This post contains affiliate links.
What do New Zealanders eat? We certainly love our food, enjoying global cuisine options and some uniquely New Zealand favorites.
New Zealand’s food culture evolved from the indigenous Māori foods of pre-European times to a cuisine strongly influenced by the British settlers. With increased migration and globalization, New Zealanders today embrace a diverse food culture with many international cuisines.
Below I’ll share my take on the New Zealand food culture, our favorite foods and give more background on the cost of food and what we eat over a day.
The History of New Zealand’s Food Culture
Māori arrival and the foods they brought
The indigenous people of New Zealand arrived here in about 1400 on ocean-going canoes from across the Pacific Ocean.
The origin story is that they came from a place called Hawaiki, but the exact site of this mythical location is not known.
However, there is strong evidence that New Zealand Māori came from islands such as Rarotonga, with whom they share a very similar language.
Once here, Māori had to learn what was edible far away from their more tropical islands.” The food of Aotearoa is always intrinsically linked to the land.
Māori people traditionally ate a mix of cultivated, hunted and gathered foods.
There are also food technologies shared across islands of the Pacific. In New Zealand, the Māori cook with a ‘hāngī .’ (In Samoa, a similar method is called an ‘umu’.)
The hāngī involves heating large volcanic stones on a fire pit, then placing the food items wrapped in aluminum foil (or traditionally in flax leaves) on the hot stones. This is then covered with a wet cloth and soil to keep in the heat.
After some hours, the result is tender food that smells and tastes unique. A little smokey but also nicely tainted with the smells of the earth.
Other methods involved cooking in the water or steam from volcanic thermal pools that occur in several locations across the North Island.
Fun fact The Māori are the indigenous people, the 'tangata whenua' of New Zealand. The Māori language and culture is protected by the Treaty of Waitangi signed between the British Crown and Māori chiefs in 1840. (Māori, New Zealand sign language and English are the official languages of New Zealand.)
Specialties of Māori cuisine
- Seafood (kai moana) including crayfish (kōura), sea urchins (kina)
- Stems and roots of the cabbage tree (kōuka)
- Pikopiko – young curled fern shoots
- Seeds, berries and fruits of many native trees
- Eels and freshwater fish from rivers and lakes
- Indigenous vegetables such as sweet potatoes (kūmara), yam and taro
- Birds (There is only one mammal on New Zealand, a tiny bat.)
- Kiore (the Polynesian rat) and kurī (the Polynesian dog)
- Huhū – an edible grub found in decayed wood
- Karengo – a greenish-purple edible seaweed with a tough, silky texture
- Rēwena – bread made not with fermented potatoes
European migration to New Zealand brought many new foods
When the Europeans arrived from the early 1800s, they brought with them wheat, potatoes, maize, carrots, cabbage and other vegetables.
The European settlers also brought mammals such as sheep, pigs, goats and poultry.
The indigenous Māori relied on birds and seafood as the core protein source in their diet before this.
These settlers of European descent also brought new technology and metal implements to cook with like iron pots and cooking ranges.
With these new arrivals being mostly British citizens, they brought with them their cooking methods and recipes for foodstuffs like bread, boiled meats, cheese and cakes.
Once New Zealand was colonized the traditional meals were of meat (boiled, roasted or pan-fried) and three types of vegetables, one of which was the ubiquitous potato.
This monotonous diet continued for many decades, with meat and three vegetables being the typical dinner meal for about one hundred years.
Recent migrants have had a big impact on the food culture and national identity of New Zealand
Migrants with diverse ethnic backgrounds arrived during the 1900s bringing various foods such as stir-fries and pasta.
In 2018, New Zealand’s population self-identified as:
- 70% European
- 16% Māori
- 8% Pacific Peoples
- 15% Asian
27% of the total population had been born outside New Zealand.
New Zealand’s Unique Food Culture Today
Globalization and the continued arrival of migrants to New Zealand from many parts of the world have transformed New Zealand’s food culture.
With a growing diverse population and the ability to easily import international ingredients, New Zealand supermarkets and specialty stores now sell a diverse range of products.
Finally, New Zealand food producers are innovative and have become experts at turning our beautiful agricultural products into new options for home cooks.
Fun fact When I was a child in the 1960s, my mother attended an international cooking class where she learned to cook things like chili con carne and spaghetti bolognese. My best friend loved staying over at our house. She told me the best thing about our house was the dinners, being a complete change from her mothers’ bland dinners of “meat and three veg”!
New Zealand today has a reputation for diverse, innovative, delicious and healthy food options.
