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by  Maggy Wassilieff

There might be plenty of fish in the sea, but New Zealanders have not always been keen to eat them. Māori were accomplished fishermen, but the first British settlers preferred canned fish from home, or red meat. However, tastes are changing, and now a wide variety of seafood is enjoyed, from fish and chips to sashimi.

Early Māori and settler diets

Gifts of the sea

Because New Zealand has the fourth largest fishing zone in the world, it has access to a great variety of seafood. It is therefore surprising that the average New Zealander consumes so little of it. This was not the case in pre-European times, when seafood was a major component of the Māori diet. Māori were accomplished fishermen, using nets and traps as well as hooked lines to catch fish.

Early Māori diet

By analysing fish bones at different coastal sites, archaeologists have found that one or two fish dominated the catches over a long period. In the North Island, snapper was the main catch; barracouta and red cod were the major species caught in the South Island.

Seashells and crayfish were also harvested. The kinds and quantities eaten varied according to location, although cockles feature prominently in middens (ancient rubbish sites) near estuaries throughout New Zealand. Other common species consumed included pāua (abalone), pipi, tuatua, titiko (mud snails), mussels, limpets and cat’s eyes.

Fresh seafood was usually cooked by laying the flesh on heated rocks. Shellfish were often eaten raw. Māori preserved much of their seafood to eat later or trade. Fresh fish and shellfish meat was hung on poles to dry in the sun, or baked first before hanging.

Dog tucker

In the days before dog roll and beef bones, New Zealand must have presented a challenge to the hungry kurī (Māori dog). Polynesian rats and forest birds may have been a source of protein, but kurī would have competed with their masters for these foods. Kurī coprolites (fossilised faeces) provide an answer – they are full of fish bones.

Settler diet

Māori supplied the first European settlers with fresh and dried fish. But the newcomers showed little interest in the 30 or so species of native fish that were offered. In the 19th century the British were importing their familiar seafoods – salted and kippered herrings, and later, canned fish. Because red meats such as mutton and beef were cheap, widely available, and kept better than fresh fish, they became the preferred source of protein.

The only shellfish the European settlers sampled were oysters and toheroa, a surf clam that was processed into a green soup and sold in cans. Other shellfish and crustaceans such as crabs and crayfish were of no interest. They may have been associated with poverty. Many Irish and Scots carried memories of foods eaten in harsh times – wild fare that had sustained them and their parents during the great potato famine, and which they were reluctant to eat again.

Early 20th-century diet

Surveys of the New Zealand diet in 1926 and 1937 revealed that only small amounts of fish were eaten. Māori ate more seafood than Pākehā; their consumption of 20 kilograms per person in 1941 was nearly three times the national average. As Pākehā became familiar with the taste of New Zealand fish, they showed a preference for firm, white-fleshed species such as snapper, tarakihi, flounder and sole. Their cooking methods were not imaginative; they either baked the fish whole, or battered and fried fillets. Small amounts of canned fish (imported salmon and sardines) were also eaten.

Favourite Kiwi fare

Fish and chips

It is uncertain when the first fish-and-chip shop opened in New Zealand, but according to food historian Tony Simpson, it was long before the First World War. The northern England working-class meal of deep-fried battered fish and potato chips has been a firm favourite of New Zealanders. Friday night was fish and chips night for many, especially Catholics who, until 1965, were prohibited from eating meat on Fridays.

At first, snapper was the preferred species for battered fillets in the North Island, but as catches for this fish declined, it was replaced by hoki, shark (marketed as lemon fish), and tarakihi. Gurnard and blue cod predominate in South Island fish and chips.

Although other convenience foods such as hamburgers, pizzas and chicken meals have become commonplace in New Zealand since 1980, they have not ousted fish and chips as the nation’s preferred takeaway.

Political takeouts

Labour MPs Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett, Mike Moore and David Lange were proponents of new-right economics and instrumental in the overthrow of their leader, Bill Rowling. Photographed together sharing a meal of fish and chips one night in 1980, they became known as the Fish and Chip Brigade.


New Zealand whitebait are the juvenile form of five species of Galaxias fish. After spending their first five or six months of life at sea, they migrate into estuaries in early spring. This is the time when whitebaiters set their nets. The tiny fish are eaten whole – head, guts and all – usually in a fritter. A delicate touch is required when cooking whitebait. Some cooks decry the addition of flour or egg yolks, and just coat the little bodies in whipped egg white before dropping them onto a pan of sizzling butter. Within 60 seconds they turn milky white and are ready to eat.


Crayfish are large rock lobsters, found in New Zealand’s rocky reefs to a depth of 275 metres. Usually bought live or caught fresh from the sea, they need to be cooked carefully to keep the meat succulent.

Undersized crays

Two blokes named Jim and Fred are walking up the beach with a couple of live crayfish in a bucket when they are stopped by a Ministry of Fisheries inspector. He suggests that the crays are undersized. Jim replies, ‘Nah, bro, these are my pet crayfish. I just bring them down to the beach each day for a swim. When I whistle they hop back in the bucket and I take them home.’ The officer doesn't believe him, so Fred says, ‘Nah, bro, just watch.’ Jim chucks the crayfish into the surf. The officer says: ‘Okay, let’s see ya whistle and make those crayfish come back to you.’ Jim says: ‘What crayfish?’ 1


The ancient Greeks enjoyed sea eggs, and kina, as they are known in New Zealand, are also a delicacy of Māori. The edible interior of a mature animal consists of five swollen sex organs. Raw, or lightly fried, they have a creamy, tangy flavour.


