First off, I want to tell you all a secret. It’s a secret because, apparently, no one seems to know this. This is what makes it a secret.What is this earth-shattering secret, you may ask? Well, I’ll tell you, but hold onto your hats. Hold onto your hats, and your boots, and your gloves and keys, because it is that shocking. Prepare yourself. Are you ready?
I AM NOT PREGNANT. You wouldn’t know this, since New Zealanders appear to be falling all over themselves to point out my burgeoning belly, to congratulate me, to quiz me –“how many months?” — with great big wide smiling faces, they are just full of stupid fat goodwill, these New Zealanders. But I am not pregnant. Again, NOT PREGNANT.
All that leaves me with is: Really New Zealand? Are we really going to go there? Is there really such a glut of svelte supermodel types running around town that someone like me sticks out like a sore thumb, sore enough to warrant mistaking me for a pregnant person? Call me a big fat jerk, something that starts with an “ass” and ends with “hole”, but I’m just not buying it. Nope, sorry.
Newsflash: many of you are not thinner than me. Sure, there are the ropy, leathery outdoor types who hike daily and go camping and wear those pants that convert into shorts when you unzip the legs. But most of you are not that person. That person lives in Queenstown and is a sea kayak guide. There are still 4,499,999 of you out there.
Somehow, this brings me to my next point: what is New Zealand food? When someone asked me at a dinner party what my favorite Kiwi dish was, I drew a complete blank, able only to list ingredients: lamb, venison …. …… …. Funnily enough, when asking New Zealanders to define their own food, the results were similar: a blank stare, the listing of some ingredients, and the exhortation to drink more. Not surprisingly, I did not get many invites to dinner parties.
So I decided to make it a sort of mission to find New Zealand dishes and try them. It turned out to be a lot harder than I anticipated, mainly because no one else wanted to eat them. Unlike Hawaiian poke or Tahitian poussin cru, there didn’t seem to be a dish that was distinctly Kiwi, as such. There are fish and chips, and custard bars, and a stuffed leg of lamb referred to as “colonial goose”. There is pavlova, which, is basically a giant meringue topped with fruit, but gooier. There is tea, and cakes, and scones. There is whitebait, folded into an omelette.
This is all grouped under the heading of “cuisine Kiwiana”, a culinary heritage that is said to be disappearing from New Zealand tables. This makes me laugh. It sounds like a complaint from old-timers who yearn for the bygone era when white settlers had just wrestled the land from the Maori. Isn’t there an entire other country with food just like this, known as Great Britain? There, they have also heard of deviled kidneys, and roast lamb, and scotch eggs, and Cornish
Indeed, for a country with a much-maligned culinary lexicon, British food does appear to travel well, making inroads not only among the Anglo settlers of the southern hemisphere, but also among the Maoris themselves. Yes, the Maoris’ Hangi — a collection of meats and vegetables cooked in a hole in the ground filled with hot rocks and covered with sand bags and dirt — could be considered a local dish, the equivalent of the Hawaiian luau feast. It is marketed as such, the highlight to tours in Rotorua alongside visits to the sulphur springs.
But there is also the Maori “boil-up”– a collection of meats and vegetables cooked via … You guessed it! This, apparently, is an example of a cooking method adopted by the locals, much like how the Thais adapted Chinese methods to their own cuisine. Not much mention of the new arrivals adopting local techniques and digging holes in the ground for their meat, though. No, not much of that.
I would like to tell you how much I enjoyed my Hangi meal, ordered from The Hangi Shop as I had planned, but my husband put the kibosh on that. Indeed, no one I know would eat Hangi with me. Maybe it’s me and not the dish, and everyone is secretly meeting somewhere over a smoking hole in the ground, enjoying morsels of freshly steamed meat as I type this. Well, you haven’t beaten me! I will have my hangi, or my name is not Bangkok Glutton!
In the end, I figured out what real New Zealand food is:
It’s different, really it is! Kiwis don’t use cod or haddock, and go with local fish like hoki, or in this instance, orange roughy. Also available at your better fish and chip shops: steamed mussels with sweet chili sauce; abalone “patties” of minced abalone meat, resembling gravel and tasting like unseasoned matzoh; Bluff sea urchin roe, straight from the container, made palatable with a generous squeeze of lemon; and most interestingly, steamed “mutton bird”, an indigenous fowl hunted only by Maoris and stored in salt to preserve the meat.
Is it delicious? Well, we’re only in the experimental stages. The search for my favorite Kiwi dish continues.
(All photos by @SpecialKRB)