New Zealand Food Culture: 9 Popular Dishes You Must Try

new zealand food culture
Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay
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When you think of New Zealand, your mind likely doesn’t jump to food. Instead, you’re thinking Lord of the Rings, dramatic mountains, some of the best hiking in the world, and you can’t forget their unique flightless birds. Yet, New Zealand food culture is fascinating with a range of dishes and some of the best lamb and venison in the world.

Influences come from a range of countries and regions. First and foremost, you have Māori (indigenous peoples of New Zealand), whose food culture focuses on traditions and ingredients taken straight from the earth. Pair this with influence from the British, Australians, and Asians, and you’re met with an incredible variety of dishes.

While exploring the stunning nature of New Zealand is a must-do, no trip is complete without diving into New Zealand food culture. If you’re ready to start eating like a New Zealander, or Kiwi as they call themselves, check out below our 9 popular dishes you must try.

1. Meat Pies

meat pie, food in new new zealand
Photo by Ruth Ellison/Wikimedia Commons

Average cost: $6 per pie (all prices in New Zealand dollars)
Where to find: Dairies, petrol stations, pie shops, select cafés and restaurants

While a savory pie might not make your stomach grumble, we promise, once you bite into your first meat pie (although, make sure to let it cool first), you’ll understand why it’s a true Kiwi masterpiece. They’re easy to eat, there are plenty of options, and they fit beautifully in your hand. Plus, there’s no wrong time of the day to treat yourself.

You’ll find meat pies pretty much anywhere you go in New Zealand. In neighborhood dairies, petrol stations, and grocery stores, they’ll cost you a mere $5 to $7. If you want to try a fancier pie, head to a café or pub where they might cost upwards of $15 to $20, although they’ll likely come with a side salad. A fan favorite is always the classic mince and cheese or the egg and bacon if you’re in the mood for breakfast, but the varieties are endless. Why not try chicken curry, beef cheek, bolognaise mince, minted lamb, or a spicy taco pie.

If you find yourself in Queenstown, stop by Ferg Bakery. It’s the lesser-known brother of the always busy Fergburger and makes some of the best pies in New Zealand. As Ferg Bakery doesn’t close until 4 am and then reopens at 6 am, you’ll be able to enjoy one no matter the time.

2. Hangi

hangi food in New Zealand
Photo by Percita/flickr

Average cost: $30 for a hangi, $130 for a full Māori cultural experience and hangi
Where to find: Māori villages, select restaurants

Meaning beneath the earth in Māori, a hangi is the ultimate New Zealand feast. The concept is simple and dates back to the roots of Māori culture. A hole is dug, hot stones are placed on the bottom and meat and vegetables wrapped in foil are stacked on top. From here, dirt fills the rest of the hole and the food (kai) is left to cook for three to four hours. When ready, you’re left with incredibly tender meat and flavorful vegetables.

As not every restaurant has a hangi, you’ll have to do some work to seek out places that offer a hangi meal. While it’s slightly touristy, a great place to try is Temaki Māori Village in Rotorua. For around $130, you’ll get a cultural show and an all-you-can-eat feast full of chicken, beef, potato, kumara (sweet potato), stuffing, carrots, cabbage – all topped with gravy.

Another unique place to try a hangi is Whakarewarewa Valley. Here, the geothermal activity of the region is ingeniously used for cooking food. Meat and vegetables are placed in special steam boxes, and the natural heat from the ground cooks it to perfection. You can opt for the full feast or try one of their famous hangi pies. While you’re here, you can also wander around the hot pools, boiling mud, and geysers.

3. Fish n’ Chips

fish n' chips
Photo by Meelan Bawjee/Unsplash

Average cost: $5 to $10 for 2 large pieces, chips $4 to $6 per scoop
Where to find: Fish n’ Chip shops, Take-A-Way shops, pubs

Another essential in New Zealand food culture is fish n’ chips. You’ll find this iconic comfort food in every city, small town, and everything in between. The best fish n’ chips are found in take-a-way shops, which are hole-in-the-wall restaurants with limited seating and sell only deep-fried food. If you’re looking for a healthy option, this isn’t it. However, if you’re looking for a tasty and relatively cheap meal, you’ve found your new go-to. 

Prices range from $5 for hoki and up to 10$ for blue cod. A scoop of chips (fries) is an extra $4 to $6, which you won’t be able to resist. You’ll know you have a great feast in your hands if the grey paper housing your fish n’ chips is nearly too hot to hold, and the paper begins to show signs of grease seeping through. Deciding the best fish n’ chip shop in New Zealand is quite the debate, but you can’t go wrong with Captain Ben’s in Christchurch or The Flying Squid in Dunedin.

If you’re not a massive fan of fish, don’t let this deter you from visiting a take-a-way shop. At Erik’s Fish and Chips in Queenstown, you’ll also find popcorn shrimp, chicken tenders, fritters, hot dogs, and even deep-fried kiwifruit.

