AFAR sent Alton Brown—the food expert, television personality, and self-professed loner—to New Zealand with a day's notice. Turns out he loved making friends as much as he loved eating the food.
Over the Equator
Barely 24 hours have passed since I received an email reading “Auckland.” I’ve crash-browsed a couple of guidebooks and have decided upon an angle for my New Zealand expedition: I will eat only at establishments recommended to me by total strangers. Since I am a notorious loner with a tendency to travel like a ghost, this will force me to interact with the local population using the universal language of food.
Having lost an entire day over the ocean, I am badly in need of caffeination. Luckily, just outside baggage claim, there’s a small Airstream trailer retrofitted as an espresso shop. There are three main things on the menu: espresso, a flat white (which is kind of like a latte), and a long black, which I thought was an Americano by another name. Yet, as I watch the barista, I notice that instead of pouring hot water into the espresso shot, she pulls the espresso into the hot water, thus preserving the crema. It’s tasty, with better body than an Americano. The barista actually looks me in the eye and smiles. Eager to try out my kindness-of-strangers travel plan, I inquire of the young lady as to the best local fare. Turns out she has plenty of opinions on the matter and is more than happy to share.
Thus I venture to Karangahape Road, or “K’ Road,” which, a century ago, was a shopping district on par with London’s Oxford Street. Now it’s like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury circa 1980, only with Edwardian architecture. St. Kevins Arcade, with its glass roof and tiny shops, connects K’ Road with Myers Park. Amidst a couple of used book shops, another coffee shop, a Lebanese joint, a wine bar, and a Japanese tapas place, I’ve found a gem of a sandwich shop called Fort Greene. And now before me is an empty plate where once rested the best sandwich I have ever consumed. It was called “The Fish One” and was composed of house-smoked kahawai fish sticks with mushy peas and pea shoots on house-baked bread with tartar sauce. The kahawai, I learn from owners Andrea and Liam, is an oft overlooked local fish that’s oily like a mackerel, which is why it smokes so nicely. Since I’m already fretting about my next meal, I question the couple regarding the culinary scene and have to break out my notebook to get all the suggestions. When Andrea starts gathering beverages for some other customers and Liam heads back to the tiny kitchen to pull fresh bread from the oven, I’m left with their five-year-old daughter, who introduces me to each item in her cookie cutter collection. I am a stranger from abroad spending a few lovely minutes with a delightful, well-mannered child. Her parents look on and smile. I feel a very long way from the United States.
After a nap, I hop in a cab and tell the driver I’m hungry. “Dumplings?” he asks. I reply, “Heck yeah,” and we’re off to Dominion Road, which, the driver explains, became the young city’s main artery back in the 1880s. (I try to remember the last time a New York City cab driver spoke to me, but it makes my head hurt.) He drops me at his favorite Chinese noodle place, where a few minutes later I face a dozen steamed pork and onion dumplings. That’s the smallest order they offer at Barilla Dumpling, which is as known for its grumpy and unhelpful staff (who revel in their inability to speak a lick of English) as it is for its dumplings. I learn this from the young couple at the next table, who offer to rescue me from culinary monotony by trading me some of their pot stickers. I accept, and pretty soon they’re talking up a storm with A TOTAL STRANGER! AND DID I MENTION WE’RE ALSO SHARING FOOD? I learn about their family, their teaching jobs, and how the multicultural neighborhood has changed as young people continue to move in. They ask questions and actually seem interested in my replies. We laugh and never once look at our phones, even to Instagram the dumplings. When the couple leaves for their date night at the cinema...I miss them.
I’m at Eighthirty Coffee Roasters on High Street having my third “long black” of the morning. Walking around Auckland, one quickly learns that Kiwis love their coffee more than Portland hipsters do, and when they say “coffee” they mean espresso and they don’t mean Starbucks. Independent shops and roasters are the norm here, and although the concept of “to-go” isn’t actually taboo, it’s frowned upon. Coffee is to be enjoyed while sitting and chatting with other ridiculously friendly New Zealanders while they enjoy theirs. Refusing to be lulled, I ask the counter-folk where I should eat breakfast. The unanimous answer: Greedy Guts.
