Thomas and Sheena Southam are on a quest to find mouth-watering local kai. Reporter Jenny Ling finds out what the foodie couple thought about their recent tour of Northland.
Thomas and Sheena Southam have travelled the world in search of the best local eateries in their hunger-fuelled plight to discover different cultures through food.
The husband and wife, who video their food experiences and post them on the YouTube channel Chasing a Plate, recently set their sights on Northland, returning from a week-long trip sampling the freshest kaimoana in the region.
"We left Northland wishing we could spend a couple of months there," Sheena said.
"There's so much to explore and I felt we barely scratched the surface."
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Over the past decade, the Southams have eaten their way through various cities in Asia, Europe, America, Oceania and the Pacific in their quest for delicious local food.
For the past four years they have travelled full-time, living out of suitcases and creating online content.
But the Covid-19 pandemic put the brakes on their lifestyle this year.
The couple were in Budapest when the borders started closing around them; they returned home two days before level 4 lockdown.
Having to think outside the square and pivot their business, the Southams decided to film a New Zealand series to showcase Aotearoa's food culture and help promote domestic tourism.
They kicked off the Tai Tokerau leg of the tour in June and returned to their Auckland base early September to upload and publish each episode online.
The pair of self-confessed foodies travelled around Northland in a campervan, visiting Cape Reinga, Hihi, Doubtless Bay and Hokianga.
"We're passionate about great local food and experiencing what the country has to offer and what the local culture is through the food," Thomas said.
"We wanted to connect with small family-run, owned and operated businesses," Sheena said.
"That's what this whole series has been about, finding those local gems."
The Southams did some "incredible fishing" at Spirits Bay and Tokerau Bay, which they turned into a meal of pan-fried kahawai accompanied by kumara, potato mash, green beans and toasted almonds.
They were wowed by Apatu Aqua in Doubtless Bay, a small family business that produces an array of smoked fish, and ate pāua pie and steak and oyster pie at a roadside stall in Houhora.
Controversially, they've also called out what they believe are "the best fish and chips in Northland", which they had at Hokianga Takeaways in Rawene.
"Whole flounder and chips are caught from the harbour every day. They're incredibly well-cooked and delicious," Sheena said.
"The team are just so friendly and full of joy and excited about their food."
Another big highlight was the hunting and gathering; fishing in pristine waters and collecting shellfish such as the tuatua they cooked in a pasta dish.
They were also impressed when friendly locals at Spirits Bay gave them a feed of kina.
The Southams reckon New Zealand's food culture is all about the connection with the land and the food it provides.
"It was really special to be not far from home in the wilderness among these incredible landscapes," Thomas said.
"I love the connection with the land. Going to the smokehouse, where the fish are filleted and smoked - you could see the cycle where the food came from. It was the same as the fish and chip shop, everything was so fresh."
The Southams believe food is one of the best ways to learn about different cultures and to connect with people.
Sheena's passion for food comes from her Chinese family; her parents owned a takeaway shop in Whangarei, one of the first Chinese restaurants to open in the city in the 1980s.
Thomas' culinary appreciations began when got his learners licence, bought a 50cc scooter and began driving around Auckland in search of great dishes.
Perhaps it's no surprise they ended up in Melbourne, a city renowned for its quality eateries.
That's where Chasing a Plate started, as a food blog in 2013 when the pair were in their 20s.
"It started as a blog for fun and grew from there," Sheena said.
"It got to point where... it wasn't enough to write a blog, we wanted to take people on an adventure in a more personal way. That's how the YouTube channel evolved."
In October 2016 the couple packed up their apartment, hopped on a plane and started travelling full-time.
This is the first time they have lived in New Zealand in 10 years.
So far they've had great feedback from people watching the three Northland episodes.
"As cliche as it sounds, we encourage Kiwis to explore their own backyards," Sheena said. "There's so much out there we don't know about, and it's very easy to stick to the same places."
"It gives us a real buzz when we uncover these gems and get their name out there and give them another avenue to show off their business," Thomas said.
"It's a real passion for us and we love doing it."
The Southam's guide to Northland's top kaimoana
• Smoked fish from Apatu Aqua in Coopers Beach. Open Monday to Saturday 9am to 4pm.
• Flounder and chips at Hokianga Takeaways in Rawene. Open 7 days, 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 7pm.
• Tuatua caught from Tokerau Beach and cooked up into a spaghetti vongole.
• Pāua pie and steak and oyster pie at roadside stall in Houhora.
• Raw kina from Spirits Bay.
* Pan fried kahawai with kumara, potato mash, green beans and toasted almonds.