After three years away from home – the majority of which I was physically unable to get back into the country – I finally travelled back to Aotearoa New Zealand at the end of 2022 to spend a month soaking up quality time with the people I love, sunbathing, swimming, walking and generally resting. If you’ve emigrated, there’s a kind of bone-deep peace that comes with returning to the place that you’re from; it’s almost like your whole body is able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. As if something on a molecular level realises it’s home.
My life has changed immensely since the last time I was in New Zealand at the end of 2019. Back then, I was a fresh graduate from the MA I had spent 15 months completing in London, home for the summer to apply for jobs back in the UK, desperately passionate about food journalism but unsure I would ever be able to make a career out of it. There were news reports starting to emerge of a respiratory disease spreading throughout China and the sky in New Zealand kept turning a vicious, murky orange thanks to smoke clouds that had travelled all the way from Australia where much of the country was on fire. I finally got a job for a travel media company and flew back to London in early 2020, with many ‘see you soons’ and promises to see my family by the middle of the year. One month later we were in lockdown.
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Since then, life has ricocheted through some of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We were all tested in unimaginable ways during the depths of the pandemic and seemingly never-ending lockdowns, my country closed its borders and a toxic rhetoric brewed around the return of overseas Kiwis, my sister was diagnosed with cancer and I watched, helpless, as she struggled through the hell that is chemo. Conversely, I managed to start building my dream career, I got to travel to far-flung places and call it work, my sister got better, the borders opened and I got to drink beers and eat inordinate amounts of tzatziki on a Greek beach with my brother, whom I hadn’t seen for 2.5 years.
It’s safe to say that my month at home was one of mirrored highs and lows; joy at seeing my family, tears as I processed the relief of finally being back. It was also a month of serious education, as I took in New Zealand through fresh eyes – almost like a tourist in my own country. The knowledge I’ve gained while working in food brought a whole new element to how I was interacting with the things I was eating. There were, of course, the things I had missed and almost painfully craved while I was gone; Kiwi pies (shortcrust base, puff pastry lid, steak and cheese filling); Vogels original mixed-grain bread; whitebait fritters; Westmere butchery peri peri chicken. But there were the things I hadn’t considered as luxuries before that now stood out to me as almost unbelievably special; fish caught just a few hours before from the mouth of the bay where our beach house sits; paella topped with mussels foraged from the rocks on the beach next door; real fruit ice cream packed full of berries grown mere metres away from where we scoffed them, still salty and wet from swimming at the beach we’d just left. New Zealand’s natural larder is immense, and to eat in the country is to be incredibly spoiled.
It’s why it makes replicating this food overseas so difficult. I’ve written about this before, speaking to chefs both in the country and out about what it means to cook New Zealand cuisine and discovering that many agreed with me – it is so dependent on using the impeccable and unique natural ingredients we are so lucky to have so accessible in the country. But it’s also a process of discovery, too. Colonisation has stunted the ability to define New Zealand cuisine, instead overtaking our national food identity with cocktail sausages, fairy bread, roast lamb and – yes – my beloved pies. Allowing this whitewashed gastronomical development glossed over traditional Māori cooking methods and ingredients that would have helped us shape our own definition of New Zealand food rather than piggybacking off of the cuisine of those who colonised the land – aka, the English.
This whitewashed gastronomical development glossed over traditional Māori cooking methods and ingredients that would have helped us shape our own definition of New Zealand food
These thoughts have been fresh in my mind since returning to London. Food is my first port of call to cure homesickness, and yet I can’t eat the things I loved most while I was home, because they simply don’t exist here. There are still some people attempting to bring a piece of the Kiwi pie (so to speak) to London – not a bad business model considering there are approximately 60,000 of us living in the UK at any given time, which is around 1.2% of the total population of New Zealand – but it’s almost impossible to compare with many other, more dominant and translatable cuisines.
Peter Gordon was the most famous Kiwi chef over here. His wonderful and sadly now-closed restaurant The Providores & Tapa Room shone a light on what it meant to eat New Zealand food overseas, and its departure left a gaping hole in the restaurant repertoire for homesick Kiwis. Nothing has come close to replacing it, and these days the only places to head to if I’m craving a connection to home are cafes, bringing NZ’s infamous breakfast culture and world-leading coffee to the capital. My pick of the bunch is Ozone. It is a New Zealand business, with two outposts back home alongside its Shoreditch and London Fields venues. Every time I visit I hear at least four or five Kiwi accents, and the menu could be plucked from my favourite Auckland local; full of fusion flavours, Asian influences and bold combinations of ingredients (alongside mince on toast, which is a true Kiwi classic).
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As a small and comparatively young country, Aotearoa New Zealand has been late in finding its culinary identity, and if the restaurant industry back home is anything to go off, it’s finally finding its footing, shaping its gastronomical definition into one that seems to draw on Asian and Oceanic influences but firmly centres indigenous ingredients at its core. But in a country so intrinsically linked to the land and sea and the incredible products you can find from both, the reality is that this is a cuisine that can be difficult to translate overseas. I can’t hop down the road to my local restaurant and eat food that feels like my dad might have cooked it, nor can I source half the ingredients required to even come close to it. What I can do, however, is try my hand at a secondary replica, which is exactly what I have found myself doing whenever homesickness hits.
I can’t hop in a boat and go catch fish outside my front door to make kokoda (a Pacific Island take on ceviche), but I can walk to Broadway Market and buy some from Fin + Flounder. There’s no chance of getting NZ snapper here, but I can get sea bream, which is close enough. I can get limes and coconut milk and red pepper (or capsicum, as we call it in NZ) and red onion and tomatoes and coriander. I can marinate the fish in lime juice for a few hours and then mix it all together. And while I can’t eat it in my favourite place in the world, or laugh with my family over a plate of it, I can eat it and I can briefly feel like I’m home.