New Zealand has few indigenous plants considered vegetables. Examples are pūhā (sowthistle) and an acidic form of spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides). Māori traditionally consumed parts of native plants such as fern roots and cabbage tree hearts as vegetables, and introduced the kūmara (sweet potato), yam, gourd and taro.
One of the early and most widely grown potato introductions was a long, thin purple/black variety. Māori called this potato ‘urenika’ – a black man’s penis – after the African-American sailors on board whaling ships.
English and French explorers introduced the South American potato to New Zealand in the 18th century. It was much easier to grow than the kūmara, which also hailed from South America, and it revolutionised Māori agriculture. A new kind of kūmara introduced in the 1850s also grew better than the tropical variety. In the 1830s Māori plantations of potatoes and wheat kept the early European settlers well supplied.
Maize was also avidly adopted by Māori. The process of soaking and fermenting the cobs (kaanga pirau – ‘rotten corn’) began as a food-preservation measure during the periods of protracted intertribal warfare in the early 19th century. Later generations who could get past the rotten smell developed a taste for it, which some Māori retain in the 2000s.
Traditional British vegetables
New Zealand Company settlers began the tradition of home vegetable gardening on the New Zealand quarter-acre section. They set about reproducing the familiar vegetable flavours of Britain: cabbage, carrots, onions, cauliflower, beetroot, peas, and broad and green beans. Also known, but not widely grown in the 19th century, were celery, lettuce, cucumber, radish and asparagus.
Sweet, salty and packed with acetic acid, tomato sauce contrasts dramatically with the generally bland foods favoured by conservative New Zealand eaters. Tomato sauce was one of many bottled sauces, such as HP and Worcestershire, brought to New Zealand by British settlers. By the 1900s several companies were making tomato sauce, and Wattie’s began production in 1934. However, it was the introduction of continuous production technology in the 1970s that turned tomato sauce into a mass-produced product.
Three vegetables now associated with typical New Zealand cuisine – silverbeet, brussels sprouts and tomatoes – were grown in the 19th century but were not widespread until the 20th. The tomato only became popular around 1920; brussels sprouts from the 1930s; silverbeet only became common during the 1940s.
The advent of new technology meant some existing vegetables were stored or prepared differently. For example frozen peas were more likely to be eaten than fresh ones once freezers appeared in homes from the 1950s.
Mediterranean vegetables such as eggplants and capsicums were first grown commercially in the 1960s. Broccoli and zucchini found favour in the 1970s and have been widely eaten since. In 1982 a cancelled export order resulted in a flood of cheap asparagus on the New Zealand domestic market, and from then on this previously expensive vegetable became accessible to and much loved by consumers.
Until the 1960s garlic was shunned by most New Zealanders because of its strong smell. It was mainly eaten by Greek and Italian immigrants. As more New Zealanders travelled overseas and new ethnic restaurants opened, garlic was increasingly accepted as a way of giving food extra flavour.
In 1983 Wairarapa-grown witloof (Belgian endive) reached the plates of fashionable restaurants, but the real revolution in vegetables began in the 1990s, when a host of European and Asian vegetables and herbs were introduced.
Significant vegetable introductions of the 1990s were celeriac, globe artichokes, daikon radish and bok choy, all of which appeared on fashionable restaurant menus of the time. Fresh herbs such as basil and mint appeared in supermarkets, while in the freezers of the fast-expanding Asian food stores chefs discovered (and popularised) lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. With the environmental awareness of the new millennium came a minor revival of home vegetable gardening in suburban New Zealand.