Historic Diet

Lamb dish

The historic diet in New Zealand only begins with the first people to have arrived to New Zealand. However, the Maori, the islands’ first inhabitants, didn’t arrive until about 1,300 AD and when they arrived they brought with them animals and plants that contributed to their diet prior to arriving and remained a part of their diet after their arrival. In this way the historic diet in New Zealand also coincides with the first culinary influence, that of the Maori, who are Polynesians.
Prior to the Maori arriving to New Zealand the islands were home to numerous plants and animals that could have been used for food and were by these latter settlers. These indigenous foods included plants, such as fernroot, but animals were a much larger source of food for the early settlers, including the moa, a flightless bird since hunted to extinction, the bugs like the huhu, grub, and sea animals like lobsters, crab, salmon, and tuna among others.

Culinary Influences

New Zealand Food – Kiwi

The Maori arrived with their own foods, which added to the already present foods on the islands of New Zealand. The Maori only brought with them a few plants and animals, but they were staples in their Polynesian diets prior to arrival and some continued as staples after their arrival. This included dogs and rats, which they ate as well as plants including a sweet potato called kumara and taro.

The Maori maintained many of their traditional Polynesian customs as they cooked their meats and other foods in large underground ovens called hangi. They also continued to eat many of the same foods as other Polynesians, such as taro and kumara while maintaining strict dietary restrictions required by their religion that stated religious people and places refrain from coming in contact with food other than when they ate. Today most of the Maori have converted to Christianity so this requirement is no longer followed.

The next great change to the cuisine of New Zealand came with the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1700s. The Europeans tried to maintain much of their historic diet from home as they attempted to re-create dishes, often substituting local ingredients where traditional ingredients were absent. Some of these traditional British dishes have survived such as fish and chips (French fries) among others.

Like the Maori, the Europeans also introduced many foods and animals, which have since become important in the local diet. This began with animals, including chickens, sheep, and cattle. Among the plants they brought were wheat, potatoes, and much later kiwi fruit among others, but these made the greatest impact. The Europeans also introduced alcohol, which the Maori didn’t have prior to this.
At about this same time the Americans also regularly arrived on the shores, particularly whalers, and these sailors brought foods from the Americas to New Zealand. Although the British introduced the potato (which originated in the Americas), the Americans brought different varieties of potatoes as well as other foods, including peppers, tomatoes, and corn.
The cuisine slowly changed and evolved over time until the 1800s when the technology from the Industrial Revolution reached the country’s shores and the way foods were prepared, stored, and transported vastly changed. Improved transportation and storage methods allowed greater importation of foreign foods as these new technologies also expanded the shelf life of foods.

In the late 1900s new culinary influences arrived from Europe, although these influences generally didn’t arrive with new immigrants so much as they did with curiosity and a desire for ethnic foods like Italian. The influences expanded beyond Italian food to include various ethnic foods from Europe as the cuisine expanded and fusion foods have become quite popular. Also during this time fast foods have become popular as have processed and manufactured foods.
In the 1980s immigration rose from Asia’s Far Eastern countries and these immigrants brought with them their foods as Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Malay foods have all become popular as restaurants. Today there is also a growing trend for local foods, organic foods, and fusion foods created by local restaurateurs.

When & Where to Eat

Breakfast, the first meal of the day in New Zealand varies greatly in foods served and location eaten. On many days people tend to just grab a cup of coffee and perhaps a pastry or bread of some kind. This is often picked up on the way to work or as a person is leaving their house for work. Others have more time for a larger meal at home or at a restaurant on weekends.

Lunch in New Zealand is generally taken from about noon to 1:00 or 1:30 pm and the food eaten greatly varies. For many working people this meal can be food from home, take out, or a quick service restaurant. It tends to be smaller than dinner, but usually larger than breakfast, but that also varies based on the individual.

The largest and most important meal in New Zealand is generally dinner, sometimes referred to simply as “tea.” This meal is usually eaten with family or friends and often takes place in the home, but on weekends it is becoming more common to eat this meal in a restaurant, and during busy weekday nights getting take out such as pizza, Chinese Food, or fish & chips is a regular occurrence for some people. This meal varies greatly in terms of foods served, but it tends to be the largest meal of the day.

Staple Foods

Bread: a common side dish with meals or a part of the meal

Dairy: dairy products, including cheeses and milk are very popular and found with many meals

Lamb: not truly a staple, but a very common meat that is the centerpiece of many dishes

Potatoes: the most common starch, cooked in numerous ways and using numerous types of potatoes

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Bacon and egg pie: simply eggs and bacon, along with other optional ingredients, served in a light pastry crust; usually served with ketchup

Boil-up: this traditional Maori dish consists of boiled pork, potatoes, kumara and dumplings

Meat pie: this quick service food consists of ground beef (minced meat), gravy, and any number of other ingredients enclosed in a pastry

Pavlova: this cake is made with meringue and considered an iconic food in New Zealand

Dining Etiquette

Dining in New Zealand is usually a very informal event, but at business meetings in formal restaurants the etiquette becomes a bit stricter; fortunately, the Kiwis are generally very forgiving. If dining in a local’s home be sure to bring a gift such as chocolate, flowers, or wine and try to dress a bit conservatively.

Let your host show you where to sit as they may have a set seating arrangement. If eating with the Maori in a village they will likely divide you and anyone traveling with you as often times they like having closer access to you as they may ask you many questions.

Once seated you may engage in conversation for some time prior to actually eating as this may begin with drinks, appetizers, or just conversation. Prior to eating or drinking wait for you host to indicate you may begin. Many times the first drink is offered with a simple toast of “cheers” or the like and when to begin eating vastly varies. Some people may tell you to begin right away, others will wait for everyone to have food, and the Maori almost always begin a meal with a prayer or blessing of the food.

As you eat try to dine in the continental style, which means the knife remains in your right hand and the fork stays in your left. Switching hands will probably only get you laughed at though, which is better than offending anyone. More importantly, keep your hands within sight at all times by resting your wrists on the edge of the table.

As the meal is ending indicate you are finished by placing your fork and knife together pointing at the 11:00 position. If dining in a restaurant the host or inviter is expected to pay for everyone in most cases, but for informal occasions the bill is usually split. If you are paying look on the bill for a “Goods and Service Tax” or “GST;” this is set at 12.5% and tipping in addition to this is not necessary nor is it expected. If dining with the Maori in a village you may notice that many people were helping cook and serve the food, be sure to publically thank them prior to leaving. Also be ready to sing a song from your home country as the Maori often greet each other in song and this tradition may be passed on to you no matter your ethnicity; if you can’t think of anything at least try singing as they will appreciate the gesture.

Celebrations & Events

When it comes to celebrations and special events one of the most popular desserts is pavlova, which is a cake with meringue and a fairly iconic food in New Zealand. Of course this cake can be found year round, but is almost always present at celebrations.


New Zealand has every popular international drink one can think of from juices and soft drinks to tea and coffee. Today there is a significant coffee culture in the country as this seems to be an excuse to get out and meet people. However, if you want to dive further into the Maori culture try kava, which is made from the kava plant’s roots, which are ground to release liquid, then water is added and the juice is drank.

New Zealand has a growing reputation for wines, although the industry is still small and growing. Among the most popular varietals are sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon. There are also numerous local breweries that are easily accessible throughout the country and of high quality, although most large international brands can also be found. Nearly any kind of liquor can also be found, but most of these are again imports.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in New Zealand, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.