Critter Fritters

References to whitebait were everywhere. It was clear it was some sort of fish, but exactly what it was, I had no idea. Curious, I looked it up and discovered that it’s one of the most sought-after delicacies on NZ’s West Coast. People flock to their favorite rivers and estuaries to catch these babies and then fry them up as fritters, heads and all. Because of their delicate flavor, it is best to prepare them simply and without the use of strongly flavored ingredients. The AA Visitor Guide (West Coast) suggests this recipe:

Lightly cover whitebait in flour. Add a pinch of salt. Beat egg in a separate bowl and pour just enough on the whitebait to bind. Heat butter in frying pan until hot and fry the mixture in batches for about 3 minutes each side. Add lemon juice before serving.

Whitebait are the immature stage of a kind of smelt, called inanga. When gathered, they resemble a mass of translucent worms, which you might imagine horrifies many, particularly non-Kiwis. Their appearance is not unlike a Japanese delicacy called iriko, except bigger. It used to be so bountiful, so the story goes, that people used it as garden fertilizer during the Great Depression. Now, they’re not so plentiful and are therefore incredibly expensive. If we’re in NZ during the season (September 1 through mid-November), we’ll have to rush out and try some.


We were browsing through the shops of the Christchurch Arts Centre when we came across one that showcased NZ food items. One of them was a chutney made from fruit we’d never heard of: feijoa. The proprietress claimed that we’d either love it or hate it (kinda like cilantro, I thought). We tried a sample of the real fruit which she was kind enough to bring out and slice up for us. Immediately, we were struck by its aromatic, very floral taste. With us, it was a hit.

Later, we noticed the fruit was being sold in the supermarket produce section. Naturally, we bought a few to try. It wasn’t clear how to eat them, let alone tell when they were ripe enough. The fleshy part has a gritty, pear-like texture and has a pleasant enough flavor. But, the center gelatinous pulp with its edible seeds is feijoa’s crowning glory, where the essence of its wonderful flavor resides. My son-in-law tried one by cutting off one end, then squeezing the fruit to release its pulp directly into his mouth. Others of us did the same. Everyone loved it. While this is a quick and dirty way to eat feijoa, it certainly seemed wasteful to me. The flesh was not being eaten. The common way, it turns out, is to slice the fruit in half and spoon out the inside, flesh and pulp.

Though it originated in South America, feijoa is abundant in New Zealand. Despite its tropical flavor, it does quite well in mid-latitudes. The flower is very showy with large white petals and a crown of red stamens.

Apparently, you can’t pick the fruit from the tree, otherwise it won’t be fully ripe. It’s ready when it drops of its own accord. So, it’s best to take along a book, sit under the tree and wait for an Isaac Newton moment.

Flush It, Mate: Toilet Bowls in NZ

You finish using the toilet, then you flush. One handle. Simple. At least, that’s how it works in the States. But, nowadays, with the increasing need to conserve resources, toilets are using less and less water to flush what used to take an enormous amount of water to ferry down to the sewer system. So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a #1 or a #2, your toilet has to do the job.

So, it came as a surprise to confront a toilet in New Zealand for the first time. There is no handle to turn (or cord to pull). It’s a button. A two-part button. Sometimes one part looks like a quarter moon and the other, a vesica piscis (see picture above). Another one will consist of a small square nested inside a circle. Yet another will be split evenly, one half light, the other dark. You can probably guess what the symbology is. Little flush, big flush. This very practical design was fittingly invented in Australia in 1980, a country with very limited water resources. The smaller of the two-part button is used for urine, the larger one for solid waste. Or, is it the other way around?

These toilet bowls also have a low water line. Put another way, there isn’t much water at the bottom of the bowl. Not only that, the toilet bowl design is such that the bottom is relatively flat before it quickly drains into the trapline. Think of it as a funnel with U-shaped cross section rather than a “V.” The water only sits in the neck of the funnel, which means that the flat part is open air. A child, like my grandson, who has to take a crap will not necessarily be able to line up his rear end over that poor excuse of a target, which oftentimes leaves behind what my NZ family calls “skid marks.” Alright, then.

