As we polish off the last of the Christmas ham and head into summer barbecue season, Susan Edmunds looks at how Kiwi food has evolved, and what we'll be eating next year

When TV chef Sachie Nomura arrived from Japan almost 17 years ago, she couldn't get over the size of New Zealand's vegetables. Capsicums were about three times what she was used to and everything else seemed "humongous" compared to the dainty Asian varieties she had grown up with.

But whatever the vegetable, her host family would hand her three of them on a plate with a slice of meat.

Often it was a roast or a chunk of shepherd's pie made with corned beef instead of mince. She had never seen roast meat before.

"It looks really impressive, I thought it was the most complex thing (to prepare) until my friend explained it's actually quite simple."


And the taste? "Hmmmm," Nomura pauses.

"Without gravy, it's a bit bland. But I poured it all over and enjoyed it with mashed potatoes and gravy."

The star of TV show Sachie's Kitchen also had to get used to a different style of barbecuing.

Instead of the family sitting around a grill together, she saw men staking their claim to the barbecue, beers in hand, seasoning the meat with a bit of salt and pepper if they were feeling adventurous.

And the Kiwi custom of an after-dinner dessert got the blame for an extra 12kg she piled on in her first three months in the country.

A Japanese student following in Nomura's footsteps now might encounter more variety on her dinner plate, but a Herald on Sunday/Nielsen poll reveals that many of our habits haven't changed - and the host family is still likely to serve a roast lamb as a taste of New Zealand.

It was named as the ultimate Kiwi kai by 25.8 per cent of survey respondents, beating fish and chips (19.4 per cent), Bluff oysters (11.3 per cent) and pavlova (10.9 per cent).

Food TV shows have taken off in popularity over recent years and the number of restaurants has grown exponentially, helping to broaden our tastes and expectations.

But Emeritus Professor Helen Leach, of Otago University, who has written a book on pavlova and another on the history of Christmas cake, says New Zealand cooks have been incorporating international influences into their food for more than 50 years.

The first major wave of culinary change happened in the late 1950s, when home cooks learned about stir-frying and Chinese food, and the word "pasta" started to mean something more like what was made in Italy and less like something out of a can.

"As we experience the world and realise other people have interesting flavours we want to try them but we never make the authentic dish. We borrow or modify and call it 'Thai-style'," says Leach. "We make it and it becomes part of our repertoire. That's the most significant change and you see it after World War II."

More adventurous cooking coincided with the arrival of more electric appliances and big, heavy pots that allowed things such as stroganoff to simmer on the stove top for a long time.

New Zealanders turned to NZ Woman's Weekly's Tui Flower to learn how to take international dishes and convert them into something they could make in their own homes using ingredients they had access to.

Some used ingredients their purported country of origin would not have even recognised - such as curry powder - but they were still a significant departure from the standard pre-war fare.

But what is traditional Kiwi food, anyway? What we consider our iconic dishes now are quite different from what our great-grandparents might have selected.

Leach's colleague, Duncan Galletly, has studied old cookery books, looking at the evolution of cakes and biscuits.

He says most of the traditional Kiwi treats, such as Anzac biscuits and Afghans, originated in the late-1920s.

Before then, what New Zealanders would have identified as their traditional fare were things such as Billy Sponge or Khaki Cake.

About 1925, those treats went the way of the dinosaurs and a mass extinction was followed by a burst of post-War euphoria recipe creativity. The number of cake and biscuit recipes grew enormously and the popularity of community cookbooks, contributed to by groups of women at the local church or town hall, took off.

New recipes were invented and the new breed of cookbooks cemented them. "The diversity of cakes and biscuits stagnates from the 1930s," Galletly says.

"One of the key books that was produced that helped fossilise these recipes was The Edmonds Cookery Book. Hundreds of thousands were produced and given away free. The 1935 sixth edition seems to capture a lot of the cakes and biscuits we regard as traditional, then the cookery books simply got reprinted until 1970 at least."

For at least 35 years, Kiwis were cooking from books that did not change. "Two generations have grown up with the same things and look back on them with nostalgia."

That may be starting to wane as cookbooks since the 1970s became a lot more diverse and today's generation of new parents don't share the same food memories to pass on to their children.

Galletly expects another mass extinction is happening now as people turn away from sugar and carbohydrates. Even the pavlova hasn't always looked like it does today. Leach says there have been several things called "pavlova" over the past 100 years, including small desserts made with coffee essence and walnuts and a type of jelly.

Those that do not resemble the modern dessert have been forgotten. "There were meringue cakes right throughout the English speaking world. The little pavlovas had 25 years of existence before they disappeared and co-existed with the big one but few will remember it."

It may be our favourite now but lamb hasn't always been the go-to roast dinner for New Zealanders.

Leach says New Zealand used to export 95 per cent of its lamb and, until about 50 years ago, most families would have eaten mutton or hogget, or chicken for a special treat. That started to change in the 1960s when people knew Britain was planning to join the European Economic Community and there was a strong drive to sell lamb to other countries and to get New Zealanders eating more of it, too.

Butchers' brochures quickly changed from having a section on "mutton" to "mutton and lamb" and then just lamb.

