After a hectic year of med school and the fervour that was final exams (which I passed by the way, so call me a second-year!), I was itching to get out onto my road trip holiday through New Zealand. And despite being told unanimously by everyone who has ever visited, I was still unprepared for just how stunningly beautiful of a country it was. We spent 13 days driving through the South Island – starting in Christchurch, across to the West Coast, then down to Queenstown and Fjordland, then finally back up to Christchurch via Mt Cook. And although I could talk for ever and ever about the scenery, my love for Lupin flowers, and just how unbelievably blue all the water was, we’re all really here to hear about one thing – the food.
We stayed in Christchurch for two days – long enough for me to be surprised at the quality of the food there. For a town that is not known to be a culinary hub, and still recovering from the disastrous earthquake in 2011 on top of that, the food options were surprisingly varied and authentic. I stumbled upon a street full of Asian restaurants, and it smelt as good as any place I’ve been in Australia. A decision was quickly made to eat at Gang Nam – a small Korean restaurant with an authentic-looking menu. We feasted on Spicy Korean Rice Cake ($12NZD) with Instant Noodles ($2NZD) added in to soak up the spicy sauce, a Short Rib Stew ($16NZD) that had disappointingly little meat, but a very delicious broth that went down a treat with a bowl of rice, and a surprisingly generous range of banchan that trumps that of most Melbourne restaurants. The portions may not be as generous as I’m used to, but the flavours were spot-on.
It was also in Christchurch – or to be specific, at Dimitri’s Greek Food – that I ate the best souvlaki I’ve ever had. The Lamb Souvlaki ($12NZD, single) was delicious, but it was the Chicken Souvlaki ($12NZD, single) that really blew my mind. Never have I had chicken in a souvlaki that was so juicy and full of flavour, and it was slathered in a tzatziki that was a perfect combination of creamy and tangy, which really brought out the gorgeous flavours of the meat. I also loved how the souvlaki was served in a cone-shape, so there was the option of eating all the filling, then eating as much, or as little of the bread as you want.
The next day, we made the drive across to the West Coast, via Arthur’s Pass. On the way, there was a stop-off at Sheffield Pies, which I’ve read on some websites does the best country-styled pies around. But they don’t stop there – check out this cabinet of baked goodies!!
As for pies, there were something like 20 savoury pies, and half a dozen sweet options on offer. They run the gamut from classic concoctions such as steak and mushroom, or country chicken, all the way to exotic concoctions like chicken, camembert and apricot, or lamb’s fry and bacon. It was almost impossible to choose.
In the end, I decided I wanted to try the Steak and Kidney Pie ($5.2NZD), so that I could finally tick it off the list. As I had half-predicted, kidney is just not my thing. But aside from that, I was a major fan of the feathery pastry that flaked away in a flurry, and the heartiness of the chunks of steak in the thick, dark gravy.
The Pork and Apple Pie ($6NZD) on the other hand was a thorough winner. The filling of tender roast pork and apple puree tasted like the best of Sunday roasts, and the pastry reminiscent of Yorkshire pudding. It was also on the lighter end, which means that you can easily down two of these puppies without feeling the shame.
Food was a lot less exciting when we hit the West Coast. Greymouth was a small, sleepy town without a whole lot going on, though I did manage to have a good brunch at the local favourite, Maggie’s Kitchen. When I say good brunch however, I don’t mean the sleek, restaurant-quality stuff you get here; rather, the food is honest home-cooked fare, sort of like what you’d get at a diner in America. At any rate, the Pancake Stack ($13NZD), served with bananas and plenty of syrup, was a total treat. The pancakes were light and fluffy, and exactly what you want for soaking up the ample amount of syrup on the plate.
The Omelette ($17.5NZD) didn’t disappoint either. Each came with your choice of up to 3 ingredients – in this case, I went for ham, mushroom, and tomato – which were then cooked into a giant, airy omelette with what seemed to be at least 4 eggs. It was a great feed prior to a big day of adventuring, and there’s even the added bonus of no dishes to do!
A couple days later, we were in Franz Josef. Being a prime tourist destination, there was actually plenty of places to eat, even if everything was on the overpriced and boring side. Case in point: we headed to The Copper Pot to satisfy a craving for Indian food, and our Dal Tadka ($18.9NZD) was very average indeed, and probably even less flavoursome than the dal I make at home.
The Tikka Masala Chicken ($19.9NZD) was better, but still nothing to write home about. The chicken was tender, but lacked the smokiness of the tandoor, and whilst the sauce was more flavoursome, it was largely due to the addition of salt, and lacked any real complexity.
Worst of all, our dessert of Gulab Jamun ($6.5NZD) consisted of a single donut, which sat sadly between us in a pool of syrup. Sure it tasted nice but, nothing will convince me that it was worth it.
Surprisingly, Full of Beans actually fared a lot better. Despite being a run-of-the-mill café-styled establishment, everything was actually reasonably priced, and served up in overly-generous portions. It didn’t taste too bad either – the Country Beef Lasagne ($20NZD) came in a deep bowl, and although on the mushy side, was made with plenty of cheese, and a hearty beef and vegetable ragu. It was also extra-saucy, and so incidentally made for a great dip for the thick-cut fries.
I thought the lasagne was big, but the Open Steak Sandwich ($24.5NZD) absolutely boggled my mind. Not only was the sandwich itself so big that I could barely get my hands around it, but sitting underneath it was a full plate of chips and salad. I ended up leaving most of the bread and fries, yet was still stuffed at the end of the meal.