Housed in an alcove just off the sidewalk, Greedy Guts features three two-top tables, a square foot of counter, and a kitchen the size of a broom closet. I order salmon, avocado, and pea sprouts on wafer-thin toast, a bacon and cheese sandwich, and a bowl of something called Bondi Bircher, which is named for Maximilian Bircher-Benner, the Swiss physician who popularized muesli, and for Bondi, the famed Australian beach where they traditionally soak their Bircher in fruit juice and grate apple on top. Up until this moment I have always soaked my muesli in almond milk or dairy. But no more. Apple juice is king, and more apple should be grated on top. As I depart, full and happy, a smiling waitress runs down the sidewalk after me. Am I to receive a hug? Ah: I forgot to pay the bill. “No worries,” she says. More smiles. Good tooth care here.
Bay of Islands
I’ve driven north for hours (on the wrong side of the road) to visit the famed Bay of Islands, which remind me of the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest, only with bluer water. I’m sitting in my car just south of the town of Paihia, watching sheep watching me eat strawberries. The sack in my lap contains approximately two pounds of diminutive crimson orbs that were grown just up the road. The young man who sold them to me from a folding table out the back of his van comes to this spot from his family farm twice a week during the season. I stick my head in the bag and breathe in big gulps of December summertime. The sheep, fearing I’m hyperventilating, bleat for a doctor. I sit for a long time in a Proustian daze, remembering my high school sweetheart and the lip gloss she was wearing the first time we kissed. I go back for another bag and apologize for my gluttony. “No worries.”
Dragonfired is little more than a trailer-hitched wood-fired oven that sits not 20 feet from the sand of Little Oneroa Beach on Waiheke Island, about an hour and a half by ferry east of Auckland. I’m sitting in the shade of a pōhutukawa tree, its wide, spread-out limbs fat with fuzzy crimson blossoms, as I scarf caramelized onion and feta with fresh asparagus on a pizza crust spun as thin as the skin on a snare drum. There’s another flavor I can’t put my finger on. It takes three slices to realize that the tree, called “Christmas tree” in New Zealand, is shedding petals directly onto the pizza. I make a note to ask the interwebs if this will kill me. Children play on the beach, tossing balls and disks, laughing and running and falling and being kids. Again, I note the absence of devices. Up the beach, parents eat pizza and read books. I fall asleep right there under the tree, the pizza box still on my chest.
I’m grateful for the nap yesterday, because it’s 4 a.m. and I’m being tortured by the annoyingly arrhythmic song of a bird I’m calling the Five-Note Sleep Smasher. I decide to beat the crowds to Ringawera, the tiny bakery that the folks at Dragonfired told me about. Eschewing the (tempting) croissants, I snatch up a loaf of olive sourdough and a pillow-light ciabatta. It’s half an hour later and I’m still here, the car redolent of herbs, my mouth smeared with oil, ciabatta nowhere to be seen. I have yet to consume a bite of food in this country that isn’t exemplary.
The two young lovebirds who manage the inn where I spent the night tell me of a beach on the far southeast side of Waiheke Island where one can stand on the shore at low tide and harvest the best oysters in New Zealand, no license or permit required. Armed with an oyster knife from a local bait shop, I venture across the island on a tiny road that meanders through a ridiculously beautiful, if eerily desolate, landscape to Orapiu Bay, which seems to be populated by five people and some 20 quintillion oysters. All you have to do is knock them off the rocks, open, and devour. They’re tough mothers, and my hands are scratched and bleeding a bit, but the flavor is worth it: metallic, bright, the brine a balance of South Pacific salt and the kind of sweetness most often associated with high school romance. I build a cairn with the empty shells of the 35 I’ve just finished off, a monument to my appetite. I haven’t seen another human in hours, and I kinda wish there were some New Zealanders around for me to shuck oysters for.