The other thing is that water is released in an unexpected way. It’s released with such force that it brings to mind white water rapids, even Niagara Falls. There’s no bourgeois swirling of water, ending in a dignified gurgle, but rather a mighty downpour that must be designed to eliminate, ahem, those skid marks. Honestly, it was difficult to tell if there was any water was being conserved or not.

Addendum (8-15-2012): As a rebuttal to my post, I found this one that refers to an Australian’s observations of the American toilet. Niagara Falls serves both our purposes. Read it and laugh.

Kea: Kokopelli in Drag

There is a story told by one of our bus drivers that a kea removed the rubber seal around a car’s windshield in a mountain parking lot, causing the glass to fall and shatter. The bird had also stripped the rubber from the windshield wipers. When the owner returned, he was understandably furious and began chase. As he went one way around the car and then the other, his quarry kept circling the car in the same direction and managed to avoid capture. I’ll bet that every Kiwi has a similar tale about the bird that once had a bounty on its head for killing sheep.

The kea is a parrot that lives only on the South Island of New Zealand. It’s an impressive bird, not only because of its great size but also its great intelligence. Unlike its parrot brethren, the kea is an alpine bird, which means it can survive in the coldest of weather. Wherever they appear, signs are posted not to feed them, firstly because it may be bad for their health, but equally important because you’d be inviting trouble. A photographer who poked his camera too close got his dangling lens cap stolen. People who approach too close may have their hiking boots attacked. They can even completely shred a tent. And, for some odd reason, they are attracted to rubber, like the story above.

In the nineteenth century, the government put a bounty on their heads because it was thought they were killing sheep. This almost led to their extinction before the bounty was removed. Now, the kea is protected. As for its killer reputation, it happens rarely.

Two popular haunts for these birds are the parking lot just west of the Homer Tunnel on Highway 94 going toward Milford Sound and around the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook National Park.

I’m convinced that the kea is not a parrot at all, but the embodiment of any of the cleverest tricksters of mythology. Wrapped in feathers, it’s Kokopelli in drag.

Honey, I’m Sick

In every tourist shop and supermarket, I noticed a certain honey for sale that I’d never heard of. The more I learned about it, the more it became clear that this was no ordinary honey. It’s a super-honey. Manuka honey. Evidence indicates that it helps to heal wounds, promotes digestive health and is anti-bacterial. One of our bus drivers on the tour, who used to work on an emergency response team, always used manuka honey as a salve on victims with open wounds.

There is a classification system, called Unique Manuka Factor (UMF), that corresponds to the strength of the honey’s antibacterial properties. The higher the number, the more antiseptic it is. The honeys with higher UMF ratings have a distinctive, medicinal taste. Pretty strong stuff.

But, it’s very expensive. We did a lot of price-checking as we browsed through stores. The highest price we encountered was NZ$ 70 for a specific 250g bottle (UMF 20+). Eventually, we saw the same bottle for as low as NZ$ 44 at a fruit stand near Cromwell, about an hour or so east of Queenstown. It pays to shop around.

Postscript: I read on Dr. Mercola’s site that manuka honey is every bit as potent as it claims to be. Apparently, it can even be effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains, such as MRSA.

Protecting Your Privates

(Image taken from

As most people are aware, the kiwi bird, endemic to New Zealand, is in a struggle against extinction. Having evolved without any natural predators, it now faces a threat from deforestation and from humans, cats, possums, dogs, rats and stoats, among others. The stoat’s modus operandi is slitting the carotid arteries of its victims. (When its fur turns white in very cold climates, a stoat is called an ermine.) This normally docile, flightless nocturnal creature is defenseless against this kind of assassin.

