Ian Thomas Photo: Florence Charvin

The idea that we have an authentic national ‘cuisine’, for want of a better word, is delusional. 

Those that hold to the delusion are the sorts that also contend that we are more ingenious than other peoples. What nonsense! 

Both ingenuity and national culinary dishes are born from the same mother – absence of alternatives. In today’s Aotearoa there is no such absence. Our self-proclaimed ingenuity is stuff of history and the idea of a national cuisine is not even that. 

Hailing, as we do, from various tribes, whether tangata whenua or tau iwi, our food culture doesn’t reflect a vibrant meshing together of cooking histories. We don’t have the Creole or Cajun pots that fuse multi-cultural influences into a new-generation cuisine. 

Instead our food in large part can whakapapa back to cooking styles that embrace excessive boiling, steaming, and roasting of a combination of vegetables and meat, often with the inclusion of salt, which was one of the two spices available at that time. Imagine the delight when the herbs arrived! Followed by exotic and fashionable fruits, spices, and vegetables from across the world. 

The Luddites remain of course, stoically refusing plates of pasta or rice, and the evil coriander. The vast majority of us love these developments and are always eager for the next instalment. 

We are food fashionistas … authentically adaptable. 

Our food culture is all about the now. It reflects food fashion rather than food tradition. Eateries of the early 2000s have been replaced by the next hot, young vibe. We are the early adopters and the masters of adaptation. We see an idea and we take it. A little adjustment to the Kiwi palate is often required; then, Hey Presto, an authentic dining experience hits the high street, holding its spot for ten years or so. 

It’s fluid, fun and vibrant, but are we throwing the baby out with the bath water? Yes we are. Fashion following can be so cruel! 

I came to New Zealand as an immigrant in 1992. I have two strong food memories from that time. 

Firstly a ten centimetre thick, yeasty-smelling pizza base, topped with tinned spaghetti and cheese. Secondly a perfectly cooked lamb rump with a basil sauce, which was accompanied by excellent service and good wine. 

Predictably the first establishment, a take-away joint, is still in business and the second, Vidal, is not. 

Crap food on the run will always be a big part of our food scene, but alas, fine dining is not in vogue. Like a pair of flared, high-waist pants and platform shoes, toppled by the beardy, tattoo-wielding, leather-aproned offerings of long tables and sharing plates. 

Today’s fashion most regularly comes in a bun. The Bao-dog-burger triumvirate holds sway. 

Popping-up is on trend, as is a regular park-up. Food-Trucks are all go. ‘Smashing’ is all the rage, whether it’s a burger or an avocado or just generally smashing out the food in the customer’s direction. Fusion cooking is massive. That’s actually who we are; fusers of other people’s ideas, but don’t utter the word! The word ‘fusion’ – capri pants. 

So where to next? What morsels will be commanding the cat-walk next year? What’s missing? Who’s leaving? 

Who could write-off the pizza? Thankfully the experiment with tinned spaghetti and under-cooked dough didn’t gain traction, but the pizza market is huge and growing. 

Ian Thomas

I can see the Mexican wave of restaurants losing ground to the dumplingers. Veganic offerings are on the rise, starting from a low base but will reach a creditable 15% in 2021. Jerk has been hovering for a few years; maybe next year we’ll see the Jamaican BBQ giant hit the front? It’s hard to see it competing against the current darling of the BBQ, the low-and-slow brisket and ribs. 

Food halls and combination eateries will make an appearance despite the go-it-alone national small business psyche. The roast, like the wool cardigan, will hold its ground. 

Sandwiches, the unfashionable solution to eating with one hand, will fill a gap in both high street and food truck alley. Fresh or toasted, Reuben and the gang are set to make a comeback. The filled roll won’t hold its own against the bench-mark of the best thing. 

What about South America? Why have we seen so little of the feijoada and asado in particular? 

Fashion of course! Mainstream fashion is where we’re at with a strong western culture backbone. 

Who could write-off the pizza? Thankfully the experiment with tinned spaghetti and under-cooked dough didn’t gain traction, but the pizza market is huge and growing. Kiwis love cheese-on-toast and all of its Italian sub-genres. I think we’ll see a pizza joint in Hastings soon. 

We have a strong food culture based on our welcoming, accepting attitude. 

It’s important to note that food culture is not the same as food tradition. Our tradition is over-cooking cabbage and kūmara, either above or below ground, whilst our culture is embracing the delights that the world has to offer. The spice route to our shores was only opened very recently. We seize ideas and, like an airport eatery, do a rough approximation of the original. Judging by the number of options and the hoards that dine out, this is what works. 

Our culture is about sharing a meal rather than trying to duplicate great-grandmother’s recipe for ratatouille. We are not confined by old world traditionalism. I’m eager to see what’s next … and which poor baby will disappear with the dishwater. 

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