Food Heritage

Here at Kai, we’re long past the cringe that says that New Zealand doesn’t have a food culture. We do. It’s just not the same as Australia’s or the Pacific Islands’ or Europe.

We have come along way since the early days - enjoy this video of the New Zealand Story

Maori Settlement

Aotearoa New Zealand must have been a bit of a shock to the first Polynesians arriving in here from their more tropical home islands, with their cultivated banana, taro or breadfruit, coconut palms, their pigs and chickens. Fortunately Maori learned how sweet potatoes (kumara), taro and yams could grow under the much tougher climate, there were native birds (sadly, not all survived) and of course, plentiful fish, seaweed and shellfish. Eventually Maori discovered bush food – raupo pollen for bread, berries, cress, roots and shoots – but it took hard work and a fair bit of technology to create gardens and tend them and harvest food from the bush, streams and sea.

Captain Cook introduced potatoes on his first visit to Queen Charlotte Sound (along with other European vegetables). When he returned in 1773 he found they were being cultivated as far south as Bluff – apparently much easier to grow than the local crops. Cook’s pigs and goats eventually also became part of Maori farming and eating (and were liberated into the bush).

Early Colonial

The first big waves in the 1820s and 30s of European traders and missionaries report flourishing ‘native’ market gardens and some pretty impressive accounts of important feasts and Maori gatherings centred around vast quantities of food. The hangi was much more sophisticated than any open-fire cooking the visitors were used to. The bigger waves of colonial immigrants learned to use bush berries, kumara (as a sweet tart, as well as a vegetable), locally grown maize and even extracted sugar from the nikau palm. Fish was avoided as peasant food.

You could say that it was Charles Bidwell’s sheep, imported from Australia in 1843, that set New Zealand’s culinary course. Cattle – bullocks for transport, cows for milking – came later, but beef was never as core to the early diet as mutton. Cook introduced chickens, and every immigrant ship carried chickens for both the journey out and the settlers’ yards once they arrived. Ducks were the only one of the introduced birds that became wild, though folks with the hopes of creating hunting estates like those of their masters’ in the old country brought in pheasant, peacocks and deer. And the wretched rabbit, of course. Trout – brown and rainbow – and salmon were also released. Fortunately, too, for New Zealand agriculture, missionaries brought the humble bee in 1839. Around the same time, the demon rum was also established in New Zealand, despite the best efforts of the missionaries, soon to be followed by beer. As well as fruit trees and berries, the missionaries planted the first vineyards: James Busby made the first commercial vineyards in 1838, there was talk of a local wine industry as early as 1880. And both workers and the upper class brought their tea with them.

Britain's food basket

As every schoolchild in New Zealand learned, it was the introduction of frozen and chilled shipping in 1882 that turned the country into the mutton- and dairy-basket for Britain and helped turn around the faltering economy based on gold and wool.

 Settler cuisine was greatly helped by the invention by Mr Shacklock of the coal range in 1873: mass produced, it was affordable, burned the local coal efficiently and produced gallons of boiling water. It replaced the ubiquitous camp (or Dutch) oven, and brought out the famous Kiwi fondness for baking (which made up for the famously over-cooked meat and vegetables and monotonous menu). Some accounts blame the dull food on the tiresome lack of servants – a busy housewife or farm woman just had to produce plenty of filling food, frequently. But there was no shortage of milk, butter and eggs for filling the tins, and the wonderful hospitality of almost any New Zealand function "ladies a plate”, the quality of the baking boosted not a little by the competitive nature of these plates occasions. 

Sensible Ladies

 The worthier side – some may say joyless – of New Zealand cooking was perpetuated in the first teaching of home economics (at Wanganui Girls’ College in 1908) and the school of home science at Otago university in 1911. When were the first glimmers of a New Zealand cuisine? The first recipes in newspapers and cookbooks – as early as 1860s and 70s – were British or American and Australian. By the end of the second World War New Zealand baking in particular was quite distinct from that of the homeland. Edmond's first cookbook was published in 1908, microwave cookbooks began appearing in the 1980s. 

Swinging Sixties

 It wasn’t until the 1960s that we looked around the rest of the world for food ideas – not just from immigrants – with a hodge podge of pizza pie, chow mein, Hungarian goulash and coq au vin. Maori food traditions were resurrected in the 1970s (along with other parts of mana and culture). Aunt Daisy, cooking doyen from the 1930s to the 60s was replaced by Graham Kerr, and dinner parties and ‘entertaining’, or Tui Flower’s and Alison Holst’s sensible home cookery. French food was serious food, influenced by the huge impact of America’s Julia Child and Britain’s Elizabeth David, who in turn influenced the serious food writers of the 1980s such as Lois Daish.


Usage Ideas

Use the old standby of pumpkin to make  a big pot of soup, and serve with fresh artisan bread.


Follow up with the perfect winter crumble - apples, pears or add some frozen berries. Top with vanilla custard.


Make a warming chicken casserole with sweet winter vegetables

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19D Triton Drive, Albany
P O Box 34008 Birkenhead 0746
0800 524 500
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