There was a time, I am told, when New Zealand cuisine was ghastly. A good feed might be a big hunk of meat and two boiled vegetables, accompanied by a nice iceberg lettuce salad (topped with tomato wedges and hard-boiled eggs, and dressed with, shudder, condensed milk). Garlic was viewed with deep suspicion, and coffee unknown. Kiwi tucker was essentially British food, but with all its interesting diversity (toad-in-the-hole, spotted dick) stripped away by the rigours of the long sea voyage, emerging pale and weak on Southern shores.
Well, not any more. Kiwis are now food-mad. The indigenous snack food, the humble meat pie, has been transformed into dozens of gourmet variants. Chicken, asparagus and cashew; curry and rice; steak and Guinness; hunza and lentil; lamb’s liver and bacon. That last one I bought at the modest Lyttelton Farmer’s Market, where in the shade of a local primary school on a freezing July morning you can get fresh locally-grown shiitake, and artisanal baguettes as good as any I ate in Paris. How can this be? Well, most New Zealanders live next to farmland or the ocean or both, so there’s abundant fresh local produce. Nasty industrial farming hasn’t really arrived, so cattle eat grass all year round and butter and cheese are as yellow as God intended—no need for the orange annatto coloring you get in American cheese. Supermarkets haven’t driven local butchers to extinction. And there’s no California or Florida conveniently nearby, so you have to eat more seasonally.
One thing I knew I would miss when I left America was real Mexican food. There are no Mexicans at all in New Zealand, and you could put on a sombrero and a silly accent to sell corn chips on TV without anyone complaining. But Tex-Mex, which is what most Americans think Mexican food is, has certainly arrived. On Armagh St in sedate Christchurch you can buy a burrito that kicks the living crap out of anything I ate in 8 years in the USA. Hey, Cosmic Cantina, on Perry Street, Durham, NC, I’m talking to you. (For years I would tell Americans that Cosmic sold garbage in a wrapper, and they would look at me like I was nuts, until I seriously doubted my sanity. Well, I am vindicated, and they were wrong, wrong, wrong.) Yes, New Zealanders could teach Americans how to make a burrito—yet just ten years ago if you advertised a burrito on TV you had to explain to the viewers what it was.
On every travel show about New York, one’s invariably exhorted to sample a hot dog. A hot dog is rubbery mystery meat that’s been bobbing all day in a tank of warm water, stirred up occasionally by the vendor’s sweaty arm, and plopped on a gluey white bun. Now, folks will argue passionately about whether to dress the dog with sauerkraut or with mustard and ketchup (combining all three is apparently a mortal sin), and which are the best hot dogs (Nathan’s Kosher at Coney Island, apparently). But I’m afraid it scarcely matters, because hot dogs are intrinsically terrible. I realized this when I had a freshly-grilled, locally-made organic weisswurst on a crusty French roll with a dab of mustard at one of the two wurst stands at the Arts Centre market. The other stand’s wursts didn’t look as yummy, but they also sold their own whole salamis, speck, sausages, and a dozen other kinds of charcuterie, which made up for it I think.
New Zealand pizza makes all but the very best New York pizza look pretty sick, too. The fastest-growing chain is Hell Pizza, with a box that transforms into a little cardboard coffin for storing your “remains”. Oh, and you don’t tip the delivery guy. In fact, you don’t tip anyone in New Zealand (perhaps because they’re paid a decent wage), and sales tax is always invisibly included, and the bill is always a nice round number because the smallest coin is 10c, and you’re never expected to clear your own table, because that’s what the servers are paid to do. And when you order a cup of tea, you get a little teapot with leaves in it and a tiny jug of milk, not a styrofoam cup of hot water and a teabag. (OK, I’ll calm down now.)
Haven’t found real bagels yet, though.