Food in the 20th century

Page 3 – Seafood consumption

Seafood consumption - Toheroa

Recipes: Toheroa Soup | Toheroa Fritters

New Zealand is an island nation. Its inland and coastal waters support fish and shellfish in abundance. Unlike in many island nations, seafood was not a major part of the diet of most New Zealanders in the 20th century. Fish consumption has traditionally been low, as New Zealanders have relied on meat, until quite recently beef and sheepmeat, as sources of protein.

The British background of many New Zealanders helps explain this. In contrast with the bland diet available to working-class Britons, New Zealand was a protein paradise. Many migrants swooped on a ready supply of beef and sheep; eating meat at every meal was the height of 19th-century migrant dietary aspirations. It is only in the last 30 years that seafood has been accepted as a regular food source.

Seafood has also long been a significant aspect of Māori diet. Māori fished for a range of inland and coastal fish: tuna (eel), kahawai, kōkiri (leatherjacket), ara ara (trevally) and tarakihi. Shellfish too were harvested: pipi, tuatua and toheroa, kina, queen scallops and pāua. Although Maori diet changed in the 20th century, especially with the large-scale migration of many Māori to urban centres, seafood remained an important food source.


Settlers of British origin may have largely spurned the fish and shellfish that New Zealand had to offer, but migrants from European countries have consumed and harvested seafood. In cities such as Wellington, Greeks and Italians have run fish and chip shops and commercially fished the coastal waters.

Māori and Pākehā both regarded some types of seafood as delicacies. A prime delicacy is toheroa (Paphies ventricosa). This large, delicately flavoured shellfish lives in sandy beaches, mainly in the northern part of the country. Food writers have waxed lyrical about its taste. It is, according to the food writer Tony Astle, one of this country's 'wondrous shellfish'.

The reputation of the 'aristocrat of New Zealand shellfish' rests as much on its scarcity as its flavour. New Zealand once boasted three toheroa canning factories, but since the 1970s stocks of the shellfish have become so low that their harvesting is strictly regulated. Toheroa seasons are very rare, the limit on the number taken is strictly enforced, and the methods of harvesting are restricted to manually digging in the sand.

Toheroa Fritters

Mince a tin of toheroas finely with just a slight touch of onion. Now prepare a cup of good white sauce in the usual manner, adding a pinch of nutmeg and a well beaten egg. Mix in toheroas and flavour with a little lemon juice. Roll spoonful lots in breadcrumbs, and fry in deep oil or fat. A lemon sauce is very nice served with these fritters

From Aunt Daisy's Favourite Cookery Book, 3rd edn, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1954, p.22.

Toheroa soup - 'a dish fit for a king' - is an alternative to fritters; one apocryphal story notes that 'an American once tried to buy New Zealand just to have the exclusive rights to toheroa soup'.

Toheroa soup

The proper end for a toheroa which has led a good life is in a plate of soup and this is undoubtedly correct. People who fry oysters in flour and water paste are also liable to mince up toheroas to make them into fritters and each act is equally reprehensible....

1 dozen large toheroa 1 ounce butter
3 pints milk 1 egg
2 medium onions 1 cup fresh cream
1 ounce flour salt and pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice


(a) Mince finely the prepared toheroa. Follow with the onions through the mincer.
(b) Heat the butter, slowly add the flour, stirring well until a smooth white roux (paste) is developed.
(c) Slowly add the milk, continue stirring and bring to the boil.
(d) Add toheroa, onion mixture, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for at least two hours.
(e) Strain through a fine sieve.
(f) Before serving, add the lemon juice and cream and pour into warmed bowls or plates.

From Glen Pownall, New Zealand shells and shell fish: collecting: eating, Seven Seas Publishing, Wellington, 1971, pp.63-6.

How to cite this page

'Seafood consumption', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jul-2020