Marmite, Hokey Pokey, & Earthquakes
Christchurch is the most British of New Zealand cities. There’s even a river called Avon where punters in flat bottomed boats take tourists on leisurely rides. And, like England, people from all the former British colonies are represented with excellent Indian food and an amazing Burmese restaurant.
But, Christchurch’s greatest legacy is the one-two punch of earthquakes in late 2010 and early 2011 that destroyed much of the city. Christchurch is on a 20 year rebuilding project that is quickly remaking the city and the residents of Christchurch are optimistic about the future. And they have good reason to be optimistic. The energy in Christchurch is palpable and contagious.
A Short History
Māori people first inhabited the area around present day Christchurch about 800 years ago. They hunted a 12 foot tall flightless bird called a Moa for food, and due to overhunting, the Moa was extinct in less than 200 years.
European settlers arrived in 1840 and quickly constructed buildings and infrastructure including ports and railways that supported trade.
The nearby port of Lyttelton was not only a commercial trading hub, but also the launching point for several Antarctic expeditions including Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
Two massive earthquakes, the first on September 4th, 2010, and the second on February 22nd, 2011, which killed 185 people, destroyed much of Christchurch. Eighty percent of the buildings in the city either collapsed or were uninhabitable.
Within two years, over 1,500 buildings had been demolished and removed. An ambitious rebuilding plan, expected to take 20 years, has made Christchurch a hub for engineering, construction, and city planning. However, some citizens are not happy with the pace of progress as they still have not been able to return to their homes or are still waiting on insurance claims to be fulfilled several years after the disaster.
Little High Eatery
My favorite place to eat in Christchurch isn’t one place, but eight. Little High Eatery is a group of eight restaurants under a single roof. The restaurants ring the perimeter of the space with shared seating in the middle. There’s also outdoor seating when the weather’s nice. And the weather is very often nice in Christchurch.
These food courts or food halls are becoming more and more popular. And, there’s a good reason for that. Customers like the choices that several restaurants in one spot affords them. And businesses like them because the rent is cheaper than a stand-alone space and the multiple restaurants under one roof attract more patrons.
Little High has a wood fired pizza place, a burger bar, a Thai street food joint, and several other options. My favorite is Caribe Kitchen. Their Pasteles, a crispy fried pastry dough filled with beef, chicken, or veggies, is outstanding as are all the salsas, sauces, and spices.
Get ready to be social if you visit Little High. The communal seating lends itself to conversation with strangers and the atmosphere is loud and boisterous.
Despite what your mother told you, I recommend talking to strangers. Of course you have to use good judgement, but I often meet the most interesting people this way.
For example, in Christchurch, Karen and I stopped in for a light dinner at Casa Publica. We wanted to eat outside but all the tables were taken. A nice couple saw us looking for a spot and invited us to join them at their large table. They turned out to be locals who had lived in Christchurch for most of their lives and told us the most incredible stories about the earthquakes and the rebuilding effort by the people of Christchurch.
After talking for an hour or two, they invited us to take a trip with them later that week to Akaroa, about a ninety minute drive from Christchurch (although we took the scenic route which was about 2 hours). To be clear, I don’t recommend getting into cars with strangers, but we felt very comfortable with these lovely Kiwis and wound up having a marvelous time in Akaroa (more about that town below). But, I do recommend talking to strangers and New Zealand restaurants seem to encourage this practice by putting large communal tables in a lot of their outdoor spaces.
Hokey Pokey is the most popular flavor of ice cream in New Zealand. If you ask a Kiwi to describe Hokey Pokey they’ll tell you that it is made with vanilla ice cream and honey comb.
The first time I heard this I assumed they meant the honey comb that comes from a bee hive, which sounds interesting. But, I came to find out that honey comb in many British English speaking countries simply means sugar that has been caramelized until it becomes a toffee. So, Hokey Pokey is toffee ice cream. Still delicious, so I’m in.
Hokey Pokey ice cream (and candy for that matter) is available in every New Zealand grocery store. But, to get the tastiest Hokey Pokey, you’ve got to visit Rollickin’ Gelato on New Regent Street. For just $5NZ you get a generous scoop of gelato on a waffle cone and the Hokey Pokey is divine! They often play with the recipe but I’m always on the look out for the Hokey Pokey covered in chocolate.
