Traditional Māori cookery revolved around the hāngī or umu (earth oven). Hāngī sizes varied depending on what was cooked – joints from moa and seals required large ovens, whereas fish or kūmara (sweet potato) could be cooked in smaller ovens.
Hearths were built on the ground for spit-roasting small birds and cooking fish and shellfish.
Wood or coal was typically used in early ovens and ranges, but some cooks without ready access to these had to make do with alternatives. One woman in Canterbury used wheat straw, while another living at a whaling station used whale blubber.
Early settlers’ cooking
The first European missionaries and settlers of the early 19th century were forced to cook outdoors, over wood-fuelled open fires. In doing so they replicated the cooking practices of 17th- and 18th-century Europe, rather than their contemporaries back home, who were using cast-iron ranges – a technology not then available in New Zealand.
From cooking in pots and on spits suspended over fires, European settlers progressed to the Dutch or camp oven, a sturdy lidded pot on legs, and the colonial oven, a cast-iron box with doors on top of which the fire was heaped.
In the 1850s cast-iron ranges from Britain and the United States were installed in some New Zealand homes. However, these ranges were designed to burn high-quality bituminous coal, and the predominantly soft New Zealand sub-bituminous and lignite coal made them smoke and drop soot. New Zealander Henry Shacklock’s Orion range, designed in 1873, had a wide and shallow firebox to draw in the extra air needed for lignite coal, making it an instant success. It remained in production until the 1940s. None of the early ranges had temperature gauges, so cooks had to rely on guesswork and experience.
Temperature-controlled electric and gas stoves and other modern appliances were sold as labour-saving devices, and they were certainly easier and quicker to use than wood- and coal-fired ranges, as well as making kitchens less stuffy. A 1930 article on gas stoves confidently announced that ‘the gas cooker and the gas range have meant a great deal in the emancipation of women generally … It is now possible to cook a dinner consisting of several dishes which, by means of an automatic heat controller, can be inserted together and withdrawn at the same time.’1 The author doesn’t seem to have considered the time and labour of preparing several dishes.
Simple – and sometimes dangerous – free-standing gas stoves were introduced in the 1860s after coal gasworks were established in the main cities. Along with gas stoves, electric stoves began to replace coal ranges in the 1920s. Built-in temperature gauges allowed for much greater accuracy, which further fuelled home baking and enabled the famous pavlova to be baked. Coal ranges were still produced though, and only disappeared from New Zealand kitchens in the 1960s, electric stoves having become cheaper in the previous decade. From this period, gas and electric stoves were the primary cooking appliances.
After the Second World War, new kitchen appliances appeared which were utilised alongside the range or stove. Refrigerators and pressure cookers were common by the 1950s, while mixers, blenders, food processors and dishwashers started to appear, replacing hand-held kitchen tools.
The 1960s fashion for fondue – traditionally, a Swiss dish of bread dipped into cheese melted in a pot over a spirit lamp and mixed with wine – extended well into the 1970s, using American-designed, Hong Kong-made pots far removed from the original heavy cast-iron pots of Switzerland. From melted cheese and wine, people moved on to chocolate, or deep-frying cubes of beef in hot oil. Some even ate crushed gingernut biscuits and tinned pineapple in instant beef stock.
The first microwave ovens appeared in New Zealand in the early 1970s but did not become common until the early 1980s, when cookbooks started to include microwave recipes. The advent of microwaves did not change the type of dishes cooked – people cooked existing dishes in microwaves instead, or used them for reheating and melting.