New Zealand is sparsely populated—just 4 million people total, slightly larger than the metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Nonetheless, it’s quite a big place in terms of zazz. Locals are rightfully proud of the clean, safe, beautiful place where they live, and a recent visit revealed that they’ve got food worth bragging up as well.

A couple quick things before I get down to the meat of this post. New Zealand’s craft beer is great, but most restaurants offer only a paltry few macro-brewed offerings. Look for a dedicated brewpub or craft beer bar—there are quite a few in the major cities. The Malthouse in Wellington is one of the standouts; there I sampled Epic Porta Marillo, a deep, wonderful local porter co-brewed with Dogfish Head that featured New Zealand tamarillos (known as tree tomatoes) smoked with Pohutakawa woodchips.

New Zealand wine, in case you hadn’t heard, is plentiful and palatable. Most wine lists are exclusively local, and the nation’s vineyards are gorgeous and well worth touring. Olive oil, also great. Local venison: Seek it out. Eat it. If you can catch feijoa fruit in season, try it. It’s a little like a raisin-kissed kiwi fruit, or so it tasted as filtered through the media of feijoa beer and feijoa ice cream.

Now, down to brass tacks: the foods (or rather, classes of food) that you must sample should you find yourself in New Zealand.

Lamb: Easier said than done. New Zealand has an odd tradition of exporting its best lamb, so not every lamb experience you have is guaranteed to be memorable, at least not in a good way. It pays to ask around, or just go straight for the upscale option. We had the lamb chops at Logan Brown in Wellington, one of the country’s best restaurants, and were humbled by them. They were beautifully tender, rich in flavor without being gamy, and perfectly seasoned.

Flat whites: Coffee culture is such a part of New Zealand that it’s hard to believe that it’s only taken root over the past few decades. There are independent cafés all over the major cities, and even roadside diners have terrific java. The go-to drink is the flat white, a latte-like beverage that also evokes the cafés con leche that keep Spain wired during the pre-siesta hours. This mix of espresso and gently steamed milk is soothing, invigorating, and able to show off the mellow, balanced approach to coffee roasting that seems to be the island nation’s hallmark.

Pavlovas: Also popular in Australia, a pavlova is slow-baked egg whites with sugar, cornstarch, and vinegar. The final product is like a meringue with a soft marshmallow-like interior, usually topped with some combination of fresh summer fruit, whipped cream, and/or ice cream. You may have a tough time tracking pavlovas down unless you’re invited to a dinner party; restaurants rarely seem to serve them, but it’s a family dinner specialty. The gorgeous individually portioned specimen pictured here was specially prepared for a wedding at the Delamore Lodge on Waiheke Island, off the coast of Auckland.

Meat pies: Say “pies” in New Zealand, and you’re talking savory, not sweet. Meat pies abound, and they’re almost universally tasty (although there are a couple mass-made supermarket brands that fall a bit short). Mince or mince with cheese are typical, but the fillings, sizes, and crust styles vary quite a bit. Pictured here is a Japanese-style curried chicken meat pie served up at Hashigo Zake, the self-described “cult beer bar” of Wellington.

Passion fruit: When in season, passion fruit appears everywhere—splashed on top of cheesecake, served as ice cream, used as an ingredient in mixed drinks, and so forth. It’s absolutely wonderful, with a tart, funky depth that most other fruit lacks. If you’re in New Zealand in summer, make sure to seek it out. Pictured here: passion fruit tea cakes as part of a smashingly good high tea at Martha’s Pantry in Wellington.

Honorable mention, Spaghetti on toast: Canned spaghetti (often the Wattie’s brand) served over toast. Why? Not clear. But it’s a standard diner comfort food, and it’s even served as breakfast. Not a taste that will necessarily melt your brain, but it’s fun to talk up upon your return to the States.

Images by Becca Dilley

James Norton has just returned from a lengthy trip to New Zealand, where he ate a lot of stuff.

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