Le Pet Thoke
I have to admit that I held a stupid stereotype about the food of Myanmar (Burma). I assumed it was similar, if not the same, as the cuisine of its neighbor Thailand.
Then, I had a meal at Rangoon Ruby in Christchurch. There’s a tiny community of Myanmar expats in Christchurch and it seems most of them have jobs at Rangoon Ruby, working hard to make authentic dishes from their homeland.
Everything we sampled was extraordinary, from the blue peas with shallots to the grilled eggplant with sesame seeds. But, the star of the show is Le Pet Thoke, one of the most popular dishes in Myanmar.
Let Pet Thoke is made by pickling tea leaves. This seems strange to Western palates that are used to only drinking tea, and, in fact, Myanmar is the only culture that eats and drinks tea.
Once pickled, sesame oil is added to the leaves and a salad is made with the pickled tea leaves, lentils, sesame seeds, and spices. I was enchanted.
One quick word about the name of the country. Myanmar is the common name for the country and I thought that Burma was the colonial name given to the country during British occupation. However, speaking with a gentleman from Myanmar who works at Rangoon Ruby’s, he assured me that both are acceptable. He told me that in the Burmese language, the words Burma and Myanmar sound almost identical. Further research led me to find that the military junta that took over Burma in 1989 changed the name of the country to Myanmar and tried to purge the use of Burma to legitimize their takeover. Either way, Myanmar or Burma, a person from the country is unlikely to care unless they have a staunch political reason for their stance.
Marmite is a by-product of the beer brewing process. It sorta looks like and has the consistency of molasses. Marmite is salty (though the NZ version is less salty than the Marmite made in the UK), yeasty, with a very concentrated flavor. That is, an acquired taste.
Kiwis are serious about Marmite. After the 2011 earthquake the Christchurch Marmite factory (the only place that makes Marmite in the Pacific) was closed down and New Zealanders began hoarding the precious commodity. Jars were reportedly being sold on the lucrative Marmite black market for almost 200 times their normal retail price. Today, order has been restored to the once chaotic Marmite Universe and the product is back on grocery store shelves at reasonable prices.
So, how do you consume Marmite? Most importantly, use it sparingly. Marmite rookies often glob the stuff on their toast, then declare that they hate it. Be adventurous, but spread the Marmite lightly on toast, maybe add some butter. And if you don’t like it, you can always use the Marmite to get a cat out of a tree.
Drinking in Christchurch
But, C1 Espresso is a must-visit both for the excellent cup that they make and for the wacky vibe. Housed in a former post office building dating to 1932, C1 has been here since 2012 when they had to relocate after the earthquake. The art deco building was one of the few in Christchurch to survive the tremors of 2010 and 2011 because it was built shortly after the Napier earthquake of 1931 when building standards were under scrutiny.
Inside, the old pneumatic tubes used to shuttle mail around the post office are still in use. That right, some of the menu items can be delivered to your table via pneumatic tube!
And, if you’d like to know more about the Kiwi’s contribution to coffee culture, check out the Drinking section of Wellington.
While there is a certain British vibe all over New Zealand (it was an English colony, after all), Christchurch embraces Brit culture with gusto. There’s even a river called the Avon, named after the famous waterway in England.
Across from the river on Oxford Terrace is Pegasus Arms, a quintessential British pub in every way except that there’s lots of outdoor seating to take advantage of the superior New Zealand weather.
Pomeroy’s has won the best bar award several years running and has over 30 taps, including several cask choices. They serve an English pint which is a little more than 19 ounces, so you get a really healthy pour at Pomeroy’s.
At the other end of the spectrum is the speakeasy called The Parlour inside O.G.B. (Old Government Building) on Cathedral Square. This is a sophisticated place with old time rules of behavior that include gentlemen not speaking to ladies unless first approached. The Parlour has an extensive cocktail list, but you can get a beer if you like. They even have one of my faves from the states, Brooklyn Lager, on tap.