4. Salmon

baked salmon, food in new new zealand
Photo by Caroline Attwood/Unsplash

Average cost: $36 per kg, $30 for baked salmon at a restaurant
Where to find: Grocery stores, fish markets, most cafés and restaurants

If you love salmon, you’ve just arrived in paradise. New Zealand has some of the best in the world, and Kiwis take this seriously. So much so, we didn’t dare reduce salmon to just one dish. We’re talking sashimi, hot-smoked salmon, cold-smoked salmon, baked salmon, pan-fried salmon, and you get the picture.

The only type of salmon farmed and living in New Zealand is of the pacific king variety, as it’s the only species that can thrive in the cold waters. These lucky fish spend their lives playing in the gentle currents of glacier-fed rivers or the cold waters of Marlborough Sounds. They’re caught, shipped, and arrive on your plate without ever being frozen. You’ll see this reflected in the price, usually around $36 per kg if you’re buying fresh, but the soft and buttery texture and bright flavors are well worth the price tag.

To enjoy salmon Kiwi style, opt for fresh salmon sushi, which will cost around $10 – $20 per roll, smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel that will cost between $15 to $20, or lemon baked salmon that will cost around $30. And if you see any other variety of salmon, especially Atlantic salmon, run the other way.

5. Whitebait Fritter

Whitebait Fritter, unique new zealand food culture
Photo by Graeme Churchard/Flickr

Average cost: $65 per kg, $6 per fritter
Where to find: Fish markets, food stalls (only available from August to late November)

The most expensive seafood in New Zealand – whitebait. A transparent juvenile fish caught by hours and hours of fishers holding nets in a river, patiently waiting for a few to swim in. Cooked with whipped eggs, it becomes the (New Zealand) famous whitebait fritter.

While a true fritter has both eggs and flour, Kiwis took it upon themselves to discard the flour. As whitebait has a very subtle flavor, less is more in the world of whitebait fritters. Some purists even separate the yolk and use only egg whites to get the optimum taste.

Finding yourself a whitebait fritter to taste is just as tricky as catching whitebait. You’ll need to be in New Zealand between August and late November, head for the West Coast of the South Island, and keep your eye out for pop-up shops. If you’re lucky, you’ll see someone selling whitebait out of the back of their truck for around $60 to $70 per kg. Or, head to the local market, and you’ll be sure to find a stand selling fritters for about $6 each if there’s been a good hall.

If the beady black eyes staring back at you don’t quite look appetizing, just be sure to keep your thoughts to yourself. Kiwis won’t take it too kindly if you stick your nose up at their beloved delicacy.

6. Kiwi Burger

kiwi burger
Photo by Lcmortensen/Wikimedia Commons

Average cost: $6 – $20, depending on location
Where to find: McDonalds, pubs, select cafés and restaurants

Don’t worry; we’re not talking about the kiwi bird or the kiwifruit. Instead, we’re talking about a beef burger topped with beetroot, fried egg, tomato, crispy lettuce, cheese, onions, mustard, and ketchup, all on a toasted bun. Upon even looking at the burger, your mind will wonder what crazy concoction this is. However, the sweet beetroot pairs up so perfectly with the buttery egg and seasoned burger, you’ll want to share the secret with the rest of the world. 

For such a famous burger, the kiwi burger is relatively young. First served in 1976 by Bryan Old in Hamilton, it didn’t take long for this new take on childhood staples to find its way across the country. Fifteen years later, McDonald’s coined their take on the kiwi burger and have served their Kiwiburger classic since.

If you want something slightly fancier than McDonald’s, a trip to Fergburger in Queenstown will do the trick. While you’ll likely find a line wrapping around the block, the perfection of these burgers is well worth the wait. If you’d like to skip the line, head into your local pub. You can get a high-quality burger served with a side of chips for around $25. Keep in mind that you likely won’t see a kiwi burger on the menu, though, as it’ll just say burger.

7. Roast Lamb With Yorkshire Pudding and Mint Sauce

roast lamb with yorkshire pudding
Photo by Acabashi/Wikimedia Commons

Average cost: $32 per kg, $30 for roast lamb at a restaurant
Where to find: Butcher, grocery stores, pubs, select cafés and restaurants

No matter where you are in New Zealand, the prominence of sheep is everywhere. Even flying into the country for the first time, you’ll notice green pastures as far as the eye can see, and if you look closely, you’ll notice hundreds of tiny white dots moseying around – sheep!

With five times as many sheep in New Zealand as people, you can see why lamb is a staple in New Zealand food culture. You’ll find lamb burgers, lamb pies, lamb pizzas, lamb chops, lamb curry, and so forth. However, a must-try is roast lamb with Yorkshire pudding and mint sauce. Served at your typical pub, you’ll pay around $30 and enjoy probably the best lamb you’ve ever had.

