Different down south: Kiwis' curious cuisine

Special New Zealand feature

There's a lot more to New Zealand culinary culture than roast lamb and pavlovas, Winsor Dobbin discovers.

Pipis, paua, tuatuas, feijoas, kumaras, cervena, puha and horipito are just a few of the unfamiliar items you might find on the menu in New Zealand restaurants.

Our Kiwi cousins do things a little differently in the kitchen – which is good news as experimenting with new taste sensations adds zest to any holiday.

Whether it be fresh crayfish straight from the sea, or a freshly dug taewa (a type of Maori potato) there's plenty to tickle the tastebuds. You might even be lucky enough to enjoy a traditional Maori hangi, at which food is steamed for several hours in an underground pit.

So what are all these unfamiliar foods?

Pipis and tuatuas are small shellfish, similar to clams, that are dug up on beaches at low tide – and are often used in fritters.

Paua is a form of abalone, the Haliotis Iris, which is unique to New Zealand and is found on rocky coastlines throughout the country (its shell is often used to make jewellery).

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Al Brown of the famous Logan Brown restaurant in Wellington cooks a paua ravioli dish with basil, coriander and lime beurre blanc.

Kumaras are sweetish potatoes, feijoa is a Brazilian fruit similar to a guava that thrives in Kiwi conditions and is often used as an ice-cream flavouring, while cervena is the name New Zealanders give to their premium locally farmed venison.

Puha, or the sowthistle, is similar to watercress, while horipito is wild herb known as the Maori pepper.

All these flavours have influenced some of Australia's leading chefs, including Iain Hewitson, Justin North and Philip Johnson, all of whom started their careers in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

One of the most basic, but also delicious, meals to be found in New Zealand is at roadside stalls just outside the seaside resort of Kaikoura, between Blenheim and Christchurch on the South Island.

The Maori name Kaikoura translates to 'meal of crayfish' and it is crays for which the region has traditionally been famous. The roadside carts sell fresh crayfish, boiled in local mineral water, for prices we would consider a pittance.

New Zealand chefs tend to use what is fresh, local and seasonal – and are blessed with a climate that aids their endeavours to provide fine dining with a difference.

Geoff Scott, the chef at iconic Auckland restaurant Vinnies, changes his menu seasonally and features local specialities like Te Matuku Bay oysters from Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf; mutton bird and diamond clams with field mushrooms and fresh kawakawa (wild bush basil) leaf crème; and Cascade River whitebait with yuzu dressing, pickled fresh gherkin, parsley and capers.

Jimmy McIntrye, chef at the stately Otahuna Lodge, outside Christchurch, is fanatical about organic produce and has a “potager” kitchen-garden with its own full-time gardener to ensure fresh herbs and vegetables throughout the year.

During the autumn/winter season, McIntyre takes guests on autumn truffle hunts around centuries old oaks in the nearby forests – and also cooks special truffle dinners each August with the famous white bianchetto truffle as the centrepiece.

New Zealand is at the forefront of the New World truffle industry, growing the Southern Hemisphere's first truffles in 1993 and, more recently, producing the first white truffle, or bianchetto, at nearby Borchii Park truffiere.

“It is quite special to have a world-class delicacy available so close to home and it really gives us so much scope for creating exciting menus each winter,” McIntyre says. “A degustation menu gives diners so many ways to experience the incredible flavours of the truffle.”

This series of articles has been sponsored by Tourism New Zealand

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