Things to do
Christchurch will be defined by the two earthquakes that practically leveled the city in September 2010 and February 2011. The 2011 earthquake was actually an aftershock from the stronger main quake in 2010, but because the 2011 quake was closer to the city, it did much more damage and resulted in the deaths of 185 people.
Scars of the quake are everywhere. Christchurch is in the midst of an ambitious rebuilding plan, but evidence of the quake’s damage is still everywhere.
No where is this more so than Christchurch’s iconic Cathedral. The earthquake left the church badly damaged with the main spire and part of a roof collapsing. The gorgeous rose window in the front of the church was destroyed by subsequent aftershocks.
The church was scheduled to be demolished but opposition to the plan left the church building in a state of limbo for several years. Construction fencing surrounds the church, preventing anyone from going inside, although the church is visible from outside the barrier. Recently, church leaders decided to restore the church, although this process will take at least ten years.
In the meantime, a transitional cathedral, the so-called Cardboard Cathedral, was constructed in 2013. The first major building to open after the earthquake, the Cardboard Cathedral was built using giant cardboard tubes as supports and a roof for the structure.
There’s also an earthquake museum called Quake City that does a good job of showing the damage done by the earthquake as well as the efforts to rebuild the city in a way that will resist future tremors. Quake City is purposely light on artifacts (although there are some salvaged items on display) and instead focuses on multimedia exhibits like the TV broadcasts on the day of the disaster, interviews with experts, and interactive exhibits displaying the power of earthquakes.
The most evocative earthquake site in Christchurch is 185 Empty Chairs. This memorial to the victims of the 2011 earthquake sits on a nondescript corner in the city. All the chairs are painted white, but each chair is different (an office chair, a lounge chair, a wheel chair etc), perhaps showing that while 185 people died in the disaster, each person was a unique individual. UPDATE: The land where the chairs were has been sold and the display has been dismantled.
I always recommend walking tours when visiting a city for the first time. It’s a great way to see several sites in a half day and decide what sites you might want to spend more time at. And, tour guides are often a wealth of information. I’ve received tips on places I would never have known about otherwise from tour guides.
Walk Christchurch hits all the top spots in a 2 1/2 hour walking tour including the Christchurch Cathedral, the Cardboard Cathedral, the earthquake memorial and the empty chairs, and the Avon River. The tour also takes you through the first floor of the Canterbury Museum to see the excellent Maori exhibits, although I recommend returning to see the entire museum.
Despite the rapid pace of reconstruction in Christchurch, the job of rebuilding is going to take decades to complete. In the meantime, empty lots where buildings used to stand are present everywhere in the city. Many have become parking lots (I’ve never seen so much parking in a city this size), but Christchurch has also done something quite unique with the temporarily unused urban space.
They’re called “gap fillers” and the projects started as way to fill empty space in Christchurch with art and other interesting installations. In the past, gap fillers has created a music pavilion made out of wooden pallets and an outdoor cinema powered by pedaling bicycles. Many of these gap fillers are intended to be temporary but a lot of them have been up for years because of the time needed to rebuild the city. Junk cars converted into gardens, a giant video game, and an outdoor discotheque are just a few of the fun and interactive gap fillers in Christchurch.
And, gap fillers have become so popular that the non profit group who started the project in Christchurch has expanded into cities around the world. What a great idea.
In addition to the gap fillers, there’s also an extensive collection of street art in Christchurch. There are murals all over the city, but you can see a nice collection in one space at the Brockworth Street Art Gallery.
Day Trip to Akaroa
When learning about the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, at the Canterbury Museum, you might wonder why they would sign a treaty giving up their land and sovereignty to the English? There are lots of reasons for this. One is that the Māori were deceived by English and signed a treaty in English that was different from the one they were given that was written in the Māori language.
But, the other reason is that the Māori were inclined to side with the English because the French were trying to colonize New Zealand at the same time and the Māori preferred the English over the French.
On the far end of the Banks Peninsula is the town of Akaroa, but when the French settled this area, they called it Port Louis-Philippe. Though the French were only in Port Louis-Philippe for a short time, French culture persists in the village. Streets names like Rue Balguerie and Rue Jolie hint at Franco heritage. And French flags flutter in the breeze at this seaside town. There’s even a FrenchFest each October.
