It wasn’t the reason I went to New Zealand, and it’s as unlikely to top just about anyone’s reason for going to these antipodean islands. Bungee-jumping, jet boating, fjord sailing, hobbit visiting—now those are prime reasons tourists go down under. Only to discover that they could have come for the food.

You don’t get there straight away though. Anyone going to these islands knows just how strict NZ is about not letting in any organic material, including all food. Yes, your bags are scanned and searched on arrival. All bags. Heaven help you if you have an unnoticed orange or packet of half-eaten chips in your backpack. No honey, no tea/coffee, no seeds. If you like living dangerously, try carrying fur coats to Queenstown, or flowers for your host, or a straw hat for the beach—and you will feel the full effect of Kiwi customs. A hefty fine is the best-case scenario, and that’s about NZ$400 or about 20,000. Don’t even ask about the worst case. Just. Do. Not. Carry. Food.

There is no need. Soon enough, you will discover this may as well be the proverbial land of milk and honey, where the ingredients are of uniformly superior flavours, positively impacting the end result. And while the question ‘what is New Zealand cuisine?’ is likely to stump the average resident, a nuanced answer is actually possible. Fascinatingly, the cuisine is not just British derivatives, as with some other former colonies, but local and seasonal in nature.

Fresh crayfish
Fresh crayfish

There’s a lot of rapid unlearning and learning to be done here. And the necessity of getting familiar with local, read Maori, words, fast. It is easy to forget that New Zealand is the largest Polynesian land mass, and Auckland the largest Polynesian city in the world. Of course, the white settlers, still referred to as Pakeha, came with their cuisine—bread, mutton, sugar et al as well as their own cooking techniques, all of which have now been integrated into indigenous cuisine.

But in the six-odd centuries preceding the arrival of the Europeans, the first tribes settling in Aotearoa ensured that enough diversity crept in, Jade Temepara points out to me. Temepara’s Kakano Café is a restaurant that also doubles as a cookery school in a shipping container. That isn’t a rarity in Christchurch, badly hit by an earthquake, but an extensive garden dominated by micro greens, all in boxes in front of the container, is.

“Maori cuisine has its unique style of preparation and a focus on where it comes from, the story behind it or the legacy, which is why it is important for us to give visitors to our restaurant an authentic experience,” she says over some titi (mutton bird, a kind of sea bird) and koura (crayfish). These are among the only native proteins here, she says. As unfamiliar but delicious dips and cockles and urenika potatoes (blue potatoes) follow, Temepara tells me that Kakano uses native seaweed and freshly foraged herbs. As other equally exotic dishes make their appearance at my first meal in the country, I can begin to see why food might just be a focus of the trip.

Given the waves of Polynesian settlements over centuries, Maori cuisine isn’t uniform. But one common feature is hangi, a technique that involves cooking food amid heated rocks buried in a pit oven. Expect it at several places around Rotorua. The main dish, a stew equivalent referred to as ‘boil-up’ of just about everything savoury available—pork, chicken, potatoes, kumara, and dumplings—left me with no desire for seconds. Try it with rewena or sourdough potato bread.

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At Roots restaurant, food such as this Spring Garden dish is both delightful to eat as well as to look at
At Roots restaurant, food such as this Spring Garden dish is both delightful to eat as well as to look at

Dinner that night was probably my best meal in New Zealand, in the across-a-hill-and-by-the-bay suburb of Lyttleton. And across a different plane of food consciousness. For all its picturesque setting, the degustation meal at Roots takes over all the senses once it begins. There’s no menu here. The multi-course meal—it can go up to 12, though most opt for five or eight courses—is as ‘natural’ as it gets. “Our menu is crafted from high-quality ingredients, sourced from local and biodynamic farms, small producers and our own extensive garden,” says Chile-born chef Giulio Sturla, who along with partner Christy Martin, founded this 30-seater outpost that has become a must-do destination for Kiwi food pilgrims.

Foraged ingredients are always present in the dishes, as well as fermented and cultured preparations. Each succeeding dish was revelatory, the experience enhanced by the stories behind them. “We care for what we cook and why we cook it. Every single ingredient has a meaning, a story to tell. We make the story even better when we create something new and serve it to our guests.” Try the pan de yucca (a cassava bread from Colombia) or the blackfoot paua (or rainbow abalone, a type of edible sea snail). And if you can, get chef Sturla to talk. It might change your life.

Picturesque view from Bistro Gentil in Wanaka
Picturesque view from Bistro Gentil in Wanaka

An extensive garden in situ is a common factor between both Kakano Café and Roots restaurant. Just as I was about to dismiss that as a coincidence, Bistro Gentil in Wanaka surprised me with an even more extensive garden on its premises. Also on hand is James Stapley, whose legendary cuisine has for years been a core attraction at the tony Whare Kea, the luxury lodge on Lake Wanaka. “Having our own garden allows us to grow varieties that are not readily available on the market, and we are lucky enough to have a garden of about an acre at our disposal,” says Stapley. I spy (and am invited to sample) cherry, varieties of plum, apple, pear, quince and hazelnut, straight off the trees! Needless to say, the actual dishes—Canter Valley Duck, Cardrona Merino Lamb Rump and many more—are superlative.