Roasted lamb leg comes out incredibly tender, and as New Zealand lamb is raised in pristine green pastures with plenty of fresh air and clean water, not many spices need to be added to enjoy the rich meat. The Yorkshire pudding, or a popover as Americans call it, is perfect for soaking up the juices, and the mint sauce provides the perfect contrast to both.

8. Venison Medallions

venison medallions, food in new new zealand
Photo by moerschy/Pixabay

Average cost: $45 per kg of venison medallions, $36 for venison medallions at a restaurant
Where to find: Butcher, grocery stores, pubs, select cafés and restaurants

As you’re driving through the rolling green hills of New Zealand’s countryside, you’ll notice something odd. In between the many sheep and cow farms, there’s another sort of farm that’s uncommon in much of the world – deer farms. In fact, there are just under 2 million deer on New Zealand farms and an undetermined amount of wild deer roaming the backcountry.

Because of New Zealand’s mild climate, deer spend all year enjoying fresh grass, sunshine, and plenty of water, allowing them to be less gamey tasting and more tender than venison you’d find in other parts of the world. As such quality venison comes with a price tag, this is one of the more expensive meals you’ll find on this list.

To enjoy venison like a local, opt for venison medallions. These are cut from the backstrap and pan-fried for a few minutes on each side. This sears the outside but leaves the middle a perfect medium-rare. Often served with baked potatoes and greens, venison medallions are ideal for a fancier night out paired with some Central Otago pinot noir.

9. Pavlova

pavlova
Photo by Willaim Brawley/Flickr

Average cost: $10 to make homemade, $6 per base in grocery stores, $10 at cafés and restaurants
Where to find: Fish n’ Chip shops, Take-A-Way shops, Pubs

Pavlova, or ‘Pav’ as you’ll hear Kiwis call it, sits last on this list as it comes with an intense rivalry. Both Kiwis and Australians claim the pavlova was invented in their respective countries, and neither will budge. While this argument will likely never end, it is agreed upon that pavlova was named after the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who visited both New Zealand and Australia in the 1920s.

Claiming rights aside, pavlova is perfect for all celebratory occasions and holidays and is a large part of New Zealand food culture. The base is made of meringue, perfectly crisp on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. The meringue is then topped with heaping amounts of whipped cream and sliced tropical fruit – especially kiwifruit.

For such a simple dessert, making a good pavlova takes years of practice. It’s also not the easiest to purchase a good pavlova. While you can buy premade bases at most grocery stores for just a few dollars and top them yourself, they won’t taste nearly as good as homemade ones. Finding them in cafés, restaurants, and bakeries is also like finding a needle in a haystack. But if you see one on the menu, make sure to indulge!

FAQs

What is the most popular food in New Zealand?

Without a doubt, savory pies are iconic New Zealand food culture. Costing between $5 to $7, you’ll find pies nearly everywhere that are packed full of a mind-blowing variety of ingredients, from eggs and bacon to lamb curry. You name it; there’s a pie to match. There’s absolutely no stigma to the beloved pie either. If you’re out for a fancy dinner, why not order a pie? Need breakfast on the go? Grab a pie. Need a late-night snack? Grab a pie.

Meat pies and New Zealand go hand in hand like a cold beer on a hot summer’s day. So if the craving hits, nothing can be done except stopping at a local dairy and indulging yourself.

What is a typical breakfast in New Zealand?

Kiwis aren’t too fussed about breakfast. Most will start their day with a simple bowl of muesli (granola) and yogurt. Children tend to start their day with good ole fashioned Weet-Bix and milk. The few sugary and name-brand cereals that made their way to New Zealand are expensive, so don’t be shocked if you’re paying $8 for a small box.

However, on the weekends, you’ll find a different story. Cafés will be bursting full of families, friends, and couples heading out to enjoy a relaxing breakfast or brunch. On the menu, you’ll find eggs benedict, smashed avocado toast, and the kiwi favorite, the bacon buttie.

What is New Zealand’s national dish?

There’s no official dish in New Zealand and no one-meal-takes-all. Some may say it’s the pavlova. Others will tell you it has to be the pie. Yet, others will claim it couldn’t be anything but the hangi. Kiwis are proud folk, but if there’s one thing they’re not great at, it’s being decisive.

What food is New Zealand famous for?

When you’re in New Zealand, it’s impossible not to notice the abundance of sheep grazing the countryside’s rolling green hills. If you’ve only seen pictures of New Zealand, you’ll likely have seen a sheep or two in them. So it’s no wonder New Zealand is famous for its lamb. No matter where you are in the world, if you’re eating New Zealand lamb, you know it’s going to be good. The same is true here in New Zealand; if you see lamb on the menu, you can trust it will be a good cut of meat. Besides roast lamb, you’ll also find lamb in pies, curries, and even on pizza. It’s reasonably priced, easy to find and a staple in New Zealand food culture.

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