The town itself is sleepy; the main drag is lined with boutiques, art galleries, and French restaurants. A leisurely stroll to the lighthouse just outside of town is time well spent. Or you can book a tour to swim with dolphins or take part in any number of water sports.
Be aware that cruise shops dock at Akaroa about twice a week, and it’s best to avoid the town on those days. Thousands of passengers disembark at Akaroa and although many head to Christchurch for the day, a lot of folks stay in Akaroa to enjoy the quaint village and they can easily overwhelm the little town.
Driving is the best way to make the 2 hour trip to Akaroa, but if you don’t have a car, there is a seasonal shuttle that departs Christchurch at 8:30 and returns at 3:45 each day.
If you do drive to Akaroa, the Christchurch Gondola is a good stop on the way there. Getting to the top only takes about 10-15 minutes and once there sweeping 360 degree views of Christchurch, Banks Peninsula, Lytellon Harbour, and Southern Alps will make a great addition to your timeline.
Christchurch has reliable public transportation and Uber is widely available. A rental car is not needed unless you plan to take a road trip to the Banks Peninsula where bus service is limited.
However, since the earthquake, many businesses have had to relocate out of the city center, so some restaurants and other attractions are not as accessible as they once were. For folks who want to go to every corner of the city, but don’t like to take the bus or Uber, a rental car might be a good choice.
Service to most NZ cities and a few international destinations including Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong (Seasonal)
There is bus service, an airport shuttle, taxis, and Uber available to get you from the airport to Christchurch. You can also rent a car. The options are outlined here.
There is excellent bus service throughout the city (even to the airport) and surrounding areas.
An easy way to see the city, the tram makes a circuit that takes about an hour. Hop on and hop off where you like.
Index of Things to Do in Christchurch
Walking tour of the top sites in the city
Private walking tours of Christchurch.
Tastings at four wineries
Severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake, church is fenced off and inaccessible but you can see the crumbling structure from Cathedral Square.
Large collection of Maorian and Antarctic artifacts.
Incredible botanic garden next to Hagley Park
Huge park (almost 500 acres) in the middle of Christchurch.
Smaller urban park
Fantastic set of outdoor murals
Romantic flat bottomed boat ride guided by a gentleman dressed in Edwardian garb.
Interactive museum on the Antarctic with blue penguins.
Best views as you ride to the top of Port Hills. 15 minute drive from the city center.
Index of Food & Drink in Christchurch
One of the top Christchurch restaurants. Seasonal, small plates.
Nice spot on Cathedral Square with a chill speakeasy.
Interesting menu focusing on sustainable ingredients.
One of Christchurch’s top restaurants also happens to be vegetarian.
Wide range of Asian food.
Nice restaurant with outdoor seating. Excellent selection of rum at the bar.
Upscale New Zealand cuisine featuring lamb and salmon with a couple veg. options.
Great restaurant housed in a turn of the century villa.
Burmese restaurant. Highly recommended.
Beautifully presented and delicious pastries.
The place to get Hokey Pokey in Christchurch.
Ice cream shop with a bunch of wacky flavors.
Quirky restaurant delivers your food to your table via pneumatic tube.
Great coffee spot and they plow most of their profits back into the community.
Cute coffee shop on Victoria Street
Chill vegan café.
Food hall with eight different restaurants.
Restaurant with outstanding desserts
Excellent breakfast and coffee spot.
Nice high end restaurant on New Regent Street.https://cassels.nz/
Brewpub with many outstanding selections
Excellent craft beer selection in an English pub atmosphere.
Proud dive that serious about its food, beer, and good music.
Index of Shopping in Christchurch
Best beer selection in the city
Historic shopping and eating district.
Former tannery is now Christchurch’s best shopping mall with cool shops like an electric bike store and good restaurants.
Index of Places to Stay in Christchurch
Former jail renovated and repurposed a most unique hostel.
Sustainable rooms in a great location.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides in New Zealand to Auckland, Wellington, and Napier. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.