New Zealanders have a taste for
meat. The quality of New Zealand
lamb is matched by that of other meats,
beef, chicken and more recently,
farmed venison, which appears on
menus as cervena. Farmed ostrich
is also gaining fans for its leanness
and superb taste, though the greasy
charms of muttonbird remain
a mystery to most. A traditional
source of sustenance for Maori,
each April and May these birds
of the shearwater family are still
plucked from their burrows on the
Titi Islands, off the southwest
tip of Stewart Island, and sold
through fishmongers in areas with
substantial Maori populations.
With New Zealand’s long coastline, fish and seafood are popular on the culinary horizon. The white, flaky flesh of the snapper is the most common saltwater fish, though you'll also come across tuna, John Dory, groper (often known by its Maori name of hapuku), flounder, blue cod (a speciality from the Chatham Islands), the firm and delicately flavoured terakihi and the moist-textured orange roughy. You'll also see a lot of salmon - but not trout, which cannot be bought or sold, though some hotel restaurants will cook your catch for you. One much-loved delicacy is whitebait, a tiny silvery fish mostly caught on the West Coast and eaten whole in fritters during the August to November season. Shellfish are a real New Zealand speciality, and the king of them all is the toheroa, a type of clam dug from the sands of Ninety Mile Beach on the rare occasions when numbers reach harvestable levels. They are usually made into soups and are sometimes substituted by the inferior and sweeter tuatua, also dug from Northland beaches. On menus you're more likely to come across the fabulous Bluff oysters, scallops and sensational green-lipped mussels, which have a flavour and texture that's hard to beat and are grown in the cool clear waters of the Marlborough Sounds, especially around Havelock. Pricey crayfish is also delicious and if you get a chance try smoked eel and smoked marlin.
Vegetables too are generally fresh and delicious. British favourites - potatoes, carrots, peas, cabbage - along with pumpkin and squash are common in Kiwi homes but on restaurant menus you're far more likely to encounter aubergines (eggplant), capsicums (bell peppers) and tomatoes. Pacific staples to look out for are kumara (sweet potato), which crops up in hangi and deep-fried as kumara chips, and the starchy taro and sweeter yam, both much more rarely seen.
New Zealanders eat a lot of cheese, yoghurt and ice cream, and all are first-rate. Small producers springing up all over the country - but especially around the Kapiti Coast (north of Wellington), Blenheim and Banks Peninsula (east of Christchurch) - are turning out some gorgeous individual cheeses, from the traditional hard cheddar-style to spicy pepper brie. Ice cream of the firm, scooped variety is something of a New Zealand institution, and is available in a vast range of flavours, including intensely fruity ones and the indulgent New Zealand icon hokey pokey - vanilla ice cream riddled with chunks of caramel.
Fruit too is popular, especially at harvest time when stalls line the roadsides selling apples, pears, citrus and stone fruits at a cheap price. Top-quality fruit and dairy products are the starting point for some delicious desserts traditionally variations on the themes of ice cream, cheesecake and another New Zealand icon, pavlova, though now supplemented by rich cakes and modern twists on British-style steamed puddings.
This abundance of fresh vegetables and superb dairy food means that vegetarians will eat very well. Outside the major centres you'll find few dedicated vegetarian restaurants, and will have to rely on the token meat-free dishes served at most regular restaurants and cafés. Pretty much everywhere you'll be able to get a salad, sandwich, or vegetarian pizza and pasta - but it can get a bit monotonous. Vegans can always ask for a simple stir-fry if all else fails. New Zealand snacks include a reliance on nachos (a plateful of tortilla chips with a dollop of refried beans, grilled cheese and a hearty helping of sour cream), and the vegeburger.
If you are taking a rafting expedition or 4WD tour on which food is provided, give them plenty of notice of your dietary needs - otherwise you might be left with bread and salad.
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