The Cook Islands are a group of 15 islands scattered throughout the South Pacific Ocean. They offer, of course, world-class beaches, beautiful resorts, local cultural sites, and many adventures to be had. However this small island chain also boasts a unique cuisine culture and loads of delicious food sourced from local ingredients – primarily root vegetables, seafood, and a whole lot of fruit. So if you love travel and food, there aren’t many better places in the world than the gorgeous Cook Islands!
If you want to experience the Cook Islands food culture, the biggest island of Rarotonga is the place to be – on this island of just 26 square miles, there are over 100 bars, restaurants, and cafes in addition to unique food markets. It’s a foodie’s paradise.
So what can you look forward to if visiting? Expect traditional earth oven meals, fabulous food markets, and other spectacular events. We show you all right here!
Getting a Real Taste of Cook Islands Cuisine: Traditional Dishes You Need To Try
Traditional Cook Islands cuisine often uses local produce and fresh seafood, making dishes tasty, fresh, and ethical. Something most food lovers can appreciate.
Traditionally, Cook Islands cuisine nearly always incorporates fish, pork, coconuts, fruit, and taro plant. So you’ll undoubtedly be exposed to these ingredients when visiting the islands.
Here are some very traditional local foods that you must try:
1. Ika Mata
This dish is made up of raw fish – typically white fish like cod or snapper – which is then marinated in lemon juice. Ika Mata is typically served tossed with onion and coconut cream, and sometimes even served in a coconut. You’ll see this on many restaurant menus as a starter or snack as it makes such a great light meal.
This is arguably one of the most traditional and well-known recipes from the Cook Islands, and as such, it’s even spread beyond the borders of the archipelago.
This is a sea cucumber (which are abundant around the Cook Islands) that can be eaten either raw or cooked, and is usually served with butter, garlic, and spice.
It takes quite a bit of skill to prepare Rori perfectly, but it offers a yummy sweet and salty taste when it is done right.
Umukai meals are traditional feasts. The oven, or umu, is filled with wood and rocks, and a grill made of banana wood is placed over the hot stones. Umakai literally means “food from the oven,” since this implies a meal where all food is cooked in an underground earth oven called an umu.
Meat and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves, placed in a sack, and put in the oven, and are then covered and left to cook for around three hours. It’s rather time-consuming but worth the wait!
You’ll eat tender meats, delicious vegetables, and more, leaving you happily satiated. We’ll get to it later, but you can experience this traditional feast on one of the famous “island nights” hosted by locals.
This is another traditional dish. Rukau is basically the word for cooked taro leaves, and the dish is made with coconut cream (an ingredient you’ll find in many traditional recipes) and caramelized onions with mashed taro leaves.
It’s traditionally served with corned beef, but is commonly made vegetarian, too. You will probably see this on an island night buffet as well.
5. Banana Poke
Pronounced poh–key, Banana Poke is a resourceful dish using overripe bananas that are perfect for a sweet treat. It’s cooked with coconut cream, arrowroot, and plenty of sugar, making for a delicious pudding-like snack.
Poke in general is very popular, but on the Cook Islands you’ll come across the banana flavor one most often. Of course, coconut and taro can also be used in poke. You might be familiar with Hawaiian poke which has become quite popular internationally in recent years, but it’s not the same thing as Cook Islands poke.
In fact, poke recipes are passed down from generation to generation in the islands and are traditionally served warm. So if you have Banana Poke at one house, then cross the street and have it at another, it may be quite different!
6. Island Fries
This is another side item that will perfectly round off your meal. Made from island root vegetables such as taro, potatoes, kumara, and arrowroot, they are a simply delicious addition to any meal.
Usually deep-fried and seasoned with salt, these tend to be very popular with travelers to the Cook Islands.
7. Cook Islands Doughnuts
This delicious doughnut is well known and popular within Pacific Island communities. They are almost always present as the main bread item in homes and at special functions.
Within Polynesia, this is something Cook Islands cuisine is famous for – you can also see their popularity just by seeing how many copycat recipes there are online!
8. Coconut Water
As far as drinks go, you will undoubtedly come across coconut water. Coconuts are grown year-round, making them a ubiquitous ingredient in both food and drink.
You’ll have plenty of options for fruit smoothies and cocktails as well, all of which make for a great refreshment under the tropical sun.
Etiquette Surrounding Cook Islands Food Culture
The drinking age is 18 on the Cook Islands. Alcohol is on sale from most supermarkets and local stores from Monday to Saturday, but you generally won’t be able to purchase alcohol on Sundays which is a holy day for this largely-Christian nation. However, there are some exceptions within a few restaurants and hotels.
Tipping is not customary. Additionally, bargaining for a better price is generally considered rude in both markets and shops.
At times, just like many other Christian families around the world, a short grace or prayer often precedes eating. If you find yourself in this situation, of course be polite by bowing your head and waiting to eat until the prayer is said.
Lastly, if you are invited to a Cook Islander’s house for a meal or otherwise, it is polite to bring a small gift.