New Zealand grows enough food to feed 40 million people, despite only having a population of 5 million. Much of our food production is exported across the world.
You can buy New Zealand lamb in London and cheese and baby formula in China. Japan is a popular recipient of our seafood, flown out by plane while still alive to maintain its freshness.
Fortunately, New Zealand doesn’t have as many highly processed food ingredients that exist elsewhere.
- High-fructose corn syrup is an uncommon ingredient in food manufacturing.
- You can easily buy yogurt that is free from added sugar.
- Beef, lamb and milk are grown from grass-fed animals.
Easy access to natural ingredients encourages local manufacturers to use the best of what New Zealand has to offer.
However, like many other countries, New Zealanders also love fast food. (Most popular are McDonalds, Dominos Pizza and KFC.)
We also have many independent fast-food restaurants selling Thai, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican and Middle Eastern kebabs.
And then there are the long-standing Kiwi favorites, fish’n’chips and meat pies.
Unique New Zealand endemic ingredients
There are ingredients that are endemic to New Zealand made with items you will only find on the land or in the sea.
This highly-prized honey contains very high medicinal properties that make it antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich.
Mānuka honey is made by bees from the flowers of the mānuka scrub that is native to New Zealand and parts of Australia.
Mānuka honey is used medicinally for skin conditions such as eczema and other infections and sore throats. It is also delicious. The best honey in the world!
Here are more interesting facts about New Zealand and Australia.
This sweet potato came to New Zealand with the Māori from across the Pacific Ocean.
Kūmara’s starchy, sweet tuberous roots are now available in three colors, red, yellow and orange.
It is high in fiber, protein, vitamin A and antioxidant content.
Horopito (bush pepper)
A peppery/hot ingredient also a remedy for skin issues, toothaches, and stomach ailments.
A shrub with highly effective medicinal properties used to treat cuts, wounds, stomach and rheumatic pain, skin disorders, toothache.
A seaweed that is often dried and added to recipes. It has a high nutritional value, is up to 30% protein, and is rich in vitamins and iodine.
Black foot abalone is the largest of the species and only found in New Zealand waters. The sweet flesh is black.
The New Zealand crayfish is similar to lobster, but they lack the big claws and have one less pair of legs. They are a prized delicacy.
This endemic sea urchin is traditional Māori food. The jewel inside the spiny shell is the roe, often eaten raw.
Bluff Oysters, which are large and succulent, are a commonly agreed favorite, followed by the smaller Pacific Oyster.
Whitebait are the tiny fish that enter our river mouths in the spring as they make their way upstream to grow into adult fish. Enthusiastic individuals will spend hours watching their nets, hoping for the right tide and weather conditions for a run of tiny whitebait about 1 to 2 inches long. Once caught in the nets, they are usually served whole in a fritter made of egg and a tablespoon of flour.
A light sponge or butter cake is baked, then cut into cubes, dipped in either strawberry or chocolate icing and rolled in desiccated coconut. The thin icing is absorbed into the outside of the sponge cake and left to set, giving the cake a distinctive texture. (This specialty is popular in both New Zealand and Australia who both claim its origin.)
Hokey pokey ice cream
This popular treat is made by adding broken-up honeycomb crumbs into creamy vanilla ice cream.
Does New Zealand have a national dish?
New Zealand is a young country. No humans were living on these remote islands until the 1400s when the Māori arrived, followed by the European settlers from the 1800s.
This means we don’t have an ancient food culture like many other nations.
Italians have pizza and pasta, the Japanese love seaweed as a core ingredient, and the United States celebrates with turkey.
But as I’ve shown, New Zealand has several ironic foods and unique food creations and recipes.
As a young country with a strong foundation of māori culture and British settlement, followed by immigrant groups from across the globe, New Zealand is open to trying new cuisine and recipes.
However, there is no one national dish of New Zealand.
New Zealand does have a famous food, the meat pie
These single-serving pies wrapped in flakey pastry traditionally contain a minced or stewed beef filling.
Pies are ubiquitous and available from cafes, restaurants, small grocery stores and gas stations.
Designed to be held in one hand and eaten from the brown paper bag, a popular favorite is the mince and cheese pie.
The best pies have a crispy, light pastry and plenty of filling.
The variety of pies available is endless and now includes butter chicken, steak and mushroom, bacon and egg, venison,
Fun fact At the annual national competition, the Bakels New Zealand Supreme Pie Awards, more than 4000 entries from nearly 500 bakers were judged in the 2021 NZ Supreme Pie of the Year competition. (The winner was a recent Asian migrant, Sopheap Long, for her steak and cheese pie.)
