Professor Geoffrey Savage
9th January 2006
When a group of chefs and food industry people met in Madrid in 2005, they were treated to the extraordinary sight of an exploding desert. A strawberry milkshake was mixed with dry ice to create a volcanic eruption of pink bubbles. Another highly acclaimed chef went one better, crushing liquorice sticks in a blender, flash-freezing the purée with liquid nitrogen and having his assistant eat the resulting pellets while blowing water-vapour trails out of his nose. This concoction was called a Liquorice Dragon.
Such extreme culinary achievements suggest there is something quite extraordinary happening to haute cuisine.
In fact if an alien food specialist was beamed down into the cooking section of any bookshop it would gain a very unusual picture of what humans eat. Of course some people do have the time and money to eat exotic creations, but for many the food fashions highlight a major reality gap.
This gap was exposed brilliantly by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in the recent series on English school dinners. The examination of institutionalised food preparation revealed practices that ranged from the chronically dull to outright cruelty. Many questions were raised about the expectations of children and parents, and the long term implications for health and lifestyle choices.
What this project lacked, however, was a comparison of school-made foods with meals on offer in a typical English home. If we were to glimpse inside these kitchens and dining rooms it is likely we would find a similar standard of preparation and an over-representation of products laden with fat and sugar.
It is always interesting to attend a public event, such as a fair or an A&P show, and to see what food is on offer. Generally there is a familiar range of staples. Pies and hot dogs, hot chips with lashings of sugary tomato sauce, which are usually washed down with high-sugar drinks. Presumably these are foods which the majority prefer to buy and eat when lunching or moving about at these kinds of event and, if that is the case, it’s not surprising that New Zealanders are becoming heavier.
The food on offer at public events is now a homogenised offering of highly processed foods that can be found in most western countries. There is nothing particularly distinctive or imaginative about it, and certainly nothing that would make overseas visitors recall with fondness the culinary peculiarities they experienced here. Derision maybe, but fondness, definitely not.
New Zealand is marketed internationally for the “100% pure” experience, and for most people that means picture-postcard scenery, mountains and lakes, and an exposure to local culture. Food is a fundamental component of culture. And while our restaurants and hospitality sector provides high quality dining, the day to day offerings reveal a serious disconnection from anything with even the haziest resemblance of purity.
As a food specialist, it seems that the food on offer here in New Zealand is perhaps the most disappointing feature of our culture. Many of the offerings in the main streets of our towns and cities are appalling. Ironically, the selection becomes worse where the population is concentrated. We can find the most dismal view of our current cuisine in shopping malls and downtown areas. Hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza, pseudo-deli rolls and now all kinds of Asian dishes are all imported ideas that are ubiquitous, but say nothing about who we really are. International visitors could only conclude that we are a sponge-like society, happy to soak up the food spills and other culinary catastrophes that ooze across our borders. If they come here expecting a range of national dishes, outside of the more up-scale cafes and restaurants, then they will most likely be disappointed. Our newspapers and magazines are also full of thoughtful and adventurous creations, most of which are affordable or represent good value for money, but they remain well outside the mainstream of our eating habits.
There is no doubt that we produce some excellent produce and ingredients. Fresh salmon, green-lipped mussels, crayfish, Otago cherries and apricots, lots of different fruits and berries, and of course all sorts of tender fresh meats including venison. A few restaurants have pioneered creative uses of these ingredients for restaurant dishes, and they deserve greater recognition for their achievements.
The problem is that our best regional foods have yet to be developed into a New Zealand national dish, or better still, a suite of dishes. We can of course claim Pavlova, Anzac biscuits and chocolate fish, but these are hardly our staples. Where is our equivalent of fish and chips (English), pizza (Italian), hamburgers and fried chicken (American) or kebabs (Mediterranean). The closest we have come is our kumara chips, or paua patties, and of course the hangi.
This should be the ultimate challenge for our food and hospitality industry - to define and produce a suite of regular, everyday foods, perhaps with some regional variation but enjoyed by the local population through the country – which we can offer to our visitors to enjoy and to remember with affection as part of our identity.
Professor Geoffrey Savage is a Food Biochemist at Lincoln University.