After New Zealand was settled by Europeans in the early 19th century, the dominant food culture was British in origin – meat-based meals accompanied by vegetables. Traditional Māori foods were not much eaten by Europeans, though kererū (native wood pigeon) and kākā (a native parrot) were seen hanging in butchers’ shops in the early years, and people trapped and ate weka (a flightless rail).
Food-supply data is used to measure food consumption in New Zealand. For food produced domestically, the amount exported and the amount processed for non-human uses is subtracted from the total amount produced. For imported food, non-human uses are also subtracted. This doesn’t take account of wastage between the farm gate and the home, but it does give an indication of the changes in foods eaten over time. Since 1977 nutrition surveys have measured how much people participating in the surveys ate – these also give a good indication of how the population at large eats.
While non-British immigrants to New Zealand brought their own foods with them, it wasn’t until the 1960s that New Zealand’s cuisine started to diversify beyond the ‘meat and three veg’ tradition to embrace other food cultures, such as those from Mediterranean and Asian countries.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly on farms, meat was eaten three times a day – bacon, chops or offal for breakfast, sausages or cold meat for lunch, and roasts or stews for dinner. Since the 1960s New Zealanders have tended to restrict their meat eating to once a day. By 1982, when a nationwide survey was done, the traditional Sunday midday roast was virtually a thing of the past.
Over the 20th century consumption of sheep, beef and poultry gradually declined – from 130 kilograms per person a year in the 1930s to around 91 kilograms in the early 2000s. The drop in meat consumption is associated with growing knowledge about the role of saturated fats and cholesterol in heart disease and a growing interest in vegetarian meals. Increased trimming of fat from red meat cuts since the early 1990s has reduced the amount of fat consumed by meat eaters.
The amount of meat consumed by 19th-century New Zealanders was remarkable compared to consumption patterns in the United Kingdom. Mr Cooper of Scotland, a visitor to New Zealand in 1897, was reported as saying that New Zealand hotels served too much meat and that it was his ‘firm belief that New Zealanders eat more meat and drink more tea than any other people in the world.’1
Although New Zealanders have long thought of themselves as sheep-meat eaters, more beef has always been eaten. Until the 1960s more hogget (one- to two-year-old sheep) and mutton (older sheep) was eaten than lamb (less than one year old). Lamb became more popular in the 1970s. In 2001 each person ate an average of 27.1 kilograms of beef, 9.7 kilograms of lamb and 6.9 kilograms of mutton.
In New Zealand, unlike Britain, pork was considered a special-occasion meat, especially after the price began to rise in the 1950s. Dairy farmers no longer kept pigs in order to feed them excess skim milk, as this was sent off to dairy factories to make milk powder. Bacon and sausages were cheaper forms of pig meat. When pigs began to be farmed commercially pork became more affordable. In 2011 each person ate an average of 20.6 kilograms of pig meat.
While clearly of British origin, the individual meat pie has a special place in both Australian and New Zealand cuisine. The meat pie is seen everywhere in New Zealand, not just at bakeries but also in cafés, corner dairies (convenience stores) and service stations. 66 million of them were sold in 2019 – 14 for every Kiwi. While the meat pie is still evolving – variations such as butter chicken and chicken satay are now common – there are regional variations that go far back into New Zealand’s colonial past. One example is the mutton pie, which has long existed in Dunedin and throughout Southland.
Chicken was formerly a special-occasion meat, and before the 1950s most chickens for sale were either cockerels or hens whose egg-laying days were over. With the advent of mass barn-raised broiler chickens in 1960 production rose dramatically, from 8,000 tonnes in 1962 to over 40,000 tonnes by the mid-1980s. Chicken became increasingly affordable due to selective breeding – by 2008 chickens could be grown to maturity in half the time it had taken 25 years earlier, using half the amount of feed. In 2007 each person ate an average of 36.5 kilograms of chicken, making it the most popular meat.
