopting the old ‘one for me, one for the punnet’ rule of thumb. Cheeky!
During the summer months, our stone fruit season hots up, particularly on the South Island where you’ll enjoy delicious nectarines, peaches, plums, apricots and cherries ripe from the tree. It’s certainly the taste of New Zealand summer (sticky faces and fingers included). Corn on the cob is another very popular summer treat for Kiwis – grilled on the BBQ and smothered in butter, we eagerly await the arrival of fresh sweetcorn at our local markets as summer approaches.
Over the winter months, hearty root vegetables are in season – perfect for a variety of soups, roasts, curries and other heart-warming meals to see you through the colder months. Pumpkin, butternut squash and kumara (sweet potato) are all Kiwi staples. Try mashing orange kumara with a parsnip or two for a tasty alternative to potato mash and quick weeknight vegetable side.
Only in New Zealand
While many Kiwis are mourning the end of summer, a small pick me up awaits them in the arrival of feijoa (pronounced ‘fee – jo – ah’) season from early autumn onwards. Very common in New Zealand but not widely known outside of our shores, the feijoa has a firm green skin and juicy flesh inside. With a unique flavour, not dissimilar to some fruity medicines, the feijoa can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Baked into cakes, chutneys, crumbles and even curries, it’s a versatile New Zealand fruit that’s worth trying while you’re here.
The tamarillo is another classic New Zealand fruit, grown easily in frost-free backyards around the country. Its tangy-sweet flesh tastes a little like kiwifruit or guava and boasts many health benefits, as well as culinary uses. Stewed or preserved, it can be spooned on top of your breakfast muesli, turned into a tasty savoury chutney or even baked into a sponge pudding.
Other New Zealand crops include olives, walnuts, chestnuts, boysenberries, persimmons and of course grapes!
New Zealand Wine
With humble beginnings, the New Zealand wine industry has really taken off since the dawn of the 21st century and today contributes more than NZ$1.5 billion a year to our national economy. There are some 500 established wineries throughout New Zealand. They range in size, from titans of the industry like Montana and Villa Maria, to smaller family-owned boutique vineyards dotted about the countryside.
Far and away, Australia is New Zealand’s biggest wine export market – which is funny as most Australians would have you believe that everything they do is superior to Kiwis – I guess the proof is in the drinking, right? We also export to the UK, US, Canada and Asia, where New Zealand wine is rapidly gaining popularity and notability.
Our mild maritime climate and diverse geography mean that a wide variety of wine styles flourish here. There are some 12 different wine regions up and down the country, with smaller sub-regions and micro-climates producing a delectable variety of both red and white wines. For a more detailed guide to New Zealand wine regions, check out our blog here.
New Zealand White Wine
New Zealand is perhaps best known for its sauvignon blanc. It makes up over 70% of our total wine production and is our largest wine export. Internationally recognised as the benchmark in this style of wine, New Zealand sauvignon blanc is fresh, clean and immensely drinkable. Most widely produced in the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island, it pairs beautifully with summer salads, fresh fish and well, just about most dishes really.
Other popular and pleasing varieties include chardonnay, riesling, pinot gris and gewurztraminer. Visit the famous Marlborough vineyards and indulge in a wine tasting New Zealand experience on our Masterpiece adventure around the South Island.
New Zealand Red Wine
New Zealand red wines are intense and complex, and like a good novel, best savoured slowly in front of a roaring fire. If you enjoy red wine, you’ve probably heard about our Pinot Noir, a rich and distinctive variety that is increasingly sought after. Pinot Noir production has really taken off in the Central Otago region, with many vineyards producing award-winning wines worthy of their hefty price-tags.
Aside from pinot noir, New Zealand is also known for its red wines made from traditional French varieties. New Zealand syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon all have a good reputation internationally as well as in the glasses of smiling locals.
New Zealand Wine Tours and Tasting
If you’re something of a connoisseur (or enthusiastic novice like myself), there are plenty of wonderful New Zealand wine tours out there. Take a day trip with an organised tour or join a hop on/hop off style bus around the vineyards. Seek out smaller vineyards and chat directly with the passionate winemakers at the cellar door. Spend a long afternoon sampling the different varieties and be sure to purchase a bottle or two of your favourite. Most vineyards will ship their wines overseas and chances are it’ll be a lot cheaper buying directly from them.
You’ll enjoy wine tasting New Zealand in the world-class Gibbston Valley wine growing region on our original World Heritage luxury walking tour.
New Zealand Beer
For many years there were only two main breweries in the country that accounted for some 90% of New Zealand beer production – Lion Nathan and DB Breweries. However, since the mid-90s something of a beer revolution has occurred in New Zealand with smaller local brewers disrupting the stranglehold of larger outfits. Resourceful and hard-working, these Kiwi brewers often started out as a backyard operation before gaining recognition both here in New Zealand and on a wider global scale.
Today there are countless artisan and New Zealand craft beer breweries throughout the country, supplying local hostelries, beer cafés, restaurants and supermarkets with excellent beers packed with flavour and interest. Fruity, bitter, citrusy, hoppy, green, caramelly, malty, chocolatey – you name it and there’s a New Zealand craft beer to suit!
Best enjoyed cold on a summer’s afternoon, New Zealand’s range of beers pair well with BBQ steak, venison sausages, fresh crayfish, lamb kebabs, soft cheeses and well, just about anything really!
Best New Zealand Beer
There are numerous awards dished out to breweries and beers during the year, including the prestigious Brewers Guild of New Zealand Beer Awards and the New World Beer and Wine Awards. When selecting your beer of choice, it’s worth checking out the various accolades received. Although often personal taste dictates enjoyment more than any award can. In our opinion, the best New Zealand beer is the one that you like to drink. Of course, please drink responsibly and remember it’s better to savour the flavour rather than drown your sorrows.
