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by David Burton

Hefty mutton roasts, overcooked vegetables, gleaming jars of preserves, and cake tins jam-packed with delicious home baking – this was much New Zealand cooking till the later 20th century. In the 2000s cooks were often interested in fresh foods, international flavours and saving time.

Cooking technology

Māori cooking

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.

Alternative fuel

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.

Cast-iron ranges

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.

Labour saving?

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.

Other 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.

Fondue folly

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.

Microwave ovens

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.

    • NZ Truth, 30 September 1930, p. 17. Back

Cooking methods


Baking is the cooking of food with dry heat, usually in an oven.

Baking of home-made cakes and biscuits is a distinctive feature of New Zealand cookery. Scottish migrants brought their love of baking and sweet foods (including confectionery) with them in the 19th century. In New Zealand this was elevated to a nationwide pastime, particularly once Henry Shacklock devised the Orion cast-iron range in 1873 – baked goods were much easier to produce in well-functioning ranges.

Last word on the pav

Both Australia and New Zealand claim pavlova, named after Russian ballet-dancer Anna Pavlova, as their national dish, but while both countries contributed to its evolution, detailed research by food historian Helen Leach established that the first known recipe for pavlova as we now understand it appeared in New Zealand. In 1929 The New Zealand Dairy Exporter published a recipe for ‘pavlova cake’, a large baked meringue cake. An Australian recipe book had used the name pavlova for a multi-layered jelly in 1926.

The abundance of locally produced milk, butter, cream and eggs was put to good use in baking, which was at the heart of the New Zealand tradition of hospitality. This arose in the early days of European settlement when food was sometimes scarce, and visitors and travellers expected to be fed in homes they stopped at during journeys. Biscuit tins were kept full so family, friends and unexpected guests always had something to eat. Cookbooks were replete with baking recipes.

Home baking was also on show at morning and afternoon teas attended by women, and exhibited at A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows and church fairs. Baking declined from the 1960s as women increasingly entered the paid workforce and had less time to cook. However, baking remained an important element of cookbooks and underwent a modest revival in the early 2000s in line with renewed interest in domestic pastimes.

Another important baked food was bread. Early European settlers made their own and had to contend with unreliable, volatile home-made yeast. Later in the 19th century, cookbooks started to include yeast recipes, making the process more manageable for novices. Commercial yeast was available in the early 20th century. However, home baking declined as commercial production increased.

Ebullient sponges and blown-up mutton

In 1953 British writer Eric Linklater commented that ‘the New Zealanders, like the Scots, think that baking is the better part of cookery, and spend their ingenuity, exhaust their interest, on cakes and pastries and ebullient, vast cream sponges. Soup is neglected, meat mishandled. I have seen their admirable mutton brought upon the table in such a miserable shape that the hogget … appeared to have been killed by a bomb, and the fragments of its carcase incinerated in the resultant fire.’1

Roasting and frying

Like baking, roasting involves cooking with dry heat – traditionally over hot coals on an open fire. Roasting in an oven is really a form of baking. In New Zealand the ‘Sunday roast’ – usually lamb or mutton served with potatoes and one or two other vegetables – became an institution because New Zealanders traditionally ate a lot of meat. Frying was a quick way to cook smaller cuts of meat and sausages, bacon and fish.

Boiling and steaming

New Zealand vegetable cookery (like that of Britain) developed an unfortunate reputation because cooks tended to over-boil vegetables. Meats were also boiled or stewed and New Zealand inherited the British tradition of steamed puddings, which were less common in the 2000s. In the 2000s vegetables were far more likely to be steamed.


Preserving is the preparation of food for future use in a way that stops it from spoiling. Preserved food was an important part of the traditional Māori diet – for instance, eels were dried and birds were preserved in their own fat. Europeans preserved surplus food such as fruit by bottling in syrup or making jam. They turned pig meat into ham and bacon by curing with salt. Pickles and chutneys were a way of preserving vegetables and making tasty condiments. In the days when people kept hens, surplus eggs were painted with or immersed in preservative, for use when the hens stopped laying in winter.

Plenty of preserves

In rural areas, preserving was done on a large scale because women usually had to feed farm workers as well as family members. Adela Stewart, who settled in Katikati in the late 1870s, was a very resourceful woman and was able to produce large quantities of food with seeming ease. Each year she made between 200 and 700 kilograms of preserves. No wonder she described her storeroom as a ‘perfect picture.’2

Preserving was such an important element of domestic food production that during the Second World War, when sugar was rationed, an extra ration was allowed during the bottling season. Home preserving declined from the 1970s – working women had less time to devote to this time-consuming job and canned food was cheap and plentiful. Preserving recipes still appeared in cookbooks in the early 2000s, though in much smaller numbers. Food continued to be preserved using a standard household appliance – the fridge-freezer, increasingly found in New Zealand homes from the 1950s.