Since deer farming was legalised in 1970 farmed venison has entered the diet of non-hunting families, but it remained expensive and was mainly eaten in restaurants. Goat, possum and rabbit were seldom eaten in the 2000s, though rabbit was a common cheap meat until the 1950s – the sale of rabbit meat was banned in 1956 for pest-control reasons.
Vegetarians can feel conspicuous in New Zealand, where the economy depends on animal products. In 1882 the Star newspaper said of H. Satchell, the chairman of the Canterbury Dietetic Reform Association, ‘who but a man of pluck and energy could possibly have taken the chair at such a meeting in this meat-raising, meat-devouring community.’2
Vegetarians eat plant-based foods and refrain from eating meat and seafood, while vegans do not eat any animal products, including dairy foods. A very small number of 19th-century settlers were vegetarians and the Canterbury Dietetic Reform Association (founded in 1882) promoted a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarianism became more popular in the 20th century. The New Zealand Vegetarian Society was formed in 1943 and vegetarian recipes appeared more often in cookbooks from the 1960s. However, vegetarianism has remained a minority diet. Around 1–2% of New Zealanders were vegetarian in the early 2000s, though more would have regularly eaten vegetarian dishes alongside meat ones.
Māori have always had a great passion for fish and seafood, which was a major part of their traditional diet. Pākehā have only come around to celebrating it relatively recently.
Throughout the 19th century and for most of the 20th there was a lingering attitude, inherited from Britain, that fish was the food of the poor and was to be avoided by those who came out to the colonies for a better life. Such aspirations were generally fulfilled in that most New Zealanders could afford to eat large quantities of beef and lamb. However, fish was still eaten.
According to official estimates, annual fish consumption was around 10 kilograms per person in the 1930s, probably mainly in the form of fish and chips. Consumption declined to only 2 kilograms in the early 1970s. It is possible that official figures were significantly under-estimated – figures compiled by the seafood industry gave 10 kilograms per head in the 1970s.
The New Zealand Fishing Industry Board was established in 1971 with the express purpose of encouraging New Zealanders not only to eat more fish, but to eat a greater variety of species that had come on to the market. According to official estimates, per-head consumption then rose to 10–20 kilograms in the 1980s, and reached 27 kilograms in the early 2000s.
Oyster picnics were popular on the shores of the Hauraki Gulf in the 19th century. Eliza Jones harvested oysters from a bed very close to her garden. She wrote: ‘As we were both very fond of [oysters], Humphrey [her brother] soon procured the proper knives for opening them. We often used to go down to the rocks to feast on oysters, taking with us a supply of bread and butter with vinegar and pepper.’1
Since the 1950s consumption of fish has broadened from fewer than 10 of the 90–100 edible species, to some 20–30 species. There has been a marked change in attitude towards certain species. Hāpuku (groper) and blue cod were seen as undesirable species for eating in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but were both prized by the 1980s.
Crayfish has seen a similar rise in status. Until the late 1940s crayfish were ignored by most Pākehā. Since they were sold ready-boiled, crayfish were even despised as the food of drunkards who were too slovenly to cook. After crayfish tails began to be exported to North America in the 1950s, they rapidly became a luxury food.
Oysters have always had general appeal to Māori and Pākehā alike, but mussels only gained in status when they were farmed commercially in the 1970s. Pāua (abalone) gained acceptability among Pākehā after 1960, when they became commercially available and sold in fish-and-chip shops as patties.
In the 1980s Topo Gigio restaurant in Auckland sold broad squid grilled whole, rather than cut into rings and deep-fried. New Zealanders were not used to this method of cooking and serving squid. One diner sent her squid back to the kitchen, saying it wasn’t what she had ordered. When she was told that it was a whole squid, she said she thought squid were small rings that drifted around the sea.
Squid attracted New Zealanders’ interest after Japanese boats began offshore fishing in 1969, and by the 1980s squid rings were common in restaurants. Kina (sea urchins), tuatua and pipi (both shellfish) are still collected mainly by Māori, although commercially harvested little-neck clams (cockles) are now sold in some supermarkets.