Auckland woman Pamela Smith can remember feeling the full impact of that lamb marketing when she arrived in New Zealand from England 50 years ago.

Her Kiwi family loved big chunks of roast meat - largely unseasoned - and it was a big change from the pork or chicken that were much more common in Britain at the time.

Smith was impressed by the texture and appearance of the meat.

"It's a very nice meat, the colour is nice and it's easy to cook. You don't really get failures."

Pamela Smith at home in Red Beach with her roast lamb. Photo / Doug Sherring
Pamela Smith at home in Red Beach with her roast lamb. Photo / Doug Sherring

Now a grandmother

of 17, Smith cooked lamb roasts regularly for her six children while they were growing up. Over the years, she started to become a bit bolder, adding rosemary and other herbs to the dish, and picking up tips from cookbooks.

Over the summer break, the family will sit down to a lamb roast at least a couple of times. It's an easy, delicious meal that sums up New Zealand in one dish and Smith says she can't see that changing.

"I'm sure it'll be popular for a long time. We're a lamb country."

Chef Peter Gordon says New Zealanders are carving out their own food identity. What we consider traditional is simple food, made with good produce.

"From wild fish and venison to farm-raised lamb and pork and everything else along the way. Traditionally, our vegetables were very British and 'rooty'. Now, we are growing everything from asparagus to truffles and doing it really, really well. Tradition is changing - thankfully."

Kiwis are more worldly and aware of what they're consuming, he says.

"We now like our Bluff oysters opened fresh (no cans please), our fish sustainably caught, and our cheese made in small runs. Butter has become gourmet, hummus comes with kumara blended in and yoghurt comes with mango pulp."

Next year, Mexican flavours will start to dominate more, he expects.

Things such as tomatillo salsa and smoked chilli will pop up on barbecued corn, and pomegranate seeds will be mixed into salads.

Gordon isn't surprised that Kiwis preferred roast lamb over other traditional offerings this year.

"It's certainly my favourite. Thinly sliced cold roast loin drizzled with chilli mayonnaise and deep-fried capers. Seven-hour braised shoulder with dates and toasted almonds on herby cous cous. Whole lamb barbecue over manuka charcoals and loads of fresh herbs served with minted kumara salad ... what's not to get excited about?"

Nomura has noticed a huge change in the way Kiwis eat over the time she's been here. People are becoming a lot more adventurous, willing to try new things and experiment with their own cooking.

"With sushi, there were only a handful of restaurants in Auckland.

"When I cooked for other people, some would say 'ew, is that raw fish?' Now, people are eating sushi, getting Thai or going for Vietnamese.

"They're a lot more familiar with different tastes, which is fantastic."

A modern version of that barbecued steak she was offered almost 20 years ago might still be served up by a man in a dodgy apron but it's much more likely to be marinated well or seasoned with something exotic.

Says Nomura: "When I travel, New Zealand food is right up there. Our produce is unbelievable. Kiwi food is going to grow big time."

Tips for the perfect roast lamb

Chefs and experts share their secrets

Muscly joints are best cooked just beyond medium; less muscly, no more than medium, and loin and fillet medium rare. Bring the meat to room temperature before cooking so it cooks more evenly. Rest large joints for at least 15 minutes before carving to keep the juices in.
- Peter Gordon

Put a bit of water in the bottom of the pan to help the meat crisp.
- Pamela Smith

For very lean cuts, sear the meat before roasting. Roast with the fat side up.
- Beef and Lamb NZ

When cooking French racks, sit them on the eye of the French rack in the roasting dish and then rest against another French rack so they are interlocking and sitting vertically. This ensures that all the lamb is cooked evenly as the heat can circulate freely.
- Longdown Lamb

Don't be afraid, just have fun. If you cook with love, it'll taste good and if you have it with good company, it adds another flavour. Have a go, if it goes wrong, you can always fix it and it'll give you something to laugh about later.
- Sachie Nomura

Kiwi keen on lumps

Emily Duncan, 18, can understand Kiwis' love of roast lamb but says for her, pineapple lumps take the cake - as long as they're the real deal. "The Pams version is good but, like a budget version of anything, it's not as good. If you're going to go for an iconic Kiwi food, go for the actual one."

Pineapple lumps are usually part of the family's Christmas spread, along with barbecued meat, ham, strawberries and stone fruit, served at their bach on the Coromandel peninsula. "I don't know anyone who doesn't love pineapple lumps."

Duncan still lives at home but says she's starting to get more involved with cooking. When she was in France for six weeks last summer, she missed Kiwi food - salads, fresh fruit and vegetables, in particular. "They boiled all the vegetables and I really missed salad. I like things raw.

"My host mum made lamb but she called it 'Kiwi beef' because she didn't know what it was - it was nothing like we have here. Their bread and cheese is better but the things I eat most frequently aren't."

Duncan thinks New Zealanders are pretty adventurous with food. She's tried snails in France and tongue at the behest of her grandmother but says New Zealanders have a good idea of what works well.

"My mum puts dried fruit in salads. It seems weird to other people but it tastes really good."