Must-Have Food Experiences on the Cook Islands
1. Experience an ‘Island Night’
If you’ve known someone who’s been to the Cook Islands, chances are they will have shown you an abundance of photos from an Island Night. For good reason too, this simply is a must-do activity in terms of food, dance, and music.
Cook Islanders welcome visitors to their island nights, which is where they share their culture with you. Expect a spectacular showcase combining traditional dance and music (karioi). Dancing, drumming, and singing are always on show, and sometimes even fire juggling, storytelling, and acrobatics.
There are a bunch of island nights most days of the week, such as the one in Te Vara Nui Village, and they are a great way to take part in the cuisine custom of Umukai. Get ready for a delicious buffet-style feast of perfectly cooked food in the earth oven, umu, for an unforgettable experience. (Recommended: The Vibrant Culture of the Cook Islands).
2. Feeling Adventurous? Participate in Tumunu
If you’re feeling extremely adventurous, consider the Tumunu, or bush-beer drinking session!
Bush Beer is brewed from oranges, bananas, pawpaws (papayas) or hop. When Christian missionaries arrived on the islands, they tried to ban all drinking, but Cook Islanders just went further into the bush and brewed their own beer.
Nowadays, this specific “beer-drinking session” is really only done on the island of Atui. You can read more about the fascinating history of the practice on the island’s official website.
3. Join the Rarotonga Progressive Dinner
Another fantastic way to experience traditional food and interact with locals is to join the Rarotonga Progressive Dinner. You will go to three different local homes for a different course to enjoy a delicious home-cooked three-course meal with a small group of tourists, making for a truly unique and immersive dining experience.
You’ll see tropical gardens at local homes, experience a buffet meal, and enjoy a sweet treat and coffee to round it all off. You’ll have to reserve a spot on the tour, but it is well worth it for a lovely, hospitable, and spirited Cook Islands experience. The dress code is casual.
More Food Destinations To Check Out: Markets, Breweries & More!
One great thing, among many, is how many restaurants and more you can visit every day due to the small landmass of the islands. If you’re on the largest island of Rarotonga, it only takes about 45 minutes to go around the island, although we encourage you to take your time and savor every meal under the tropical sun and adopt an “island time” philosophy.
Definitely check out the Night Market in Muri Beach. It is typically open four days a week in the evening from 5–8 PM. The street market is packed with stalls cooking on-site; you can purchase a bunch of seafood, desserts, noodles, and more. You’ll be surrounded by energetic activity making it a fun night out for a foodie or the whole family. It’s popular with tourists and locals alike, and a Cook Islands food experience everyone should have!
The Saturday morning Punanga Nui Market in Rarotonga is a must-do, as many people who’ve visited the islands will tell you. It is a social center on the weekends, and you can purchase local produce (more on that below) while being surrounded by music, dance, and crafts.
The Punanga Nui Market is in the capital city of Avarua on Rarotonga. Prepare to be surrounded by enticing aromas and piles of fresh fruit, including pineapples and passionfruit. When you are at markets, keep in mind that the local currency is the New Zealand Dollar.
A particularly unique dining experience is The Plantation House, which is a converted colonial home from 1853, making it one of the oldest ones on the island. It is only open one or two nights a week, and it’s hard to get into. However, if you’re able to get a spot for dinner at the Plantation House, you can enjoy an intimate three-course dinner.
There is also a tour of the house included before your meal so you can learn more about the colonization of the islands. Food served will differ from season to season, but you can expect all of it to be sourced from their local jungle garden – including the meat – making it genuinely home-grown and organic.
Cooks Lager Brewery is located in Rarotonga and this brewery produces three different types of beer – Cooks Premium Lager, Cooks Original Blonde, and Cooks Cheeky Darkie. So if this is your scene, it’s a great place to go.
Matutu Brewing Company, another brewery in Rarotonga, makes two different types of beer: Mai (a lager) and Kiva (a pale ale). So, if you want to do an afternoon of beer-tasting, you won’t be bored at all.
Locally Sourced Foods in Cook Islands Cuisine
Not all of the following foods are technically indigenous as early settlers introduced them, and later, Christian missionaries as well. However, they are now local food as they grow in abundance throughout the islands. Here are some, although not all:
Fruits and Vegetables:
- Custard apples
- Carambola (star fruit)
- Pawpaw (papaya)
- Taro root
- Did we mention coconut?
Fish and Meat
- Sea Cucumber
So, with all that said, the Cook Islands – in addition to being home to stunning beaches and vibrant music and dance – boast a whole host of delicious dishes to try. Foodies will absolutely love the abundance of fresh recipes made from locally sourced fruits, meats, and seafood, and even on a short vacation, you’ll be able to make the rounds to a bunch of restaurants and events within this small country.
Hopefully, we’ve taught you about some food culture to look forward to when you visit the Cook Islands. Whether it’s traditional dishes, international cuisine, or yummy snacks, you’re not going to be disappointed by the gastronomy of the Cook Islands.