The dairy industry was slow to develop in New Zealand, despite the introduction of dairy cattle by the missionary Samuel Marsden as early as 1814. Milking cows, usually very expensive, were found mainly in coastal areas. Before the first major growth spurt of the dairy industry in the late 19th century, much fresh milk was bartered with storekeepers for other household necessities. Until the advent of refrigeration in 1882 most dairy products were locally consumed; by the early 2000s 95% was exported.
New Zealanders have long been among the world’s highest consumers of dairy products, particularly butter. Butter consumption rose steadily in the 20th century, from a pre-1920 estimate of 9–10 kilograms per person per year to a peak of 19.5 kilograms in the late 1960s. Since then it has fallen dramatically, to 13 kilograms in 1980 and a little under 6 kilograms in the early 2000s. The availability of table margarine from 1972 has affected butter consumption.
Before 1920 there was a low consumption of milk. Milk drinking reached a peak of almost 190 litres per person each year from 1940 until the 1960s. This was associated with the change to pasteurised (heat-treated) milk in the 1940s, which made milk safer to drink. Annual consumption declined to 155 litres per person in the early 1980s.
Early 19th-century Pākehā settlers without a dairy cow had to look for alternatives. Some collected the milky liquid that was exuded from the tūrepo, which also came to be known as the milk tree.
Before 1930 each New Zealander ate less than 2 kilograms of cheese each year. Consumption rose after the Second World War to reach around 5 kilograms by the mid-1970s and 10 kilograms in the late 1980s. Consumption then steadily dropped to hover around 3.5 kilograms in the early 2000s.
Until the 1950s cheddar was virtually the only cheese produced in New Zealand, and while some soft cheeses were introduced in the early 1900s, demand for these was small. When the New Zealand Co-Operative Rennet Company in Taranaki began pilot production of new cheeses, the range expanded. Blue vein was the first in 1951, and was followed by gruyere and danbo in 1960, feta in 1961, romano in 1964, parmesan in 1965, gouda in 1966 and edam in 1976.
Much of the increased interest in and consumption of cheese in the 1980s accompanied the rise of independent craft cheese makers. The pioneers were Kapiti, Evansdale Cheese, Karikaas, Meyer Gouda Cheese and Mahoe Farmhouse Cheese.
Ice cream was eaten in the 19th century but grew in popularity in the 1940s. This was due to demand from American servicemen stationed in New Zealand between 1942 and 1944, and the increasing presence of freezers in homes. By the 1970s New Zealanders ate 18 litres of ice cream per person each year and this increased to 22 litres in the early 2000s. Government regulations for yogurt production were first issued in 1951, but it was not much eaten until around the 1970s.
There are no indigenous cereal foods in New Zealand. All were brought to New Zealand by European settlers in the 19th century.
In 2012 New Zealand cereal company Sanitarium ordered Nelson shopkeeper Bob Wren to remove boxes of the British cereal Weetabix – the equivalent of New Zealand’s Weet-Bix – because it breached trademark-related restrictions. According to Sanitarium, Weetabix could not be sold in New Zealand, and Weet-Bix could not be sold in Britain. Wren, whose store specialises in British goods, refused to remove Weetabix from his shelves. He sold out of Weetabix due to all the publicity – even New Zealanders came into the store to buy it – and continued to stock it.
Wheat has always been the most important cereal in New Zealand, followed by oats.
By 1880 New Zealand grew enough wheat for its own needs and even to export, but since the 1900s has mainly imported wheat from Canada and Australia. Since the 1930s domestic use of flour, which is produced from wheat, declined considerably, while its use in commercial biscuit manufacturing gradually increased.
Traditionally, New Zealanders mainly ate white bread – in the 1930s it accounted for 60–80% of consumption, and only 6% of the population ate brown bread.
