Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

New Zealand Food and Culture


It is almost as though it were the last place created. Carefully arranged on two main islands it seems that nature’s awesome constructions display themselves solely for the delight of humans. Here is everything: snow-tipped mountains piercing the clouds, emerald green pastures dotted with sheep, glacial lakes spilling into waterfalls, and sunny beaches splashed with blue waters. Small scrubbed cities nestled into hillsides, a few bustling hustling cities where the main business gets done, and then miles and miles of peaceful but rugged natural beauty to calm the mind and quench the soul with serenity

But most of the world thinks of New Zealand as a faraway place where people drink tea at four and spend the rest of their time tending sheep. No doubt this is the image deliberately perpetuated by the 3.5 million New Zealanders who are fully aware of their good life, beautiful land, and benevolent climate.

If New Zealanders have a reputation for pride, it is for good reason. Although they cannot take credit for the beautiful land or benevolent climate, they can take credit for creating a society where pollution, poverty, malnutrition, racism, and unemployment are almost non-existent. This is not to say that life for New Zealanders was always idyllic. There had been friction between two peoples of such diverse philosophies: the Maoris and the English.

Well-preserved legends tell of the seven canoes in the Great Migration that brought the first Maoris in 1350 C.E. to the islands of New Zealand. They quickly disposed of a small population of simple people known today as the “moa-hunters”; those they favored they married, the others they ate. Surviving on the many indigenous birds and planting their own crops, the Maoris soon expanded into many powerful tribes.

Today most of the prominent Maori families trace their origin to these early adventurers who worked artistically with hone, stone, and wood, creating a highly developed culture that survived untouched for about 300 years. Then, in December 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman arrived. His visit was brief. A skirmish resulting in the deaths of several of his men convinced him to return to sea. More than a hundred years later, in 1770, Captain James Cook carefully charted the coasts of both islands and the European influx began.

The first Europeans to create settlements were missionaries bent on saving souls and fishermen bent on hunting whales. The established Maori population did not take kindly to all of this and sporadic fighting ensued. The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 gave Great Britain sovereignty over the islands but guaranteed the Maoris’ right to their lands. English colonization was slow, and occasional uprisings and disagreements between the European and native populations did little to encourage peaceful growth of the new nation. But a gold rush in 1865 brought a swell of immigrants who later settled into farming pursuits when the gold fever exhausted itself. Production of mutton and lamb quickly exceeded local needs and the introduction in 1882 of refrigerated ships gave impetus to the production of fresh meat, stimulating both the intensity of farming and the flow of immigrants.

Light industries based on food and forest products, clothing and light machinery together with the small population probably account for New Zealand’s lack of pollution problems. Although the sheep out-number the people by twenty to one, farming only absorbs about 12 percent of the population. At its worst, the unemployment level is usually less than most countries. Likely it is a combination of climate and agricultural efficiency that accounts for the abundance of meats and dairy products and a year-round selection of fruits and vegetables that places nourishing foods on every table.

That the easygoing nature of the Polynesian Maoris can exist side by side with the work-oriented English (or Pakehas as they are called in New Zealand) is a tribute to both peoples. About 88 percent of the Kiwis (New Zealanders) are of European descent, with about 9 percent of Polynesian Maori origin and the rest small groups of mixed descent. “Kiwi,” by the way, does not derive from the fruit by that name, but rather from the native kiwi bird which is flightless. Although some Maoris have adapted themselves into the mainstream of New Zealand society and can be found working in all types of industries and professions, great inequalities still exist.

A phenomenon called musu is often apparent among the Maoris, as it is among other South Pacific and even African groups. It is characterized by a deadpan expression and monosyllabic speech and is said to be caused by a combination of fear, shame, and perhaps a sense of unjust accusation. The intervention of a trusted person who speaks the language will usually calm the afflicted Maori. Regarding all property as communal and seeing no wrong in “borrowing” something he desires is another Maori cultural trait that has frequently caused misunderstandings.

But in the fabric that has built the New Zealand nation, the interweaving of the Maori spirit of nature and the Pakehas’ ethic of work and order over more than 150 years have combined to produce a proud and pioneering people in a fresh clean land of boundless beauty, in a climate that is never too hot and never too cold and where no one needs to pray for rain. Maoris, Europeans, and others have retained their cultural identities, enriching each other and in the process creating an exemplary country.

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