One would think that the kiwis are pretty helpless, right? Well, as we learned at the Kiwi & Birdlife Park (in Queenstown), this is not always the case. Underneath this normally shy exterior lies an unpredictable menace, a behavior so primal that the draw of the short straw elicits cold sweats and jangled nerves in the caregiver who has to feed them. During the breeding season, the male species of most animals is known to engage in aggressive behavior. The male kiwi is no exception. If he perceives a threat, even from a caregiver with food, he can literally jump up in the air and, with his powerful ratite legs, aim a well-placed, painful kick at your kneecap. Or, if you’re a male caregiver, maybe plant a groin-kick worthy of Lisbeth Salander? And make no mistake, those feet are tipped with sharp claws that can slash. My daughter who lives in NZ thinks that this Jekyll and Hyde behavior is a symbolic metaphor for NZ’er driving habits. Here are some other interesting facts about the kiwi.

Where’s the Beef?

In this land where sheep outnumber humans 4 to 1 (there are about 4 million people) and lamb a very important part of the diet, does beef get short-shrift? I sense that it isn’t a prominent part of the Kiwi diet. But, beef is available and it is of high quality. Grass-fed beef is much more common here than in the U.S., which means there is no need for antibiotic use. There are such vast amounts of pastureland in New Zealand that allowing cattle to eat grass is economically viable. The one rib-eye steak I had was definitely a bit chewier and less fatty than grain-fed steak.

And hamburgers are different here. What in the States is a ground beef patty sandwich is here a kind of strip steak between two buns served with “tomato sauce” (very similar to catsup), chard (called beetroot) and sometimes a fried egg. After my first chewy bite is when I noticed that the meat was actually a steak. The only way I could manage to eat it was with fork and knife, which I later discovered from our guide on Lake Wanaka is how Kiwis do it. The same guide also rued that McDonald’s is changing the way hamburgers are being prepared here. And why are hamburgers offered primarily at fish and chips restaurants? Everywhere we went, the two were inseparably paired on menus. Go figure.

Long Black and Flat White

I didn’t find a decent cup of brewed coffee the entire time we were in NZ. Considering that there were coffee houses everywhere, surpassing even the density you’d expect in Seattle, you would think that you would find a decent cup of joe somewhere. It turns out that the best way to have good coffee is to order a “long black” (close to what is known in the States as an Americano) in which a double shot of espresso is combined with steaming hot water. A simple espresso is called a “short black.” Here in the States, I have yet to have a satisfactory Americano, so you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I tasted my first long black, followed by equally good cups wherever I went. Why is brewed coffee so lousy, then? The only thing I can think of is that they use instant coffee. Argh! Indeed, when you look down the supermarket aisle for coffee, there are more instant coffee choices than I’ve ever seen in the U.S. If you like instant coffee, then you’ll have no complaints in New Zealand. For obvious reasons, you don’t ever get a free refill of a long black.

For drinkers who like milk in their coffee, NZ (and Australia) offers what is known as a “flat white,” similar to a cappucino or latte, but differing in the way the milk is incorporated into the brew. In NZ, it starts out with a double shot of espresso, then the milk is added in such a way as to minimize the foaminess (therefore “flat”).

Sometimes, these drinks are served with miniature muffins. If you love coffee, you can’t have enough of these.

P.S. I was reading the NZ board today (9-10-2010) on chowhound and discovered that the basic coffee beverages start out with only a single shop of espresso rather than double.

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ANZAC Biscuits

ANZAC Day is observed in New Zealand and Australia to commemorate the troops who lost their lives at Gallipoli during World War I. ANZAC stands for Australia New Zealand Army Corps. One story is that the families sent the troops these biscuits (known in the U.S. as cookies) that resisted spoilage because of their lack of eggs as an ingredient, but their undisputed origin is still a mystery. In any case, these are really good cookies, quite crispy, almost as hard as a biscotti. I have a preference for a soft, chewy cookie, so before the first bite, a red flag was raised. But, the hesitation was only brief; the combination of rolled oats, shredded coconut, butter and a sweetener called golden syrup (which is hard to find in the States, though I found some at Whole Foods) was irresistible. And, when dipped in a cup of long black, they were even better.

I found a recipe on the internet, which I’ll try when we get home.