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An autumnal vineyard
An autumnal vineyard

South Island is, of course, also a wine region, and almost every meal is paired with local wine. Most of these are not labels easily recognised in the wider world, or even easily available. So now that you are here, I highly recommend that you glug them by the bottle. Especially in Otago, where wineries often have leisurely dining options set amid rolling plains and valleys skirted by blue-tinged, white-capped mountains. Have a great time discovering delightful wines; try Wooing Tree Central Otago Pinot Noir 2005 or Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006, or any Amisfield.

While I rhapsodise about new and unfamiliar foods, have desi hearts been sinking at the lack of mention of rajma and paneer? Never fear; Indian food (which of course predominantly means North Indian tandoori meals) is quite easily available. “Indian food is quite accessible but still regarded as a take-away option compared to other cuisines in NZ,” says Sid Sahrawat, chef-owner at Cassia and Sidart, Auckland. Most Indian ingredients are easily available, though at Cassia, he combines Indian flavours and spices with the best of seasonal and local ingredients. NZ is currently undergoing a major culinary revolution, restaurants with interesting concepts are opening every day and are focusing on customers who want something different, says Sahrawat. I see what he means: in fact, I met people who were actually on food tours, often with more than a dozen stops on the way. All of them ranked their experiences among the best anywhere, most agreeing vigorously that NZ was the next global culinary destination, also just a short hop from another comparable destination, Melbourne.

Salmon with pine, horseradish and calamari served at Auckland's Cassia and Sidart
Salmon with pine, horseradish and calamari served at Auckland’s Cassia and Sidart

But I wasn’t done yet, and persuaded my minder-turned-FB-friend Carole into giving a glimpse of what the ‘Kiwis’ liked. Stuff I wouldn’t get elsewhere. She led me straightaway to the Remarkable Sweet Shop (named for Remarkables,a mountain range that is home to one of the most famous ski fields), a candy wonderland where I saw many more adults every time I went! Irrespective of how un-sweet your tooth is, do not miss a visit to the Queenstown or Arrowtown stores.

While in Queenstown, ‘the playground of the world’, and just around the corner from Remarkable, is another must-do on the culinary tour. Ferg Burger is now well-known for its big-as-a-head gourmet burgers, which most people plough through till they give up about midway. While tempted by The Godfather or Chief Wiggum (blue cod and pork belly, respectively), and intrigued by Bin Laden, my eye zoomed in on The Bulls Eye—prime NZ beef, medium grilled, with honest Swiss cheese, lettuce, rings of white onion, aioli…oh, go look up the website, or head to Shotover Street, Queenstown!

Then there are Bluff oysters, considered the best on the planet, from Bluff in the extreme south of the country and available only from March to July. New Zealand green-lipped mussels are more accessible around the world, but the best are available at source. And, while kiwi fruit is easily available, bear in mind that its provenance is Italy! The pavlova is unique though. When you want an aerated drink, try L&P (Lemon and Paeroa), from the town of Paeroa. For dessert, try hokey pokey ice cream, a combo of honeycomb toffee and vanilla ice cream.

Quick disclaimer: by and large, I dined at some of the best restaurants in the country. But this is not to say there aren’t more affordable places, from global food chains to street food or food counters in departmental stores, all of which serve filling, quality, inexpensive, if not remarkable, food. But unless you have a loyalty card with golden arches, the wonderfully diverse range of local produce should ensure that you start planning your next food trip—to the antipodes.

The Information

Getting There

New Zealand is about 13,000 km from most of India, and there are no direct flights. A round-trip in economy class on Singapore Airlines costs around 90,000,and will take the better part of a day. Best way to go: via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Within New Zealand, easily the best way to get around the country is on Air New Zealand.

Visas 

All details, including whether you are eligible to apply online, fees, etc at ttsnzvisa.com/in-en/Home.

Where to Stay

New Zealand has a variety of stay options at different price points, from luxury hotels and resorts to homestays or farmstays and even camping and motor homes. The country also has some of the most spectacular luxury lodges. Leading international hotel chains are present in major cities. In Auckland, Skycity Grand (from 9,000; skycityauckland.co.nz), part of an entertainment group, is located in the heart of downtown. The funky JUCY Snooze (from3,000; jucysnooze.co.nz) is a casual budget option. In Queenstown, try the seafacing old-world Eichardt’s Private Hotel (from 49,500; eichardts.com) if your wallet allows you; the Novotel Lakeside (from 7,300; novotel.com) and Crowne Plaza (from 7,500; queenstown.crowneplaza.com) are popular options. In Rotorua, try Sudima Lake Rotorua (from 5,000; sudimahotels.com/lake-rotorua).

What to Buy

Even if you stick to food-related souvenirs, there are a lot of options. And, you can carry food out of the country. Manuka honey, arguably the world’s best, is available both as honey and cosmetics. For chocoholics, local brand Whittaker’s comes in truly delightful flavours. Begin with the original Peanut Slab, and discover Black Doris Palm and Almond or Kaitaia Fire Chili Spice or Marlborough Sea Salt with Caramel. Available almost everywhere. (Currency:NZ$1=47)