Story: Society

Page 9. Food, drink and dress

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The Māori diet

Māori combined food-gathering with extensive cultivation of the kūmara – a sweet potato which reached Polynesia from South America. They pounded the roots of the bracken fern to produce a starchy paste, and treated the poisonous kernels of the karaka tree to make them edible.

Kai moana (food from the sea) was important in the traditional diet, and remains important to Māori today. Many species of fish were caught on lines or in nets, and shellfish – mussels, pāua, pūpū and pipi, among others – were gathered from the shore. Birds were snared in the native forests and eels and whitebait taken from inland or estuarine waters.

The hāngī

Māori still follow the traditional Polynesian practice of cooking for large numbers in a hāngī, an earth oven in which hot stones create steam to cook wrapped food. Non-Māori New Zealanders are increasingly familiar with its distinctive taste.

Not any moa

When the first East Polynesians reached New Zealand, the giant flightless moa bird was still abundant. Numerous archaeological sites attest to the importance of moa meat in the early Māori diet. Hunting contributed to the moa’s extinction long before Europeans arrived. Early Māori also ate sea mammals. Seals survived the depredations of European and American sealers in the late 18th and early 19th century, and are now increasing in numbers. But seal meat has not reappeared on New Zealand dining tables.

Traditional European cooking

The dominance of people from Britain among New Zealand’s immigrants was reflected in the country’s eating habits. Until about the 1950s, New Zealand cooking was based almost exclusively on Britain’s. From the 19th century on, the amount of meat eaten by New Zealanders was considered remarkable – on early sheep stations lamb chops were eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Changing tastes and products

Immigrant groups arriving from Europe after the Second World War introduced new flavours and products to a nation accustomed to plain English fare such as meat, potatoes, and a cup of tea. Some of these newcomers opened up cafés, restaurants and shops. People recognised that the New Zealand climate was more like the Mediterranean than the Northern European, and vegetables as eggplant, zucchini and garlic partly edged out the cabbage, cauliflower and carrots of traditional British cooking.

As travelling New Zealanders were exposed to a wide variety of cuisines, and immigrants arrived from Asia and other regions, cooking at home and in restaurants became cosmopolitan. By the early 2000s Kiwi chefs were winning awards around the globe and New Zealand’s restaurants offered world-class cuisine.

Along with a booming wine industry, there is a much wider variety of foodstuffs than in the past. Over 2,000 speciality food manufacturers produce cheese, oil, honey, ice cream and other gourmet items for local and overseas consumers.

Eating out

Restaurants and cafés abound. All the major world cuisines are on offer, including fusion and Pacific Rim cooking.

Hamburgers reached New Zealand in the late 1940s and early 1950s and were established in the cities by the mid-1960s. Pizzas followed a few years later. The first restaurant chain to open was Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) in 1971. Pizza Hut (1974) and McDonald’s (1976) followed. But a 2001 survey found that the traditional British fish and chips were still the most popular fast food.


Beer was the staple alcoholic drink for most New Zealand males until the later 20th century. Overseas travel, new immigrant groups and the growth of the New Zealand wine industry increased the popularity of wine-drinking. Per capita wine consumption more than doubled between 1975 and 2003.

Wine is a significant export. New Zealand’s overseas reputation as a wine-making country was based initially on white wines, notably Marlborough sauvignon blanc. By the early 2000s pinot noir was emerging as a promising New Zealand wine. Many of New Zealand’s vineyards are tiny by international standards.

The first coffee bars were opened soon after the Second World War, but it was not until the 1990s that New Zealanders became serious coffee fans. Tea has lost the near monopoly it had enjoyed 50 years before.

Dress codes

Until the 1950s most people dressed up for social occasions. Men almost always wore hats outdoors and women wore dresses, hats and gloves, and carried handbags, on public occasions. Even as late as 2002, when the dress code had been relaxed for decades, Prime Minister Helen Clark was criticised for wearing trousers to a state banquet.

In the 2000s clothing was more sophisticated and urban. Younger fashion was dictated by global culture, but also reflected Māori and Pacific Island trends. A number of New Zealand designers have achieved international recognition.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Society - Food, drink and dress', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005