    • Eric Linklater, A year of space: a chapter in autobiography. London: Macmillan, 1953, p. 207. Back
    • Quoted in David Veart, First catch your weka: a story of New Zealand cooking. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008, p. 73. Back

Cookbooks, magazines and television shows

European settlers brought existing recipes with them to New Zealand, in the form of published cookbooks or handwritten volumes, or simply in their heads. The most common British cookbooks in 19th-century New Zealand were the various volumes written by Isabella Beeton – ‘Mrs Beeton’, as she was commonly called. Most cookbooks were written by women.

New Zealand cookbooks

The first known recipes printed and distributed in book form in New Zealand were compiled by Mary Ann Martin in Auckland in 1869. Recipes appeared in The illustrated bee manual (1881) and Brett’s colonists guide (1883). New Zealand’s first known proper cookbook was published in Napier in 1887 – Fanny Murdoch’s eccentrically titled Dainties; or how to please our lords & masters.

In the early 1900s new cookbooks appeared with recipes that took account of local conditions and the need for lighter fare in New Zealand’s temperate climate. Earlier books had replicated the heavier British dishes suitable for colder weather. New Zealanders ate more mutton, lamb and game, and above all they wanted recipes for cakes and biscuits.

Many of these cookbooks were community fundraising publications, often produced by churches and charitable groups. The first community cookbook was the Coronation cookery book, published by the Hāwera Presbyterian church in 1902.

Sure to rise

The famed Edmonds cookbook first appeared as a 50-page booklet of recipes in 1908. A free copy was sent, unsolicited, to every couple who announced their engagement in the newspaper – and to housewives who applied for one in writing. From 1955 the cover featured an image of the Edmonds factory in Christchurch with its distinctive sun rays and ‘sure to rise’ slogan. By the 2000s more than 3 million copies had been sold, making it New Zealand’s best-selling book.

Businesses and manufacturers also published cookbooks – the most famous and enduring of these was the Edmonds sure to rise cookery book, first published as a giveaway by the Edmonds baking-products company in 1908.

By the 1920s commercial cookbooks predominated over community publications.

New influences

After the Second World War the number of published cookbooks increased, and they began to show a wider variety of culinary influences, reflecting the tastes of men and women who had served abroad during the war. Knowledge about American foods was transmitted via radio, particularly through the long-standing radio show of Aunt Daisy (Maud Basham). Increased use of New Zealand ingredients such as kūmara (sweet potato) and seafood was evident in cookbook recipes.

Chinese restaurants became more common in the 1950s, and New Zealanders made their first forays into Chinese cooking at home, using Nancye King’s 1958 cookbook 50 Chinese dishes for New Zealand. In 1963 Madeleine Hammond published A taste of France: French cuisine for New Zealanders, which contained sophisticated recipes clearly aimed at the giver of dinner parties.

Lack of evidence

As more cookbooks were published after the Second World War, the book collections of domestic cooks grew. Before this, people typically had one or two cookbooks. Staining and wear and tear allowed historians to see which recipes were cooked the most. When people have more cookbooks they tend to have a more diverse repertoire and the pages are less soiled and worn, making the food historian’s detective work much harder.

By the mid-1980s international cuisines, particularly Asian ones, had found their way into community cookbooks. Local, seasonal and sometimes organic ingredients were a feature of cookbooks published in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Newspapers and magazines

From the 1860s newspapers regularly published recipes. Recipes also appeared in farming, gardening and women’s magazines. Specialised cooking magazines increasingly appeared from the 1980s, the most notable being Cuisine, first published in 1987.

Television shows

With the advent of television in the 1960s came the rise of the celebrity chef on cooking shows. The first of these was Englishman Graham Kerr, a showman brimming with confidence and enthusiasm and thus well suited to the new medium. His first show aired in 1961 and he went on to become a well-known television chef in Canada and the United States.

Sold out

Celebrity chefs have a lot of influence on the cooking and food-shopping habits of television viewers. After one of Des Britten’s shows featured eggplant, this vegetable quickly sold out at the Wellington produce markets.

