Most people come to New Zealand’s South Island for the nature. We were no exception. In January, my husband Bikram and I spent three weeks driving across the region, swimming in glacial lakes, sleeping off the grid, and walking in national parks. However, as we travelled through its remote countryside and tourist hotspots, we discovered something that surprised us—a vibrant food scene, one where fresh local produce is used to rustle up dishes from across the globe.
In fact, from the very first day, New Zealand revealed unexpected culinary delights. Our first stop was the South Island’s capital, Christchurch. We weren’t taken aback by the vacant lots and buildings encased in scaffolding—we’d heard about the 2011 earthquake. What we weren’t expecting was quite how buzzing Christchurch would be. As we sauntered down the sun-dappled streets, we discovered street theatre performers, craft markets, and best of all, a cosmopolitan dining scene.
Our first stop was the Curator’s House, a Spanish restaurant in a heritage building nestled in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. We ordered a tapas tasting platter, and sat in the shaded outdoor courtyard, which overlooked green lawns bordered by hydrangea. Six dishes arrived, including a bowl of succulent pork and beef meatballs, with a piquant mushroom sauce, and croquetas covered in a crispy panko-crumb coating. But there was one clear winner—the home-made chorizo. Generous slices had been gently fried; the pork sausage-meat was tender and infused with paprika.
Later that day, we stopped at Hawker & Roll, a Malaysian street food joint with communal tables and brightly coloured stools. I ordered a beef rendang roll. The rich, sweet, mildly-spiced filling was complemented by a garnish of sliced red chilli, freshly grated coconut and coriander leaves, and wrapped in a flaky roti canai. My husband rated it as the best meal of the trip.
Next, we headed over to New Regent Street. The pedestrianised heritage streetscape looked like a set from a Wes Anderson movie, with its pastel Spanish Mission houses and trams. Here we discovered Rollickin’ Gelato, an ice cream parlour with a queue out the door. We ordered one of the seasonal flavours, ‘Coal 4 U’—activated charcoal blended with organic milk and studded with chunks of chocolate-coloured honeycomb (known in New Zealand as hokey pokey). The charcoal added a hint of bitterness to the vanilla.
After recovering from jet lag, we drove out of Christchurch and up towards the scenic northern coast, stopping to cool off at a beach near Abel Tasman National Park. The rest of the country had the same idea. Lobster-red sunbathers occupied almost every inch of sand, and the seas heaved with people. We decided to get something to eat instead.
“There’s a food truck. New Zealand’s supposed to do great fish and chips,” I said, and Bikram was game.
But the beer-battered squid rings and the panko-crusted fish burger failed to meet our expectations. The squid leaked oil and was rubbery and overcooked, while the dense bun marred the flavour of the fish. Luckily, this was the only culinary low point of our trip.
We drove onwards, following alarming hairpin bends over Takaka Hill to Golden Bay, where we were to stay in an off-the-grid cedar cabin overlooking an estuarine bay. After several days of kayaking, cycling and stargazing, we headed into the nearest town, Takaka, for lunch. The inhabitants hadn’t received the memo that the ’70s were over. Dreadlocked, tie-dyed hippies wandered barefoot past wholefood cafés and shops selling shapeless, colourful garments.
Despite being a former tie-dye wearer myself, I found this over-the-top hippie culture a tad overwhelming. We skipped lunch in Takaka. Instead we drove 10 minutes out of town to Anatoki Salmon, a place where tourists and locals throng to catch salmon from a lake, and have it smoked or sliced into sashimi. There is also a café that serves freshly caught fish. We ordered a salmon platter and sat under an awning overlooking the lake, watching as people tried to reel in their lunch with varying degrees of success. It wasn’t long before a large, white plate full of salmon-based delicacies arrived. We tucked into crispy salmon croquettes, moist hot-smoked salmon and a creamy salmon pâté, spread liberally over soft ciabatta bread. But the salmon was so fresh it needed precious little adornment. My favourite were the thin slices of cold-smoked salmon, served with a soy sauce dip.
On our last day in the cedar cabin, we decided to walk a part of the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which meanders for over 63 kilometres through Abel Tasman National Park. After a few hours of following the trail along forested cliffs and turquoise bays, we cooled off with a dip at Wainui Bay, with only a few people around. As I walked towards the ocean, I saw a rock pool. Under the water lay a wooden spur encrusted in mussels. I returned to my husband with hands full of gleaming blue-black shells, studded with small white barnacles.
“You aren’t going to eat those, are you?” he asked.
He has an intense distrust of anything I gather from the wild. Back in the cabin, I de-bearded the mussels, scrubbed the shells in the open-to-sky kitchen, and steamed them in white wine, garlic and cream. I ate them while watching the sun set, with a glass of locally produced Stoneleigh Chardonnay. Plucked from the sea only a few hours before, they were lightly salted, plump and tender.
