How do I even begin to tell you about the New Zealand trip that I returned from this week? My powers of lyrical description are woefully inadequate and shall do little to convey the beauty of the land which wants you to drop on your knees and beg for time to slow down so that you can drink it all in. Not that it will keep me from trying, but not just today. Perchance, you would rather that I spoke to you a little about the culture of the place and what is so oddly endearing about an average politely humorous Kiwi about to strap on his or her hiking boots to go a for a 19 km stroll up a mountain in freezing rain. Or you may want me to uncover the adrenaline-fueled adventure possibilities that this madcap nation holds which thinks little of strapping on giant rubber bands on to their feet and joyfully leaping off from dizzying heights. You may even expect me to swear by the hairy soles of inner hobbit’s feet that I had reached home.
All in good time, patient reader, we shall get around to it sooner or later. But today, in keeping with the the best hobbit traditions of valuing ‘food and cheer and song above hoarded gold,’ let’s talk food.
I am reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires and all I can think about is catching a flight to New York and turning non-vegetarian so that I can sample the world just by doing a food tour of the delicious city. My idle day dreams are interrupted only by researching delightful ways of using pomegranate arils in a salad. With a handful of toasted walnuts and almonds, some fresh baked croutons delicately flavored with thyme, and careless bunches of baby romaine. I wish I could invite you for the lunch that is being put together in my head. You are welcome to bring the wine.
I am one of those people whose writing is invariably influenced by what they are reading at that moment. So this epistle to you is practically writing itself, or rather it insists on being written exactly in this manner. My apologies to the great Ruth, and to you, while I attempt to describe a vegetarian’s journey through a country whose traditional food is meat slow cooked on hot stones in a pit in the ground over several hours. Let it not fool into believing that they can’t do their veggies in style, though. Going beyond the ubiquitous potato wedges (which I ate 3.2 tons of in a period of two weeks) the kiwis have discovered some thoughtful flavor pairings with produce as varied as pumpkin, lentils, avocado, and leek.
First stop, Auckland
The trip began with a mandatory stroll in the Viaduct Harbor area of Auckland, savoring the evening sun glinting off the waters of the bay, while floating on waves of jet lag. Before you could say Tāmaki-makau-rau (the Maori name for Auckland, meaning Tamari of a hundred lovers), we were sitting outdoors eating food truck supplied buckwheat galettes and the most divine banana nutella crepes smothered in coconut, while sipping on our first taste of NZ’s famed craft beer. The last of my Nutella feasts but the start of a beer filled adventure which saw us steadily and surely sampling brew and food to write home about in every part of the country.
Indian food in the land of Hobbit
We wound down the first day of our trip with Indian food. Now surely, one would not go all the way to another country and pay a bazillion bucks for something easily cooked at home, and lose all the wonderful opportunities to try the strange and new. Wait, sceptical reader, till you try steaming basmati rice with a dollop of yellow dal and a squeeze of fresh lime. While travelling, or for that matter, at any point in life, one should eat food that makes you warm on the inside. Our first meal in Auckland at Little India marked the start of some surprisingly authentic (may you never have to try greasy pureed tomato masquerading as Indian gravy found in odd parts of the world) food from home in kiwi land. Over the next few days, we returned to poppadums and beer many a time – The Spice Room in Wanaka, the Plaza at Picton, and Priya’s in Hokitika. We even did a takeaway picnic of biryani hot off the stove, on a bright sunshiny day in Te Anau. All I can say is don’t forget to end the meal with some traditional Indian tea.
On the subject of tea…
I rather liked the chai latte served in every corner of New Zealand. Mild, sweet, with a generous cinnamon dusting. My only complaint is that it can be too lukewarm, and after the day spent hiking in the freezing rain you need better than tepid. And in strides the long black, unadulterated with cream and sugar, the coffee made for (shivering) adults. A lot can be inferred about a country by their choice of beverage; USA with its mind boggling choice of soy-latte-with-vanilla-plucked-by-pirouetting -elves-galloping-on-unicorns in a plastic take-away large enough to rent its own apartment, good old England with its dainty tea cosies and delicate china, the Japanese with their tea ceremonies, and us Indians who thoroughly disinfect our tea by killing it with spices and boiling it to death. Like the kiwis, their beverage is far from pretentious, keeps it simple and does the job.
Choosing food over worms
Moving on from hot beverages and naan (with enough garlic to vaporize a family of vampires) let’s discuss worms. And not ordinary ones at that. We are talking about bio-luminescent worms which glow brightly in limestone caves deep underground, sending forth sticky tendrils to capture unsuspecting prey dazzled by their eerie lights. What can be better than a ghostly boat ride in the pitch dark, the water gently lapping against the side, while thousands of glow worms created a starlit sky above?
I have three words for you. Blue cheese dressing.
I must insist that you go to Waitomo. You may or may not check out the glow worm grotto, but you should have a meal at HuHu Café. At idle times now, my thoughts drift back to the salad – crisp pear with rocket and walnuts – and visions of the salty blue cheese dressing dance around my head. Do try the the pumpkin and kumara (sweet potatoes) with harissa and hummus, the carbs are cooked just right with a suitable amount of give and yet retain their structure. My sister and mom had the gnocchi which, they said was magnificent. I was too busy demolishing the salad to even look up.
