A Foodie’s Guide to The Cook Islands
Known for our white sandy beaches, incredibly blue water, and an abundance of activities, it’s no wonder that the Cook Islands is a popular destination for holidaymakers wanting to escape the big smoke and take some time to relax. Surprisingly though, you’ll find that after this much anticipated holiday comes to a close, one of the highlights we hear often from past visitors – alongside the activities, beautiful lagoon and friendly people – is the food. Guests are surprised and delighted by the variety, quality and cost of food and drinks on the islands.
With over 100 cafés, restaurants, and bars, Rarotonga is a hub for dining in the Cook Islands. From Polynesian favourites (which we’ll get to shortly) to your typical Western fare, there’s heaps of options to feed your cravings. And with the island just 32km around, you’ll find that all of the eateries are extremely accessible no matter where you stay, making dining easy for visitors but also keeping prices around the island very competitive. People are often pleasantly surprised by a few of Rarotonga’s all-day happy hour spots featuring $3.50 beers, $5 wines and $10 cocktails. You also can’t beat biting into a $7 burger at Villi’s or grabbing a $10 to $15 plate at the Muri Night Markets. Really, unlike other South Pacific destinations, you won’t be charged exorbitant prices for food and drinks in the Cook Islands. In saying this, for guests after a fine dining experience or a private degustation on the beach, we offer that too. The dining options and experiences are endless.
We know that you know Western food. Pizza, salads, steak, and more, it’s all available on the islands and cooked to perfection. However, we may have a few local favourites to entice you to venture out into the vibrant world of Polynesian cuisine. The Cook Islands’ traditional eats are unlike anything you’ve tried before. The ingredients used in each dish are locally grown, fresh and delicious.
Ika Mata, arguably the most popular dish in the Cook Islands. Ika Mata is made with freshly caught fish that is “cooked” in lemon juice, before being combined with fresh coconut cream, onion and chilis. Perfect for a starter or light lunch, this island classic is typically served with a side salad.
Marlin, Mahi-Mahi, Wahoo, Yellowfin tuna and Broadbill are just some of the types of fish you are likely to enjoy in the Cook Islands. Fish sandwiches are a very popular lunch option and can found at numerous beachside cafes around Rarotonga. Nearly bigger than the personalities you’ll meet in the Cook Islands, these sandwiches are a delicious combination of battered and fried white fish, served in a soft ciabatta bun with lettuce, tomato and aioli.
Rukau is a side dish you are bound to find at an Island Night buffet, served with a piece of grilled fish, or even sold by a mama at the markets. Combining cooked taro leaves, caramelized onions, and coconut cream or milk, this hearty side is full of nutrients and will keep you satisfied for hours.
Island fries are another side item that are the perfect accompaniment your meal. Tasty, chunky fries are made with island root vegetables such taro, potatoes, kumara and arrowroot. They are usually deep-fried and seasoned with salt.
Fruit is grown in abundance in the Cook Islands and you’ll see plenty of mangos, bananas, coconuts, paw paw, dragon fruit and star fruit hanging from trees as you make your way around the islands. On many of the inland tours, you’ll have the chance to try fresh picked fruit from a home garden or plantation. It doesn’t get fresher than that. Of course, you will also find these fresh offerings at your hotel’s tropical breakfast buffet too.
Umukai is food that is cooked in an underground oven called an “Umu”, similar to the Hangi in New Zealand. This is by far the most traditional and communal way of preparing a feast the islands. Food is wrapped in banana leaves, placed underground on heated stones, and left to cook for several hours. This customary way of cooking means that both the meat and vegetables are perfectly done. For those wanting to participate in umukai, check out Sunshine Raro Cultural Tours.
These moreish dishes described (and more!) are easily found around the island, featured heavily at the markets and Island Nights, while also being offered in most restaurants, cafes, and bars. You may even come across homemade Polynesian bites sold on the side of the road by a welcoming local as you pass by on your scooter or e-bike. Rest assured, wherever you are in the Cook Islands, you’ll find a variety of incredible food, at great prices.