Earlier this month I spent two weeks in three of the beautiful Cook Islands. Despite it being a holiday, it was hard not to think about the food I was eating. What I noticed is what impressed me on the islands is different to what I look for when reviewing restaurants in Sydney. I actually don't really want fine dining. I want generosity, I want to taste the produce, and I want to taste cultural difference. Through food we get to know who people are, and what I found out through my own changing tastes was that I was so keen to learn more about the Cook Islanders that what was good to me began to accommodate their preferences.
So above you see a roadside restaurant called Kuku's on the sunset side of Aitutaki, an island I think is probably the most beautiful place on earth. The Seafood Burger (NZ$11) presented beautifully on banana leaves with a clam shell sauce bowl, was enough to feed both me and my dining companion for lunch. The first thing you learn here, is if the restaurant also appeals to islanders, the serves are huge by Sydney standards.
In a new place, to find out what's going to be good eating, you only need to look at what's growing in their vegie patches, and what's for sale in their markets. Paw paw is amazing in The Cook Islands. The trees are so fragrant that as you're riding around the island (helmet-less on a motor scooter), you will smell the heady fragrance of paw paw patches before you see them.
Despite thinking at first that the breakfast supplied with your room price at Tamanu Beach Resort was a bit boring (too used to a Western concept of a cooked breakfast being indulgent I suppose), in the end I appreciated looking at all the ingredients on this plate anew.
Tomatoes in The Cook Islands have flavour! All of them! Even the big ones! Starfruit can be amazing - it just depends on the tree! Bananas are ripe when they're green, and Paw Paw is luscious with none of the rotting elements my partner usually associates with them, that I usually like to mask with lime juice. You can eat Paw Paw here without lime, and it makes one hell of a daiquiri (just sayin').
At markets you're also likely to encounter island dishes like Poke. It's not always easy to extract information on how to eat these dishes from the sellers, but since the prices are low by comparison, it's worth being brave and trying them. Poke is like a sweetish jelly, so we thought it might work at breakfast, but where it really comes into its own is with a salty meaty dish, like curry or roast pork (which is closer to how the Cook Islanders eat it). It's basically a jelly baked in the oven like a cake. It is flavoured with bananas (the one I liked best) or any manner of other ingredients (paw paw, maniota, ripe breadfruit, mango...). Arrowroot is what give it its jelly-like consistency. If you'd like to know more about Poke go HERE.
Which brings me to Island Nights. You really should go to at least one during your visit. Yes, I know, it's not always an authentic look at Cook Islands culture (you can find that better by making the effort to get to know actual Cook Islanders like we're doing in the photo above), but it does give you a chance to try a whole lot of island favourites with a bonus show thrown in (the Cook Islanders have particularly beautiful voices).
The plate above is from the Island Night at Tamanu Beach Resort on every Thursday night. The dark purple blob at 10 o'clock is the Poke. It's purple because it's banana and that's the colour they turn when they are cooked in this way. It was a great mouthful of relief after the salty chicken and roast pork. At 9 o'clock you see Manihiki Bread Salad - sadly I can't find any explanation of this salad anywhere. Manihiki is another of the Cook Islands. It's like stuffing meets fresh fruit - sweetish, and very pleasant. I have trawled the internet for a recipe, but none seem obvious. At 6 o'clock is Ika Mata (raw tuna marinated in lime and coconut) and at 5 o'clock is Rukau (young taro leaves cooked in coconut). You can also see a variety of recognisable barbeque sides like curried potato salad and coleslaw,. They're still worth trying as you often find some great island twists like pineapple in the coleslaw, or what looks like pumpkin salad turning out to be paw paw salad!
Finally whilst it's easy to just dine in the tourist orientated restaurants (which I will blog about separately) life here is better if you risk a little. Go queue up with the locals and have an Au Tumeke Burger (NZ$10.50) (which in our culture would be considered a death burger) out of a converted shipping container at Mya's. Sure you're loading on the calories, but you're on holidays, and life should be different!
Besides, if you don't show an interest in eating like the Cook Islanders, you diss their culture, and they're unlikely to tell you that Friday night is Goat Curry (NZ$8.50) night at Mya's. It's an absolutely amazing creamy curry based on local curry leaves (completely different to the ones I am used to) producing a mild yet 'green' tasting curry with falling-apart tender New Zealand goat.