Luckily our trip caught the end of whitebait season. Whitebait are the adolescent form of estuary fish, plentiful in New Zealand’s rivers at this time of year. They basically look like translucent white little fishies that people catch in finely meshed nets at the river mouths where whitebait come when swimming upstream from the ocean. Before you feel too bad, whitebait are plentiful, fishing is strictly controlled (in terms of quantity, net sizes and season) and apparently the little guys are quite adept at avoiding capture.
Most of the whitebait we ate was cooked traditionally in egg fritters, kind of like a mini fish omelette. The whitebait itself is very tender and mild, so purists just use egg so as not to overpower the flavor, then add a spritz of lemon and maybe some salt or parsley. Some spots for whitebait are Edenhouse, a B&B near Nelson.
Then again, at the Tiritiri Lodge on Lake Wanaka, the chef switched things up and sautéed the individual suckers before placing them in lettuce cups with saffron aioli sauce, and the new chef at Amisfield Winery’s award-winning restaurant presented his version individually flash-fried with lemon and aioli, kind of like calamari.
Pronounced like "tar," the tahr is a Himalayan mountain goat—well, not exactly a goat, but goat-like, and very closely related to your average goat. They were introduced to the Southern Alps, where their numbers grew significantly, making them a pest to the indigenous habitat and opening up the possibility of hunting them.
Most tahr-hunting is private and recreational, but you can also find it on menus here and there on the South Island. We tried it at a restaurant called Feast Bar & Dining in the Central Otago town of Cromwell, where the young chef braised the meat so it was tender, and then baked it into a fluffy, flaky meat pie, kind of like goat-pot-pie. Hearty, filling, and totally delicious.
· Green-Shell Mussels
Also called green-lip mussels, these enormous mollusks grow all over New Zealand, though the most famous ones come from the pristine waterways of the South Island’s Marlborough Sounds (and go perfectly with a glass of local “savy”). They can grow to be enormous—we saw one that was a full five inches long—and their meat is especially soft and sweet. Not only that, but apparently they’re a kind of “superfood” since they contain fatty acids that reportedly help reduce systemic inflammation such as arthritis.
While out on a tour of the Marlborough Sounds, a water taxi driver obligingly pulled up to one of the mussel farms, hauled a line out of the water and collected a couple dozen for dinner at Raetihi Lodge, where the chef prepared them in an ale-chorizo broth.
Fun fact: you can tell which mussels are male and which are female by their color. The males are paler and the females are more orange.
· Hot-Smoked Salmon
Okay, okay. We know salmon is available like everywhere, but New Zealand really holds pride of place when it comes to this supple, sought-after fish. Everywhere you go in the country, you can find a locally raised version of it on menus. New Zealand salmon is loved for the rich, unctuous flesh of the freshwater farm-raised Mount Cook sort, best enjoyed as sashimi with pickled cucumber, pink radish, lemon and dill jelly and wasabi at the Hermitage Hotel’s Panorama Restaurant. The saltwater farm-raised salmon from Akaroa near Christchurch or Stewart Island in the very south of the country is more strongly flavored.
· Central Otago Cherries
In the U.S. we know the Central Otago region more for its award-winning Pinot Noirs, but it came to prominence (well, after the gold rush there in the 19th century) for its stone fruits such as cherries and apricots, and they're acknowledged to be some of the best in the world. It’s still early in the year for them, though we did sample some sweet early-maturing Earlise at the Central Otago Farmer’s Market in Cromwell’s painstakingly restored Historic Precinct. Surprisingly, the majority were pickled. Yes, pickled cherries. And they were delicious—deeply purple-red, slightly vinegary, usually with lots of spices like clove and even chili pepper. At The Shed restaurant at the Northburn Station winery, they went perfectly with the creamy homemade chicken liver pâté.
Like the food scene here in the U.S. and all over the world, New Zealanders are discovering the gastronomic riches of their country, and now visitors can too.
Full disclosure: Eric Rosen traveled to New Zealand as a guest of Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand, but all photos and opinions expressed are entirely his own.
[Photos: Eric Rosen]