We spent the next week driving down Highway 6, a scenic route along the island’s weather-beaten Wild West Coast. After a couple of days in the quirky town of Hokitika, we headed to the small village of Franz Josef, where we’d arranged to go skydiving. We also decided to hike Robert’s Point Track, a nine-kilometre return hike up to a viewing platform near a glacier face. Informed by guests at our hostel that it was an easy walk, we set out with a small bottle of water and a sandwich each, only to be met with a slightly concerning warning sign at the start of the route:
“Robert’s Point Track is only suitable for experienced, well-equipped trampers,” it read. And then further down the board, “Three people have died on Robert’s Point Track!”
“Don’t worry, nine kilometres won’t take five hours,” I reassured my husband.
It took longer. Last night’s rainfall had made the steep path slippery and hazardous.
Later, feeling faint with hunger, we headed to The Gourmet Hangi Kitchen and Kiwi Fish & Chips—a food truck in Franz Josef—and ordered some salt and pepper squid, and battered tarakihi and chips. Minutes later, we carried the warm, paper-wrapped parcel to our hostel. We ate on the balcony, looking out at dramatic grey clouds and forested hills. The tarakihi was crispy on the outside and soft and flaky on the inside. The squid was a real hit—large, tender chunks encased in a crispy, peppery coating. Finally, New Zealand was living up to its reputation for decent fish and chips.
Our next stop was an Airbnb near Lake Hawea, a 20-minute drive from Wanaka. We spent a day reading in the sun-tinted garden, and swimming in the cold waters of Lake Hawea. The day after, we headed into Wanaka, the busiest town we’d visited since Christchurch. The lakeshore was fringed with sunbathers, the streets lined with shops, cafés and restaurants. We had lunch at AmiGos Mexican Grill, where we took full advantage of the two-for-one offer on all NZD6/Rs275 tacos. We tucked into soft tacos filled with crispy calamari and spiced chorizo, sweet pulled duck with crispy skin and acidic slices of green apple, and fried chicken with sweetcorn salsa. A frozen margarita was the perfect accompaniment.
On the way home, we stopped at the supermarket. I caught sight of a water tank filled with green-lipped mussels, indigenous to New Zealand and one of the largest species in the world. I picked up three for NZD5/Rs230 (again, my husband refused to eat them). That evening, we placed the mussels on the grill next to a couple of beef steaks and some home-made halloumi and red pepper skewers and watched as the shells slowly open up. I garnished them with some tomato salsa and a squeeze of fresh lemon; the green-tipped mussels were meatier than the commonly available black-shell variety.
After a couple more days, we travelled inland alongside the Southern Alps to Lake Tekapo. Just past the village of Twizel, we stopped for lunch at High Country Salmon, a salmon farm and floating café on the glacial waters of Wairepo Arm. This area of New Zealand has a high population of Chinese and Japanese immigrants and tourists, a demographic detail noticeable on the café’s menu. We ordered four salmon-based dishes—poke, sashimi, sushi and chowder—at the canteen counter, and took the plastic trays of sashimi and sushi back to our table. I found the chowder a little too sweet for my taste, but the other dishes were light and fresh. The salmon sushi was perfectly complemented by salty soy sauce and spicy green wasabi paste.
Three weeks in, when it was time to depart, we were sorry to leave the South Island. Our culinary adventures didn’t take us to Michelin-starred restaurants, with gleaming cutlery and crisp white tablecloths. Instead we revelled at food trucks, supermarkets, and produce plucked from the ocean. Even our takeaway was delicious: good food doesn’t need to be dressed up in fancy guises. It tastes just as good eaten outdoors off plastic plates or a wrap of paper; accompanied just by soy sauce or a squeeze of lemon.
Getting There & Visa
There are no direct flights from India to New Zealand. Flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Christchurch usually involve one or more layovers in Singapore or Melbourne.
Self drive is very popular in New Zealand. There are rental car depots in the main cities and most regional airports. Your travel insurance must cover car hire. Visitors need a current driver’s licence from their home country or an International Driving Permit (IDP). Like India, NZ drives on the left-hand side of the road.
Applications for a tourist visa to NZ can be made online at www.immigration.govt.nz. It costs NZD210/Rs9,750 and takes 3-4 weeks to process.
New Zealand’s climate is usually mild, but can change unexpectedly. It ranges from subtropical in the north to temperate in the south. Inland alpine areas of the South Island can be as cold as -10°C in winter. Spring (Sep-Nov) sees an average temperature of 11°C, summer (Dec-Feb) around 26°C. Autumn/fall (Mar-May) temperatures hovering around 15°C. Check the weather before planning your travel to national parks.
Dani Redd is a food and travel writer based in Bangalore. She loves visiting remote islands across the world, and trying out new dishes on on her travels. She's currently writing a novel about a woman setting up a curry house on an Arctic island.