Traditional Food and Meals from the Cook Islands
Travelling the world isn’t just a treat for the eyes but make it a treat for the tastebuds by sampling authentic traditional dishes. In the Cook Islands, traditional Rarotongan and Cook Islander food is made from staple ingredients such as taro, arrowroot, banana, coconut, fish and more creatively combined for a multitude of tastes and experiences. The best place to try traditional Cook Islands food is at “island nights” or the Progressive Dinner Tour with an “umukai” buffet giving you the opportunity to taste a bit of everything. Nevertheless, many restaurants feature Cook Islands staples on their menus, especially the infamous entrée, “ika mata”!
So, scout out the dishes you’d like to try in the Cook Islands using this list of traditional Cook Islands food!
Pronounced “po-kay”, poke is a sweet traditional Cook Islands dish usually made with banana but can also be made with pawpaw, pumpkin, sweet potato (kumara), breadfruit or taro. The banana is baked with arrowroot (maniota) and coconut cream. You can eat the sweet starchy pudding as a dessert or on the side of a savoury dish, such as raw fish.
Where to try: Any island night/umukai buffet! Check out the best island nights in the 7 Best Island Nights in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands. It’s also available to try on the Progressive Dinner with Cook Islands Tours (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor).
2. Ika Mata
A staple of the Cook Islands and many other Pacific nations, ika mata is raw fish marinated in coconut cream with a few other spices or chillis for extra flavour. You’ll find ika mata available as an entrée at many restaurants across the Cook Islands, hopefully, presented in a coconut shell for a truly authentic island look!
Where to try: Sandals Restaurant & Barefoot Bar – Pacific Resort Rarotonga, Kikau Hut, Tuakata Café, The Brasserie – Edgewater Resort & Spa, The Boat Shed (Aitutaki) and on the Progressive Dinner with Cook Islands Tours (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor).
3. Curried Pawpaw (or Banana) Salad
A refreshing side to any dish in the Cook Islands, curried pawpaw or banana salad is a concoction of either pawpaw (papaya) or banana with mayonnaise, curry powder and mango chutney or some other variation. It’s a sweet-tasting sensation that surprisingly works!
Where to try: Avatea Cafe (Aitutaki), Progressive Dinner with Cook Islands Tours (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor) and any island night/umukai buffet – check out the best island nights in the7 Best Island Nights in the Cook Islands.
Who knew taro leaves could taste so good? Rukau is a traditional favourite in the Cook Islands, which is taro leaves cooked in coconut cream with a few other flavourings to lift the dish. The taro leaves have to be cooked just right or else the natural prickly texture won’t feel so good on the way down. Luckily, all of the “mamas” in the Cook Islands are highly skilled when it comes to cooking up the perfect rukau.
Where to try: Any island night/umukai buffet! Check out the best island nights in the7 Best Island Nights in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands. It’s also available to try on the Progressive Dinner with Cook Islands Tours (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor).
“Rori” is sea cucumber, which the Cook Islands certainly isn’t short of! Despite sea cucumbers being so prolific in the shallow waters of Rarotonga and Aitutaki, the dish is actually quite hard to find as a visitor. But if you’re lucky enough to spot rori on the menu, it will either be raw or cooked with garlic, butter and herbs to complement the salty-sweet flavour.
Where to try: TBA!
6. Kinaki (Island Root Vegetables)
The main vegetables grown in the Cook Islands are taro, kumara (sweet potato) and maniota (arrowroot)! These are common sides to many savoury dishes, available on restaurant menus and at any buffet. While boiled kinaki is as “Ok” as any boiled vegetables, they are best served fried with a bit of salt!
Where to try: Avatea Cafe (Aitutaki), Charlie’s (Titikaveka) and any island night/umukai buffet! Check out the best island nights in the 7 Best Island Nights in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
7. Fresh Tuna Sashimi
Ok, so “sashimi” evokes images more of the streets of Tokyo rather than the sands of the Cook Islands but the tuna fishing here is so good that you can’t pass on a chance to try this popular catch. Prepared sashimi-style is the most refreshing and best way to taste the freshness of the Cook Islands’ fish.
Where to try: Little Polynesian Restaurant, Bite Time Cafe, Rapae Bay Restaurant – Pacific Resort Aitutaki, Vaima on the Beach, Tamarind House, Trader Jack’s, Wilson’s Beach Bar & Restaurant – Castaway Resort, The Boat Shed (Aitutaki) and more!
8. Aitutaki Snowball
A favourite dessert on the island of Aitutaki, the “Aitutaki Snowball” is, in fact, a ball of vanilla ice cream rolled in fresh desiccated coconut – a simple yet perfectly islandy take on ice cream!
9. Tropical Fruit
Available in abundance on the tropical islands of the Cook Islands, fruit comes in all sorts of forms and flavours. No breakfast here is complete without a side of pawpaw, mango, watermelon or passionfruit, etc, while unique fruits like the “green orange” grown in the Cook Islands are also well worth a try. See our list of 15 Exotic Fruits in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands You HAVE to Try!
Where to try: Any market stall, supermarket or breakfast menu in the Cook Islands! Check out the 5 Best Markets in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for markets selling fruit.
The reason we leave the “umukai” until last on this list of Rarotongan and Cook Islander food is because it is usually where all of the food comes together! Umukai is a feast, typically where food is slow-cooked in a shallow underground oven with meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves. The result is a melt-in-your-mouth sensation with tender meat and earthy vegetables.
Where to try: Tumutoa Tours and any island night/umukai buffet! Check out the best island nights in the 7 Best Island Nights in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
More About Rarotongan Food and Foods in the Cook Islands
That’s it for our list of traditional Rarotongan and Cook Islander food, dishes, meals and desserts to try! Explore more gastronomical experiences through the following guides:
- 10 Best Foodie Experiences in the Cook Islands
- The Food Guide to the Cook Islands: Places to Eat, Food Tours & Best Resorts for Food
- 10 Drinks in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands You HAVE to Try!
Finally, plan a trip around the Cook Islands with food in mind using the following itineraries: Rarotonga Food Itinerary: 3 Days, Rarotonga Food Itinerary: 5 Days, Cook Islands Food Itinerary: 7 Days, Cook Islands Food Itinerary: 10 Days and Cook Islands Food Itinerary: 14 Days.