New Zealand Desserts
The cherry on top of a delicious meal, the icing on the cake, the sweet jewel in the savoury crown of New Zealand cuisine – dessert is without a doubt one of my favourite things. I am unashamedly in possession of a sweet tooth and thankfully New Zealand desserts do not disappoint. Whether it’s artisan chocolate, a fresh stone fruit tart, creamy ice cream on a hot summer day, or our national treasure, the pavlova, it’s worth saving room for something sweet!
New Zealand Chocolate
Chocolate is big news. And yes, there’s plenty of standard chocolate out there but when it comes to really indulging, you want to do it right. New Zealand chocolate lovers are increasingly aware of choosing quality chocolate over quantity. In recent years, large chocolate companies have been knocked off their perches over their use of palm oil and other Fairtrade practices, or lack of.
One of New Zealand’s most famous chocolate producers are Whittaker’s whose ethical policies and focus on quality have won the hearts and taste buds of chocolate enthusiasts the world around. Even Nigella Lawson is on board! A family business since 1896, and our largest bean-to-bar manufacturer, their blocks are designed to be shared (or not) and come in many different delectable flavours – 33% cocoa creamy milk, dark Ghana, coconut, almond, rum and raisin, caramel and even peanut butter. For the purists, their dark chocolate range goes from 50% through to 72% cocoa content. Taking a block or two home as edible souvenirs for your family and friends will certainly earn you brownie points!
Alongside the larger players, you’ll find there are plenty of smaller chocolatiers producing beautiful New Zealand chocolate for all to enjoy. Here at New Zealand Trails we’re big fans of the Queenstown local Patagonia Chocolates. Their hot chocolates are exceptional and their incredible range of artisan delicacies with a South American twist will leave you wanting more.
New Zealand Pavlova
A New Zealand mainstay and culinary delight, the pavlova was named after Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova who visited both New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s. A fact hotly contested by the Australians; the pavlova originated on New Zealand soil. The Oxford English Dictionary has even weighed in on the matter, noting that the first recorded pavlova recipe appeared in New Zealand in 1927. So, there you have it Australia, step away from the pavlova, it’s ours!
For those unfamiliar with the New Zealand pavlova, you’re in for a treat. Relatively quick to prepare, the pavlova is made up of a thick meringue base, laden with whipped cream and chopped fresh fruit such as strawberries and kiwifruit. If you’re feeling fancy you can swirl a little passionfruit or lemon curd into the whipped cream or drizzle it over the fruit. Everyone’s aunty, grandma, and second cousin have their favourite recipe, but we’re pretty sure that our Superguides here at New Zealand Trails have perfected the pavlova – we’ll let you decide.
New Zealand Manuka Honey
Honey is widely considered to have numerous health benefits, whether eaten or applied topically. New Zealand manuka honey is especially well-known for its natural superfood powers. Produced from the nectar of the manuka tree, which grows throughout New Zealand, it differs from other honey in both flavour and UMF ratings. Its flavour is deeper and earthier than regular honey and perhaps a little less sweet as well.
UMF stands for ‘Unique Manuka Factor’ and is an internationally recognised standard, verifying the manuka honey is pure, produced in New Zealand and contains specific natural markers found only in New Zealand manuka honey. UMF ratings can vary from 5+ through to 20+, as does the price with some high UMF honey fetching as much as $99 per 100 grams. Most honey shops will give you a little taste before you invest though, so be sure to try before you buy.
Added to smoothies and hot drinks, baked into sweet treats, mixed up for a tasty dressing or sauce, or applied liberally to hot buttered toast, New Zealand manuka honey may have its health benefits, but we’re all about the taste personally!
Hokey Pokey Ice Cream
What could be better on a hot summer’s day than a scoop or two of cold creamy ice cream? Many happy childhood memories revolve around ice cream devoured on the beach. For many Kiwi kids and let’s be honest, adults too, hokey pokey is the flavour of choice.
Hokey pokey ice cream New Zealand style is essentially vanilla ice cream with solid chunks of honeycomb toffee (hokey pokey) mixed through it. Hokey pokey ice cream is a classic taste of Kiwiana and can be home-made or bought at the supermarket in vast tubs. One scoop is never enough.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all New Zealand desserts (don’t even get me started on crumbles, tarts, muffins, lamingtons and cheesecake) but it should give you a glimpse into our sweeter side. While visiting New Zealand, you might often hear the expression ‘sweet as!’ which is a way of cheerfully agreeing or complimenting someone or something. We reckon you just might adopt the phrase after your trip, especially with your bag laden with New Zealand chocolate and your belly full of New Zealand pavlova.
The best food in New Zealand – a degustation!
As you might have guessed from this article, we’re hugely passionate about the local cuisine and we want our guests to enjoy the very best food in New Zealand. We reckon it’s a big part of what makes our New Zealand Trails trips so special. Whether you’re eating out at local restaurants, enjoying a yummy picnic lunch or delicious homecooked meal, we want you to savour every bite and appreciate New Zealand cuisine at its best. Food and drink are never an afterthought for us and we’ve carefully planned our itineraries so that you get to enjoy unique Kiwi delicacies and fresh local delights along the way.
We believe that great food is best enjoyed in good company, and we love sitting down to enjoy a meal with guests around a long table, sharing a bottle of wine and stories from the hiking trails. You’ll certainly have worked up an appetite after a day in New Zealand’s great outdoors, so don’t be afraid to tuck in and enjoy. We might even dust off a few of our favourite recipe cards along the way so you can recreate the magic when you get back home!
For a taste of New Zealand and our incredible hiking trips, request your free print copy of our brochure here.