The joys of a sandwich
Being of the firm opinion that café sandwiches are stodgy dry affairs, I like only the kind made fresh at home. Two sublime sandwich experiences proved me happily wrong. The first was at Abel Tasman National Park, at Bark Bay, courtesy a picnic which our kayaking guide (I will tell you all about him in another post) spread out on the beach. Delicious creamy cheese and greens all packed neatly into a sour dough bun. The combination of rain, wind, and kayaking had frozen my fingers and I rather resembled a homeless drenched rat in an oversized orange fleece clumsily gnawing at the sandwich. Let’s just say that I won’t make it to Vogue, but the sandwich can easily score a cover with Gourmet. It will, however, face stiff competition with its cousin at Sandfly Café in Te Anau. We stumbled into the café on a cold, rainy and dreary day; having their avocado, pesto and brie sandwich seemed to bring the sun out. Accompanied by giant Portobello mushrooms baked atop cheese toast, and the most toothsome veg and cashew curry with rice, it is a meal I can still taste. Goes to show that with a little bit of thought and some good produce, even ordinary ingredients can be elevated to be a meal fit for royalty. Am determined to replicate the pesto and avocado sandwich – I shall be happy to eat it every day for the rest of my life.
But what about the lentil burger?
Scratch eating sandwiches for life. The only meal I want to repeat ad infinitum is the one we had at Hislop’s in Kaikoura. I first read about the café while couch surfing at home in Bangalore, doing my food research on Happy Cow. After our whale watching tour got cancelled (but not for good, wait till relate all), we gleefully looked for places to eat in Kaikoura before embarking on the picturesque peninsular walk. Hislops’s philosophy is to serve fresh local organic produce in fun and creative ways. We tried – and I quote from their menu – the following; the lentil burger namely lentil, cashew and coriander patty sitting atop crisp salad on toasted bread and hummus finished with avocado and fermented beetroot chutney; organic potato, feta and mint rosti layered with grilled brie, fresh tomato salsa and finished with balsamic reduction; and finally, the spinach crepes served on seasonal salad finished with a date and cumin dressing and herbed yoghurt sauce. My mum mopped the rosti clean while the husband did not utter a word while he ate the crepes. Me? I was at a private party to which only the lentil burger was invited. The patty alone was the size of my face, a fact that did not deter me from eating every single morsel on the plate.
Speaking of food items as big as my face
My food reading had revealed that New Zealand specializes in hokey pokey ice cream. Now I absolutely dig vanilla ice cream, and I love toffee, so vanilla with bits of toffee through it which is basically the staple hokey pokey ice-cream, could have been tailor made for me. So I kept an eagle eye out for it the moment I stepped on to Kiwi soil as one needs to be on constant good dessert alert. I spied it on a lunch menu in Tongariro where it was being served with pavlova – but foolishly forgot to keep space for dessert due to a gigantic nacho and salsa situation. The rest of the trip, while I encountered what seemed to be the local sorbet made by Tip Top, and some great Magnum produced overseas, and plenty of gelato shops selling flavors such as boysenberry, not a single glimpse of hokey pokey. Then finally, on the last leg of the trip, at Kingston Café, I found the good stuff quietly waiting for me in an old-style ice-cream counter. I was snapped eating the ice-cream; only very tiny but very happy slits of my eyes are visible above a big cloud atop a waffle cone.
It is another matter that I spent the better part of the rest of the day trying not to throw up my dessert. I had to sky dive later in the day and it will suffice to say that I am not too fond of heights. Moral of the story: before jumping off a plane with a flimsy bag strapped on your back, don’t eat dessert. Rather, before jumping off a plane with a flimsy bag strapped on your back, don’t eat. Or expect just deserts.
The other dish consistently larger than my face were the nachos. While the more ordinary nachos with beans and salsa can be found practically everywhere in the country, do try the tortilla chips with queso picante in Little Mexico Cantina and Tequila Bar in Auckland. Follow it up with their excellent enchiladas, or choose from their tacos and burritos. Wash it all down with Corona.
Which brings us, rather nicely, to the beer
The North Island has pretty good craft beer, and we ended our trip with some outstanding IPA at Shakespeare in Auckland, a tavern built at the turn of the last century, New Zealand’s first brewpub and hotel. They proudly declare that the Bard proclaimed “I would give all my fame for a pot of ale,” a statement that I quite agree with. You can even take my salad but please leave the fries. And erm, don’t even think about touching the onion rings. Before I get distracted by deep fried bar snacks, let’s go back to beer. I quite liked discovering Mac’s Gold and Steinlager – lagers with a light freshness to them. Both are brewed in and around Auckland, as I was to later find out. They don’t hold a patch, though, to Monteith’s Original. Brewed in Greymouth, South Island, it is an amber ale with notes of burnt caramel. It does not seem to be a big hit on the beer review sites, but heck, if I like it, I am going to drink it. My only regret is not touring the brewery, when we passed Greymouth on our way to Hokitika. Next time, then.
What makes the food in NZ truly special is the great service that accompanies it. Through the length and breadth of the country, I found folks people eager to share a laugh while reciting the day’s special. Staff went out of their way to explain, recommend or cook up delicious dishes. Food was served up with a friendly smile and many a story. We did have a few bad experiences – confused waiters, cold and unappetizing food – but they only helped me appreciate the good times even more.
People fall in love with New Zealand for many reasons. Sapphire blue lakes, postcard perfect snow capped mountains, little Alpine villages sleepily tucked away, the magnificence of the volcanoes, of the breath taking fiords, and the mysterious stillness of the lush rainforests – there is indeed much to choose from. I would like to believe that I gave my heart away to the country one morsel, one sip, one bite, one meal at a time.