As with every culture, the world of Kiwi food has had its mainstays, and it’s also had some strange fads along the way.
The culinary landscape of Ashburton today reflects how we eat a wider range of food now than ever before. You can obtain and eat virtually anything you’d want to eat here (within good reason), but it hasn’t always been this way.
In the early days of this country, the standard diet mainly consisted of things such as oatmeal or porridge, breads, meat such as mutton or beef, and some basic vegetables.
Moving to New Zealand was seen as a great improvement to standard of living, and an escape from poverty and hunger for many.
New Zealand was marketed as a land of plenty, a notion that attracted many colonists from the British Isles. Therefore, the New Zealand diet stems heavily from that of the English, with ‘meat and three veg’ meals remaining commonplace up into the twenty-first century.
Among other sources, the book “Letters from Early New Zealand” by Charlotte Godley gives insight into how early settlers ate and produced food during the 1850s. Accounts of dairying in Otago, keeping cattle, and the cooking and eating of various meals are given. With the diet being of primarily English influence, it is no surprise that tea drinking was also already widespread.
As you can imagine, living in an isolated colony in the South Pacific can, among other things, yield interesting results. In terms of food, one interesting Kiwi creation was the “colonial goose”.
In essence, this dish consisted of a boned leg of mutton, with a savoury stuffing, which was prepared in such a way that it looked like a cooked goose. This may sound quite strange (at least if you’ve never found out what a ‘turducken’ is), but placed within the context of colonialism it makes some sense.
Geese were hard to come by for a good part of this country’s early history and sheep were abundant, so homesick and hungry Kiwis devised this dish to fill the void. This recipe is a classic example of colonial ingenuity, but it has fallen out of the wider public conscience and is rarely prepared anymore. Colonial goose fell by the wayside later in the twentieth century as numerous food products stayed in the mainstream.
The feelings associated with the very name of one particular food item can enrage even the calmest individual or instil a sense of passive nostalgia: marmite (or vegemite!). The disconcerting brown yeasty spread has stayed relevant for over a century, which leaves us with one prevailing question – how?
Marmite, as it was eventually branded, was discovered by German chemist Justus von Liebig in the late nineteenth century. It was commercialised and sold by the Marmite Food Extract Company from 1902 onwards, and within five years the product had gained success.
Sanitarium gained the rights to distribute marmite in New Zealand and Australia by 1908, and the rest is history. Over time, the true health benefits of this yeast extract spread were discovered. As it turns out, marmite contains a rich array of B vitamins and other nutrients – attributes that boosted marmite to superfood status.
The true popularity of marmite was revealed in 2012 when a national shortage, dubbed “Marmageddon”, occurred following the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
During the shortage, somebody listed a 250g jar of the stuff on TradeMe for $800 – unsurprisingly nobody was that desperate for their marmite fix. Whether you consider it to be pure rubbish or the pinnacle of modern food science, the fact remains that marmite has stuck around for over a hundred years. At this point it seems unlikely that it, alongside its estranged brother vegemite, will be dethroned as the ultimate Australasian acquired taste.
During the last half century, New Zealand has opened up to the big, wide world of culinary diversity. Again using Ashburton as our example – our town boasts numerous culturally diverse eateries and a yearly international food festival. The speed at which our palate has widened is breakneck – to think merely a hundred years ago we tried to pass off sheep meat as that of a tasty bird!
By Connor Lysaght
- An unknown soldier enjoying a plate of roast – the classic kiwi meal.
- A variety of roasted dishes, from Mrs Beeton’s famous cookbook.
- The style of marmite tin produced between the 1910s and the 1950s.
- A cartoon from Punch, 1848, showing the benefits of emigration to the colonies, with a family around a laden dinner table.