Seeking a cook with a more sober approach, television producers headhunted Alison Holst, a lecturer in home science at the University of Otago. She first appeared on screen in 1965 and her homely style struck a chord with viewers. Chef Des Britten appeared on the screen in the 1970s, and dynamic couple Peter Hudson and David Halls were on air from 1976 to 1986. By the early 2000s cooking shows were ubiquitous on television, including shows such as MasterChef New Zealand, where New Zealanders competed at cooking.

Who cooks?


Domestic cooking, along with other home-based tasks such as child-rearing, cleaning and sewing, has primarily been done by women. Most women learned to cook as girls by watching and assisting their mothers in the kitchen. In the 19th century, women settlers who were unaccustomed to cooking because of their elevated social position had to learn unless they were lucky enough to secure the services of a cook, something not guaranteed in New Zealand.

The modern homemaker

Many overseas cookbooks sold in New Zealand in the 19th and early 20th centuries assumed that readers had servants, including cooks. In her 1926 book The up to date housewife, Melanie Primmer noted that these books did not take account of ‘the average housewife, who has little domestic help’. She sought to remedy this, providing modern recipes and advice on dining etiquette and baby care – but also adding that if servants were employed ‘they should never be reproved before guests. It tends to disturb the harmony of the meal.’1

Cooking was elevated to a ‘home science’ in the late 19th century because of growing interest in the relationship between food, nutrition and health. A School of Domestic Instruction opened in Christchurch in 1895, cookery was added to the curriculum of technical schools in the early 1900s and the first courses in home science at Otago University began in 1911. Domestic science was compulsory for schoolgirls from 1917. Graduates in this discipline were expected to use their skills in the household kitchen rather than forge an independent career.

Women continued to do most of the household cooking throughout the 20th century, though their increasing participation in paid employment meant that time-consuming dishes and cooking methods gradually fell by the wayside. Instant foods – including beef stock, mashed potato, coffee and puddings – were some of the many convenience foods which took hold from the 1960s.

While men have done more household chores in recent times, women continue to spend more time preparing meals than men. A 2009–10 survey found that women spent over twice as long as men doing this.


Though women have traditionally done most of the cooking in the home, men have also cooked, usually in other settings. Single men had to cook for themselves at home, unless they had home-help or ate out.

In 1848 Edward Jerningham Wakefield advised men to acquire basic cookery skills such as bread-making, as well as learning how to slaughter animals for food. This was not so they could help women in the kitchen, but in order to feed themselves while exploring the country and establishing farms in the absence of women.

Light-fingered cook

Edward Jerningham Wakefield employed a male cook, who gave him some trouble when he was stationed in Whanganui in 1840. Wakefield wrote that ‘the lawlessness of [Whanganui] became daily more annoying. I had to lash my cook, who had travelled hither with the Taupo party, and who delighted in the sobriquet of ‘Coffee’, to the big post in the middle of the house, with my dog chains, for theft; intending to send him to Wellington in a schooner, which was to sail the next morning. But he proved to me that I did not understand thief-taking, or at any rate thief-keeping; for he slipped his irons in the night, and started to the northward.’2

Men whose work took them into isolated parts of the country needed cooking skills. As late as 1969, the New Zealand Forest Service published a manual for staff hunters called Camp cookery. Itinerant workers such as shearers sometimes had their own male cooks, though farming women were also expected to feed them. In professions where women were largely absent – gum digging for instance – men did the cooking. Men were chefs in restaurants and hotels, although women did this job too. All the chefs in the armed forces were men until recently.

The advent of outdoor barbecues in the 1950s brought men and cooking closer to home because men typically did the barbecueing. Some outdoor pursuits, such as fishing, also involved men cooking. Noel Holmes’s 1963 book Just cooking, thanks was inspired by his love of fishing, which included cooking his catch. His blokey, relaxed style of writing belied the sophistication of his recipes – they included marinated raw fish, something European New Zealanders were unfamiliar with at the time.

A number of television cooking-show hosts have been men, though, in the early years at least, their audiences were predominantly female. The judges on the popular television show of the early 2000s, MasterChef New Zealand, were all men. Male cookbook authors and food writers were increasingly visible from the 1970s.

    • Quoted in David Veart, First catch your weka: a story of New Zealand cooking. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008, p. 120. Back
    • Edward Jerningham Wakefield, Adventure in New Zealand. Auckland: Golden Press, 1975, p. 194 (originally published 1845). Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Burton, 'Cooking', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

He kōrero nā David Burton, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013