As we made our way down the West Coast, I keep seeing everything from restaurants to fish and chipperies selling something called whitebait fritters. Eventually I worked out that it was a specialty of the West Coast of South Island, and a quick search online told me that Curly Tree Whitebait Company is the place to get them.
I’m glad I looked this place up, because there was no way I would’ve noticed it as I was driving past. Turning off the Haast Highway about 15km before you hit the town, you drive down an unsealed road for about a km until you finally reach a seaside shack. Give your car horn a honk if there’s no one there, and pretty soon someone will pop out and make you a fresh Whitebait Fritter ($10NZD), with a side of great conversation thrown in for free. And before you baulk at the price like I did, consider that South Island whitebait goes for something like $90/kg wholesale, and you can pay up to $40 for them at a pub – now this seems like a pretty good deal, hey?
Curly Tree Whitebait Company is first and foremost a fishery, which means that their produce is as fresh as can be. They take the tiny little fish and suspend them in an eggy batter, before spreading it thinly over a hotplate. Within minutes the fritter is ready to be served on a slice of white bread, with a squeeze of lemon and some salt and pepper. The fish is delicate and mild, and the overall flavour of the fritter is a subtle one. I will admit that I don’t quite get the hype, but I’m glad to have tried an authentic whitebait fritter nevertheless.
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! On our first night in Queenstown, we hit up Fat Badger’s Pizza Bar, and grabbed The Fat Badger ($28NZD, 12 inch) – their OG concoction of chicken, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, roasted red pepper, and NZ mozzarella. My only regret is not getting to try their giant 20-inch pizzas topped with some of their more inventive combinations.
I did however have room for the Jalapeno Poppers ($6NZD, 6pcs), which are my new favourite thing. These may not be the traditional kind where a full chili is stuffed with cheese, but I loved the way the crisp, slightly chewy coating gave way to the cheesy, creamy centre studded with jalapenos.
I also had the luck of stumbling upon Pedro’s House of Lamb while planning for the trip, and after filling out a quick online order form, we were rewarded with our very own Whole Lamb Shoulder with Scalloped Potatoes ($50NZD) the very next day.
Roasted over low heat with garlic and rosemary for at least 6 hours, the entire lamb shoulder was so tender that the meat shredded off with just a gentle tug from the plastic fork. The potatoes were perfectly fluffy and soaked with the cooking juices of the lamb, and each piece just melted in the mouth. Along with some bread rolls and salad, this made for 4 very hearty and delicious meals.
I had originally planned on trying more of the stuff at Cookie Time, aka the most famous cookie place in all of NZ. But after trying some samples, I decided I wasn’t enough of a fan, and so just ended up grabbing a small scoop of Confetti Cheesecake Cookie Dough ($3NZD, tiny) instead. This was a great way to get your sugar hit (at 10am, might I add), and the melted chocolate poured into the waffle cone was an extra sweet treat after all the cookie dough is gone.
Whilst in Queenstown, we made a day trip to the quaint little Arrowtown, and had lunch at Arrowtown Bakery. And on the menu? Pies, of course – country-style.
The Venison Pie ($7NZD) was very tasty, with a lightly fruity gravy, and a more delicate flavour than the traditional steak pie. It came topped with a very puffy crust which I thought was too thick, but Chris loved – it’s all a matter of preference, as the pastry itself is flaky and top-notch; I just prefer a high filling-to-pastry ratio myself.
The Chicken and Apricot ($7NZD) pie was a more unusual concoction, but a really, really effective one. The chicken was smothered in a light, creamy sauce that was augmented with the distinct sweetness of apricot. The combination surprised the tastebuds with each bite, and left me going back for more.
Of course, I couldn’t leave without trying the Custard Slice ($4.5NZD), which was as excellent as I had hoped. The custard was thick and wobbly, and the addition of shredded coconut gave it a bit of texture. But what I liked the most was that instead of the usual powdered sugar on top, this slice was garnished with a thin layer of icing, which added a moreish sugariness to each bite.
And so we were done with Queenstown, and started making our way to Fjordland, followed by Mount Cook. But hang on, I hear you say, what about Fergburger? The reason that I’m not talking about Fergburger (as well as the affiliated Fergbaker and Mrs Ferg Gelateria) here is because we actually ate so much from the Ferg empire in the few days that we were here that I felt like they deserved their own posts. So keep your eyes peeled – they’ll be coming up within the next few weeks!
Anyway, things get significantly less exciting food-wise in the second half of the trip. We were truly getting out into the wilderness by this point, so most of our meals consisted of bad take-away. There was one highlight however – the Salmon Sashimi ($10NZD, 100g) from Mount Cook Alpine Salmon. My parents had raved about this place after their trip to New Zealand, and indeed, it lived up to the hype. This is the freshest, fattiest, most flavoursome sashimi I have ever had, and I imagine I could down 20 pieces with ease. Why I didn’t get 500g of sashimi for $35 I’ll never know.
And so that more or less sums up the highlights of my NZ eating. Although the smaller towns were predictably less thrilling, I had a great time eating my way around the better populated areas. Produce everywhere was just impeccable, and I was frankly impressed by the quality of the cooking, especially in Christchurch. New Zealand may not be a foodie haven in the way say, Japan and Malaysia may be, but there are plenty of great things to eat, and new things to try.