Thursday Late Afternoon
50 Miles South of Auckland
It’s dark and I can’t see a damn thing through the rain. I’m sitting on the side of Highway 1 as invisible trucks rock my tiny rental car. I’ve spent the day wandering the town of Rotorua on the shores of Lake Rotorua, soaking up Māori culture (the area is considered sacred) and marveling at volcanic sites. The entire town smelled of sulfur, as the ground is constantly belching and farting and spurting and steaming. Now I’m Auckland-bound again, following a hot tip to visit the night market, a moveable feast that pops up in different locales around town. The drum of rain on my roof is pleasant, but the siren song of street food is even louder. I decide to make a break for it.
Auckland Night Market
Part street fair, part flea market, part food stall roundup, the Thursday night market in the Auckland suburb of Henderson fills the lower-level parking deck under the Kmart. Water drips down through the seams in the concrete slabs, giving the scene a visceral, Blade Runner–gone-to-carnival vibe. The air is a stew of aromas: curry, fryer oil, sausage, and smoke. I sit at one of a dozen plastic picnic tables watching urban hipsters with beards and cuffed khakis mingle with Māori shoppers and working joes with gaggles of kids. There is noise, music, conversation, laughter. And there is a stall for everything: chestnuts roasting in bowls of black rocks stirred by unseen forces; Japanese taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes) filled with red bean paste, swimming alongside “American” hot dogs; takoyaki (battered octopus balls) cooked on vibrating molds, which apparently keep them nice and round. There’s ice cream and Asian dumplings of every shape and size, and cheesecakes and churros and spiral watermelon skewers. Skewers, in fact, seem to be impaling everything from squid to small rodents that I don’t recognize. I consume pretty much all of it. I’m an utter stranger, yet everyone’s happy to talk to me. My final bite: fried halloumi, its pale curd squeaking happily in my molars.
So this is New Zealand. British and Māori descendants, immigrants from Japan and China, the occasional Aussie—all living together out here in one of the most isolated island nations on the planet. And they seem to be having a really great time. I close my eyes right there, under the Kmart, rain dripping through the slabs, and freakin’ love everyone.
I sincerely believe that if you really want to understand a culture, you must visit its grocery stores. The New World market in Freemans Bay is as mega-mart as mega-marts get, and I’m impressed with the offerings. The first thing I notice in the produce department? Dirt. The fresh potatoes have big, dark clumps of dirt clinging to them. Americans would freak and run, while tweeting the CDC. Here it’s completely normal. And then I notice the kiwifruit. New Zealanders call themselves “Kiwis” after an adorable flightless bird with a long beak—not after the fuzzy fruit, which is the only New Zealand product I can think of to have reached a level of planetary ubiquity. I purchase several and find the gold variety far more interesting than the green ones we get in the States. Now to the cheese. I’ve noticed during my travels that Kiwis are mad for halloumi cheese. Halloumi is originally from Cyprus, and I’ve encountered it on no more than a dozen menus in the States. (Americans rarely eat it unless it’s doused with ouzo and set afire in a Greek restaurant.) After passing stacks of eggs, unrefrigerated in the European style (cue more screaming from the Americans), I find the cheese department, which is indeed filled with stacks of halloumi. I ask a young man stocking the case about his country’s curdy obsession, and he replies with a smile, “I don’t know. Fries up nice, I reckon.” On my way to the register, I make accidental eye contact with three total strangers, and every one of them smiles back.
Air New Zealand Flight NZ6
I’ve never traveled so far, to a place I knew nothing about, to spend such a short time. All I know for sure is that I want to come back. In fact, I could live here. I want to be a Kiwi. Or at least an honorary one. Do I recommend the journey? Fervently. But don’t go to New Zealand for the food (which is great) or the coffee (unparalleled) or the landscape (breathtaking) or the sheep (innumerable). Go to New Zealand for the people. They may look like you and me and sound like the BBC, but if you ask me, they live in a parallel universe. Maybe it’s because they are out there in the Pacific all alone. But whatever the reason, Kiwis are better mannered than Americans, friendlier than Americans, and more respectful than Americans. So go when you can, and meet the kind of people that we could be if we set our minds to it.
Want to learn more about Alton Brown's Spin the Globe adventure? Go behind the scenes of his trip.