Another all-time favorite is New Zealand ‘fish’n’chips’
Fish and chips are a New Zealand take from the UK chip shops, brought to the country by British migrants early in the 1900s.
Fish is battered and then deep-fried and served with potato chips. But you won’t find mushy peas and vinegar as standard condiments.
In New Zealand, a meal of fish and chips have a simple garnish of a lemon wedge and a squirt of tomato sauce.
While once fish’n’chips were parceled up in an actual newspaper- complete with yesterday’s news, today are packaged in plain newsprint paper – without the ink.
Fish and chips are a favorite, inexpensive family takeout food. For many years when they were the only takeaway food was available, a trip to the local fish’n’chip shop was typical on weekend evenings.
Common fish used are tarakihi, blue warehou, red cod, or shark species like dogfish. More expensive fish fillets, like blue cod, are often available at a premium price.
New Zealand grows delicious lamb, much of it exported and enjoyed worldwide.
However, most New Zealand families would not eat lamb every week. It is expensive.
But cooked as a roast and served with new potatoes and peas, it is often a Christmas favorite.
Fun Fact The best blue cod fish and chips I’ve ever tasted come from the ‘Kai Kart’ in Oban on Stewart Island/Rakiura in the far south, off the South Island. (Kai is the Māori word for food!)
Here’s what Kiwis cook on a New Zealand BBQ (barbecue).
Is food expensive in New Zealand?
Consumers in New Zealand agree that New Zealand food is expensive.
A recent government investigation confirms this situation.
As mentioned previously, New Zealand is a prominent exporter of food to all parts of the world, with the dairy industry accounting for 30% of all New Zealand exports.
Despite this surplus of food production, New Zealanders pay high prices for groceries.
We pay the same price as a buyer in the USA or the United Kingdom.
The value paid by overseas customers sets the price in New Zealand. A good example is cheese and butter.
Most of New Zealand’s milk production is exported, and in 2021, international milk prices at an all-time high.
With no concessions made for New Zealand consumers, the price paid goes up to match the international price.
New Zealand is a small country with limited price competition domestically.
The lack of competition among supermarkets magnifies food prices.
There are only two major supermarket brands for 5 million people, which is an ongoing issue of debate.
Another factor is that the population of 5 million live on two long, narrow islands (the North Island/Te Ikaroa-a-Māui and the South Island/Te Wai Pounamu) which means the cost of distribution is high and impacts the price of food.
Lastly, unlike many farmers in the United States and Europe, New Zealand food producers do not receive any agricultural subsidies. Everyone operates in a free market.
The upside of this is that New Zealand producers have learned to be very innovative with growing and creating food products.
New Zealand farmers are good at what they do, and food manufacturers turn those products into tasty items for domestic and international markets.
However, this again means that New Zealander households pay high prices for core grocery items such as milk and meat.
The cost of takeaway and restaurant food is also high, but this doesn’t stop New Zealand households from spending more than a quarter of their food budget on restaurants and ready-to-eat meals, including burgers and takeout coffee.
New Zealanders enjoy great food but pay a high price for the privilege.
Is vegetarian and vegan food available in New Zealand?
Choices for vegetarian and vegan food in New Zealand are increasingly easily available and diverse.
The New Zealand population is becoming more and more aware of the cost to the environment of producing meat and milk, and switching to more sustainable food products as a result.
Fun Fact Cows are significant polluters, causing consumers to be concerned about the: - high volumes of water used for beef and milk production - effect of intensive farming on the environment including the rise of nitrates in our waterways - volume of methane gas produced by cows while digesting their food
The growth of environmental concerns is driving more vegetarian and vegan options.
There is now a whole section at my supermarket given over to vegan and vegetarian products.
Vegetarian products include a growing number of tofu and plant-based meat replacements.
Also, New Zealand has a migrant population from South East Asia that includes a higher percentage of vegetarians.
Most New Zealand restaurants will offer at least one vegetarian option on their menu, and many specialty restaurants now sell only vegan and vegetarian dishes.
Another driver for the move to more vegetarian options is the increasing number of New Zealanders who wish to be more healthy by reducing the consumption of saturated fats.
Beef and cheese are high in saturated fats, while tofu and plant-based milk are low.
Lastly, an increasing level of food sensitivities in the population also drives the availability of substitute items like plant-based milk.
New Zealanders love their food and are proud of what they produce. Please do come for a visit and find out for yourself.