What to eat and drink in the Cook Islands, from food trucks to feasts

Brett Atkinson, Lonely Planet Writer
Photography By
Dylan Harrison

Polynesian flavors combine with contemporary culinary influences to make the most of the tropical fruit and seafood bounty of the Cook Islands.

Polynesian flavors combine with contemporary culinary influences to make the most of the tropical fruit and seafood bounty of the Cook Islands.

Sample traditional dishes at Rarotonga’s popular markets, experience an authentic tumunu session on remote ‘Atiu and be surprised by innovative dishes and one of the South Pacific's most beautiful lagoons on stunning Aitutaki.

Here are the best things to eat and drink in the Cook Islands.

Feast at local food trucks

Yes, food truck culture has made it to the Cook Islands, albeit with a South Pacific spin. Usually parked up near Rarotonga's Avatiu Harbour, The Kai Guy channels the flavors of Mexico and the Mediterranean with their tacos and Greek-style gyro wraps. Ocean-fresh fish is often the star of their most popular dishes.

Line-caught tuna, wahoo and mahi-mahi are served in overflowing Turkish bread sandwiches at the popular Mooring Fish Cafe – the humble blue caravan is co-owned by a Rarotongan fisherman – with the FOB ("Fresh Off the Boat") mahi-mahi sandwich always a big seller at their Muri Beach location. Don't miss adding a splash of Paul's Raro Hot Sauce, crafted just along the road, and also available from their stall at the Punanga Nui market.

Check out the island markets

Held every Saturday morning in the relaxed Cook Islands' capital of Avarua, the Punanga Nui market is the best place to learn about the South Pacific nation's traditional foods. Māroro (flying fish) is grilled and served with cassava – it's especially popular as a weekend treat – while rukau, the young leaves of the taro plant, are mixed with coconut cream and served as a side dish. Also served at the market and at cafes and restaurants around the Cook Islands, ika mata is a popular dish of raw fish marinated in coconut juice and lime. Adventurous palates should try the local dish of mitiore (fermented coconut with onions and seafood).

Regularly available at Punanga Nui are freshly baked (and often still-warm) coconut buns, quite possibly the perfect weekend brunch snack when served with coffee from the more remote island of 'Atiu. Crammed with ocean-fresh tuna, the traditional Hawaiian dish of poke is increasingly popular on Rarotonga, but in the local language of Cook Islands Māori, poke is also a dessert dish, blending coconut cream and arrowroot with overripe bananas or pumpkin.

Held several nights a week near Muri Lagoon, the Muri night markets are also an essential destination for Rarotonga locals and visitors to the island. Look forward to low prices and lots of ocean-fresh kai moana (seafood). The most popular dishes at The Seafood Man’s stall are the ika mata and the garlic prawns.

Stay hydrated Cook Islands style

Exploring the Cook Islands can be thirsty work, and the nation's most popular cooling beverage is nature's very own electrolyte, a nu (young green coconut), chilled and ready to drink straight from the shell. If you join a hiking or mountain biking tour on Rarotonga, a refreshing nu is often served with your lunch.

On the Cook Islands, lots of tropical fruit means lots of tropical smoothies, and year-round fruits like papaya and bananas are transformed into creamy deliciousness at island markets. Order from the stalls at the Punanga Nui market, or look out for Be Fruitful's colorful caravan at the Muri night market. During summer from November to March, seasonal fruits like mango, pineapple, passionfruit and star fruit are also used for juices and smoothies.

Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the Cook Islands, especially a frosty lager from the Rarotonga Brewery. Focusing on minimizing environmental waste on a remote island, they've steered away from producing bottled beer, and their refreshing Cook Islands lager is available exclusively on tap at local cafes, bars and restaurants. Refillable takeaway two-liter flagons are available at the brewery. Perfect with a beer, "Island fries" made with local taro or breadfruit are a popular alternative to french fries at Rarotonga’s bars and cafes.

On the island of 'Atiu, a popular local tradition is tumunu (bush beer-drinking clubs), where local men drink "bush beer" fermented with oranges, malt extract and sugar. Tumunu began as a clandestine response when 19th-century Christian missionaries banned the drinking of kava. While it's a men-only tradition for 'Atiu locals, island visitors of both genders are welcome to imbibe.

Experience an umu

Related to a hāngi in New Zealand or a lovo in Fiji, an umu is a traditional Cook Islands earth oven. Vegetables including taro and yams are cooked together with chicken and fish on hot basalt stones, and for special occasions like an island wedding, a roast suckling pig may also be served. Umu are usually only prepared for community feasts and celebrations, but a convenient option for visitors is to book an Umu Kai experience – kai is the Cook Islands word for "food" – with Tumatoa Tours. Experiences include helping to prepare the umu, an exciting fire show, and a walking tour exploring the history and culture of the Cook Islands. The husband-and-wife team that runs Tumatoa, Ngametua and Mania, usually has an information stall at Saturday morning’s Punanga Nui market.

Ease into cafe culture

Courtesy of the Cook Islands' political status – the island nation is regarded as "self-governing in free association with New Zealand" – cosmopolitan Kiwi cafe culture has also reached Rarotonga and the smaller lagoon archipelago of Aitutaki. Top spots on "Raro" for a flat white coffee include Beluga Cafe in Arorangi and LBV in Muri, while Soul Cafe a short walk from central Avarua dish up a great eggs Benedict with local rukau replacing the spinach. Soul's also a top spot for smoothies. Especially good is the Scoop Dog smoothie with banana, peanut butter and an optional shot of espresso.

On Aitutaki, the garden setting of Avatea Cafe is perfect for a leisurely lunch of tuna tacos – served with "fry bread" influenced by New Zealand’s indigenous Māori culture – and a fish curry made with local renga (turmeric). Co-owner Karin Crombie also serves housemade kombucha with island ginger and a seasonal range of ice cream using local fruit.