The fact that a khaki-green clam soup could inspire a cult following seems extraordinary, but such was the case with toheroa soup. Early last century, three canning factories processed the large endemic shellfish into soup or toheroa ‘tongues’. But demand for the product quickly outstripped supply. The last factory closed in 1969 and toheroa harvesting has been prohibited since 1993.

Some cooks advise that smaller shellfish such as pipi and tuatua can be substituted for toheroa in soup, although they do not impart the distinctive green colour. This colour results from the copious volume of plankton in the toheroa gut.


Oysters have always been revered by New Zealanders. In the latter part of the 19th century oyster saloons sprang up in the larger towns. Two native species – the large Bluff or dredge oyster and the small rock oyster – have been commercially harvested since the 1860s. Pacific oysters arrived in New Zealand waters some time between 1950 and 1970, and are now farmed. Bluff oysters are harvested from Foveaux Strait in winter and freighted around the country. Pacific oysters are available fresh all year round, although their texture varies with the season.

Oysters are eaten raw or cooked. Gourmands describe the taste of raw Bluff oysters as salty and metallic, and Pacific oysters as having a fruity cucumber flavour. The native rock oyster is said to be the sweetest of the three. To the uncultured palate, a raw oyster tastes of salty slime.


New Zealand’s pāua (blackfoot abalone) is a meaty shellfish which resembles a giant limpet. Pākehā eat only the foot meat and discard the stomach bag, but some Māori relish this portion, along with its sex organs. Fresh pāua meat is a strong muscle which will toughen if overcooked. It can be tenderised by beating or by marinating with crushed kiwifruit. Tender pāua steaks fry in one or two minutes. Long-dead pāua are fit only for mincing into patties or soup.

    • Adapted from Ana Samways, ‘The best of Sideswipe’, The New Zealand Herald, (last accessed 5 April 2005). › Back

New flavours, old habits

If New Zealanders were slow to appreciate the variety and quality of seafood available to them, others were not. Japanese fishing boats arrived in New Zealand waters in the 1950s and were followed by Russian, Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese vessels. They fished for arrow squid, hoki, mackerel, southern blue whiting, hake and barracouta – species unfamiliar to most New Zealanders.

Deep-water fish

Deep-water fishing developed in the 1980s and is now the mainstay of the nation’s seafood industry. Orange roughy and hoki are the main catch. Orange roughy fillets commanded top prices in 2004, about $20–25 per kilogram in central Wellington. Hoki is a low-value species, selling for only $6–10. Hoki has a delicate flesh that quickly turns to mush if roughly handled. In the 1980s most hoki reached the retail market as a minced product such as surimi block, which could be fashioned into fish cakes or crab sticks. In the 1990s it became possible to fillet and freeze hoki within two hours of it being landed. Since then, it has mostly been sold as fillets or battered and breaded fish meals.

Slimehead revisited

Orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) is a delicately flavoured oil-rich fish that was originally despised by fishermen, who named it ‘slimehead’. The Japanese were more explicit, dubbing it ‘diarrhoea fish’ and refusing to eat it. When it was discovered that the fish could be made edible by removing a waxy layer beneath the skin, it became a desired species. Marketing gurus introduced it to the world as orange roughy. Catches boomed in the 1980s, but research showed that the fish was slow growing and too many had been taken. In the 2000s orange roughy had become relatively scarce.


New Zealand scallops became widely available in the 1980s. Commercial harvest is from enhanced wild stocks in Golden Bay and Tasman Bay, at the top of the South Island. Queen scallops come from waters at the southern end of the country. New Zealanders eat the entire animal, while Americans discard the orange sex organs and consume only the white muscle.

Farmed seafoods

Following the introduction of aquaculture (the farming of marine and freshwater fish and shellfish) in New Zealand waters in the 1980s, mussels, quinnat salmon and Pacific oysters soon became plentiful. The New Zealand Fishing Industry Board promoted seafoods new to the domestic market, using slogans such as ‘Fish for a compliment’, and producing recipe leaflets and cookbooks. The New Zealand Seafood Council continues this work, and since 1990 it has emphasised the health benefits of eating seafood.

Reluctant consumers

At the start of the 21st century, New Zealanders could choose from a wide range of high-quality seafood; however, they remain reluctant consumers. According to a 1997 National Nutrition Survey, each New Zealander ate only 8.7 kilograms of seafood that year. This was made up of fish (83%), shellfish and squid (11%), and crustaceans (crayfish, crabs, prawns – 6%).

Ethnic preference

Māori and Pacific Islanders in New Zealand continue to eat more seafood than Pākehā. About 25% of Pacific Islanders ate shellfish at least once a week in 1997, compared with 15% of Māori and only 3% of Pākehā and other groups. Pacific Islanders ate fish the most frequently.

Asian flavours

Twentieth-century immigrants from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and South-East Asia were happy to eat shellfish that had been ignored by other New Zealanders. Soon there were reports that Asians were plundering the coast of all edible species. There was evidence that some groups of Asians were involved in the illegal harvesting and export of crayfish and pāua. However, they were not the only black marketeers, and a range of people have been prosecuted, including Pākehā, Pacific Islanders and Māori.

Asian arrivals brought their cuisine with them and since 2000, Japanese sushi bars have sprung up in the major cities.

Best fish guide

Arising from their concerns about overfishing, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (who also monitor fisheries management) published a best fish guide in 2004. The guide listed 62 commercial fisheries, rating them according to their contribution to a healthy marine environment. Of the species of fish profiled, none were considered ecologically safe to catch and eat. Pilchards, blue moki, trevally and kahawai were the best options, and deep-water fish were to be avoided.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Seafood', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Maggy Wassilieff, i tāngia i te 12 Jun 2006