defining our food identity

Food is a major part of what defines us as Kiwis but it doesn’t get the same attention as other New Zealand cultural icons such as the great outdoors, rugby or even Dave Dobbyn, writes Sarah Meikle.

Every single culture and religion uses food to define and mark celebrations and life moments – the celebratory nature of food is universal. Every season, every harvest and every holiday has its own food. The summer Christmas BBQ, Easter family lunch, birthday dinners and wedding breakfasts. All these occasions have one thing in common – they bond people together over food. And this has been the same throughout history in all cultures – the greatest sign of friendship and connection is to share a meal.

Food experiences are a connecter, a community-builder, a creator of shared experiences and memories. Food and hospitality are not just about sustenance, for many it’s actually about entertainment and learning, it’s about manaakitanga. Our hospitality is core to our culture and who we are.

When the first European settlers arrived, rather than being influenced by indigenous cuisine, they looked towards the motherland for culinary inspiration and so the Sunday roast, meat pies and battered fish and chips became pillars of what we define as iconic Kiwi food.

But New Zealand has not only been influenced by the British when it comes to what we eat. As a result of well over a century of immigration and our proximity to the Pacific and Asia we have embraced many cuisines including Chinese, Thai, Samoan, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian, French and popular American foods.

These multiple influences mean we don’t have a singular culinary reference like other countries. But this isn’t such a bad thing. New Zealand isn’t weighed down by one singular culinary history and our multiple ethnic influences have created an incredibly vibrant and innovative food culture. That said, these many influences have however made it harder to cohesively define what New Zealand cuisine is.

New Zealand is the youngest country on earth. Our relatively recent history means that our food culture is still evolving and that presents us with an incredible opportunity. The challenge is for New Zealand to understand and embrace what we have – and that does not mean pavlova, pineapple lumps or jaffas. Our food culture runs deeper than that. We should be proud of our terroir (and not just land that produces fabulous wine): it’s about embracing our turangawaewae, our place in the world and about having confidence in ourselves and in what we produce.

Above all, it’s our connection to, and our understanding of our land. Kaitiakitanga – that distinctly Maori way of looking at the land not as owners but as guardians. Not as separate from the land, but part of it. In New Zealand, we understand and respect our land, respecting and nurturing what comes from it.

It’s partly because of that connection to our land, sea, lakes and rivers, that our produce is world-class. Our incredible kaimoana, our grass-fed beef, the best lamb in the world and farmed and wild venison. And our superb dairy, apples, hops and grapes. When you have ingredients of this quality, you learn not to mess around with them. Our food style doesn’t masquerade one thing as another. It respects the core ingredients, elevating them to another level.

Our indigenous culinary traditions also play a major part in what defines our distinct culinary culture and, arguably, should do so more. Maori methods of cooking like hangi and the use of indigenous ingredients such as horopito, kawa kawa and manuka are all unique to us. But why are these herbs not as readily available as Maggi cumin, cinnamon, oregano or thyme in our local supermarkets?

Contemporary Kiwi cuisine culture is about embracing the new without rejecting the old and fusing multiple ethnic influences to create new flavour combinations. Our respect and understanding of where our ingredients have come from and who has grown them, our cultural references of New Zealand, Europe and Asia, and some very clever and risk-taking chefs represent the different elements of our food story coming together.

Lauraine Jacobs offered some interesting “food for thought” in her presentation to ConversatioNZ in Christchurch in 2015 exploring this very topic; and the challenges for us to embrace to help New Zealand better tell our food story. Lauraine contended that:
– Our media need to share local food stories more – about producers and chefs, rather than just never-ending recipes.
– We need to start promoting our food and beverage experiences as part of our marketing to attract visitors.
– We need better restaurant critics – true food pundits who can educate about the food, chefs and eateries as part of their reportage.
– Our supermarkets and grocery stores need to do a better job about educating people about the local and indigenous products they stock.
– And we need to use our unique ingredients more to help us move towards a more distinctively New Zealand food culture.
Just look at what René Redzepi of Noma has done for Nordic cuisine in the last decade. Before he started using little-known indigenous ingredients and turning them into something magical, most people thought Nordic cuisine was pickled herring and meatballs, certainly nothing special. Now it’s the hottest cuisine on the planet and Noma has been ranked as the world’s best several times.

So what is stopping our chefs creating cutting edge food, using our distinctly New Zealand ingredients? This has the potential to attract worldwide attention just like Redzepi has done for Denmark, Ferran Adrià did for Spain with elBulli and even Heston Blumenthal has done for Britain. We’re on our way, but not quite there yet.

Food is core to our culture and who we are as New Zealanders. We need to be proud of our food and beverages. Celebrate them, support them, consume them and make them truly ours. And we need to appreciate truly indigenous New Zealand ingredients and tell everyone, everywhere, all the time, just how good they really are. And just then, we might finally start realising what a fabulous food culture New Zealand really has – and that we should be telling everyone else about it too.

Image credit: David Straight, Eat Here Now