Brown bread was traditionally unpopular because it carried with it historical associations of poverty. In Europe the wealthier classes had long eaten fine white bread and those lower down the pecking order had to be content with rougher brown bread. A baker who gave evidence before the Cost of Living Commission in 1912 said ‘the demand was for white bread – the whiter the better.’1
Brown and wholemeal bread gained greater acceptance with the arrival of Dutch, Swiss, Scandinavian and German immigrants after 1950. Dutch immigrant Johan Klisser began making what is now known as Vogel’s bread in Auckland in 1956. Wholemeal bread became more popular as consumers grew more aware of the benefits of dietary fibre.
Oat consumption, mainly as porridge for breakfast, was high throughout the 19th century. It declined between the 1920s and 1940s as wheat-based proprietary brands of cereal such as Weet-Bix took over. In the 1970s oats became more popular again – this was associated with the rise of health foods and the burgeoning popularity of muesli.
Rice has always been imported. Consumption declined steadily from 3–4 kilograms per person in the 1900s to 1 kilogram by 1960. Since then it has risen, with long-grain rice replacing short-grain rice. In the 1990s arborio risotto rice from Italy and Australia, glutinous rice from Japan, and quality basmati from India and Pakistan became available. New Zealanders’ tastes have moved from milk-based rice puddings to savoury uses.
Pasta never featured highly in the diet of 19th-century New Zealanders. In the 20th century imports grew from 50 tonnes in 1900 to 400 tonnes in 1935, by which time the Diamond pasta factory had opened in Timaru. Also in the 1930s, the Nelson firm of S. Kirkpatrick and Company began manufacturing tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce.
Interest in pasta grew in the 1950s, and was significant enough for Edmonds, a New Zealand baking-supplies company, to issue a pasta cookbook in 1964. Growth in the number of Italian restaurants further fuelled pasta consumption.
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.
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.
Wild berries from indigenous trees such as the hīnau and karaka were the only fruits available to Māori communities before Europeans arrived. European settlers brought a wide variety of fruits with them, two-thirds of which had been introduced to Europe from other parts of the world. Commonly grown early fruit plants include apple, pear, plum and peach.
While kiwifruit plants were sold more widely from the 1920s, they remained unusual for a time. In 1932 Auckland nurseryman Hayward Wright said: ‘Most people are puzzled how to eat a Chinese gooseberry [the old name for kiwifruit] … It is no use picking them when they are green. They must turn thoroughly brown first. Then, when they look as though they are ready to drop off, you pick them, rub away the fur, peel them … and there you have one of the most delicious and appetising fruits you could possibly imagine.’1
In the early 20th century several significant introductions took place. The kiwifruit was introduced from China in 1904, followed by the feijoa from South America (via Australia) in 1908 and the avocado from Central America (via California) in 1919. Other directly introduced fruits include the nashi pear and mandarin.
Apple orcharding thrived in New Zealand until competition from China and South America cut into exports. In the early 2000s there have been significant orchard uprootings in Nelson. Nevertheless, apples remain popular and cheap. The three most popular varieties – Braeburn, Gala and the Pacific Rose series – were bred in New Zealand.
Most apples eaten in New Zealand are locally grown, as are pears. Most navel oranges and Meyer lemons grown in New Zealand are for local consumption.
Before the 1950s New Zealanders did not eat much raw fruit, and then mainly during the summer and autumn fruit seasons. Pre-1950s cookbooks contained many recipes for cooked fruits in puddings and pies. Later, fruit was increasingly eaten raw, as a snack or part of a prepared dish. Fruit juice, particularly apple, became more widely available in the 1960s. Fruit was also often added to ice cream.
Apples have tended to be the most popular fruit eaten, followed by bananas and oranges. Overall fruit consumption has risen steadily, as more fruit varieties were introduced and the health benefits of fruit were increasingly recognised.
Bailey, Ray, and Mary Earle. Home cooking to takeaways: changes in food consumption in New Zealand during 1880–1990. Palmerston North: Department of Food Technology, Massey University, 1993.
Burton, David. David Burton’s New Zealand food and cookery. Auckland: David Bateman, 2009.
Simpson, Tony. A distant feast: the origins of New Zealand’s cuisine. Auckland: Godwit, 2008.