Recommended by New Zealand Celebrity Chef Robert Oliver
Eating out in port is one of my – and I’m sure many other people’s – favourite things to do to really experience the local culture when cruising.
To start off my new series on some of the best local restaurants to sample in port, this first issue comes not from me, but from someone rather special.
It is from my new friend, New Zealand’s beloved celebrity chef, judge on My Kitchen Rules, creator and host of Real Pasifik and Pacific Island Food Revolution (coming in February 2019), winner of prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2010 and 2013, and winner of Best Cookbook in the World in 2010 for his book “Mea’kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific”, the talented and gracious Robert Oliver.
Learn more about Robert in my interview with him COMING SOON.
Robert is from New Zealand, grew up in Fiji and has family in Tonga and Samoa. He was kind enough to give me his expert picks on where to eat in their ports.
Fiji’s present day population is one third Indian, so the people have greatly influenced the food here. The result is a wonderful blend of Fijian and Indian flavours and techniques, which utilize fresh herbs and spices brilliantly. Fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood are the stars of the show, balanced with tropical starches.
Robert’s recommended foods to try:
Breadfruit – This is used as an ingredient in most dishes. It can be eaten roasted, baked, fried or boiled on its own or as an accompaniment dish, or is delicious in curry.
Ika Vakalolo – A dish of fish in coconut sauce. The fish is lightly seared and covered with a ‘lolo’ sauce made of miti (coconut milk), tomatoes, onions, garlic, moli (lemon), rokete (chili) and ginger. Delicious!
Kava – A local drink used for ceremonies. If you visit a village, you will be offered this. It is produced from the root of the kava plant, strained through muslin cloth and drank like a tea. The taste is an acquired one, but it is definitely something to sample for the cultural aspect.
Ota – River fern. This Superfood fern grows wild in much of Fiji in the interiors and is a tasty, nutritious addition to salads, Ika Vakalolo, and any dish you’d use spinach for. It has very high nutrient levels including potassium and blood cleansing chlorophyll.
Palusami – A wrapper bundle of taro leaves with a coconut and onion filling. It can be made with meat (often canned corned beef as it is a plentiful cheap meat) or just vegetables (called plain palusami). It is made with boiled and mashed ro ro leaves, cooked with coconut cream, onions, garlic, peppers and carrots, served with a starchy vegetable like cassava. Tonga has its version of the dish too.
Rourou – These are the leaves of young taro plants. They are used in fritters, palusami and more. They are used in the way cooked spinach can be. The young leaves are chock full of nutrients including iron. Try any dish that has this in, or ask for it as a side.
Restaurants to try by port:
Robert grew up mainly in Suva, so he had a plethora of great tips on places to eat here.
Café 30: Large portions and a cozy garden to eat in add to the popularity of this place. Seared tuna, katalau breadbasket and cassava cake are menu highlights. Address: 30 McGregor Road. Website: www.facebook.com/Cafe-30
City Cottage Wine and Dine (formerly The Old Mill Cottage Café): My husband Nick and I took Robert’s recommendation and ate here in Suva. We enjoyed plain palusami and the company of long time waiter Kelemendi. This place was started by local legend Mary Nelson and run by her for 30 years before she sold it last year when she retired. Now run by Indian-Fijian Nita Davi, the same philosophy of using local ingredients is used. Other menu highlights include kokonda, fresh water kai (mussels) in coconut milk and nama (sea ferns). Address: 56 Carnavon Street. Website: www.facebook.com/pages/City-Cottage-Wine-Dine
Eden: This is Robert’s favourite place to eat in Suva (and in Fiji in general). It is run by his friend Sangita Maharaj and serves excellent Indian Fijian food. Local ingredients are used, such as ota fern and rourou. It showcases urban Suva cuisine very well. Address: Bureta Street, Tamavua Heights. Website: No website but phone number is +679 338 6246.
Governor’s Café and Museum: This gourmet house and restaurant in Heritage Mall is Fiji’s only museum themed restaurant, and used to be home to Fiji’s High Chief. Enjoy the paraphernalia of the South Seas while sampling local dishes such as Kakoda, chicken Nalamu and stuffed crab. If you dock on Sunday, go between 12-2 for live music with your brunch from popular local acoustic musician Kuki. Address: 46 Knolly Street. Website: www.governorsfiji.com/
Maya Dhaba: One of the best spots for authentic Indian food in Suva is Maya Dhaba. All their chefs are Indian and specialties include Masala Dosas (crepes made with rice-flour with a potato curry filling) and chicken biryani. Address: 281 Victoria Parade and MHCC Food court. Website: www.experiencesuva.com/dir/maya-dhaba-2/
Singh’s Curry House: This is a great spot for a Tandoori style curry lunch, with Indian classics such as samosas and onion bhajis. Open until 6pm weekdays and 4pm on Saturdays, closed Sundays. Address: Corner of Waimanu Rd & Raojibhai Patel St, Suva, Fiji. Website: www.curryhousefiji.com/
Tiko’s Seafood Restaurant: Tiko’s is a fun, floating restaurant, which specializes in seafood. Tasty locally caught grilled fish and seafood platters are accompanied by stunning Suva sunsets. Spanish mackerel, lobster Mornay and curried Qari (mud crab) in coconut cream are favourites. Address: Stinson Parade Road. Website: www.experiencesuva.com/dir/tikos-seafood-restaurant-and-bar/
Yellow Chilli: This is located in town only about 15 minutes walk from where the ships dock. It has good Indian food with taro and goat curry being a couple of its most popular dishes. It is open for lunch and dinner. Address: 53 Carnavon Street. Website: www.yellowchilli.restaurantwebexpert.com/
Tukuni: Robert’s favourite spot to eat near Lautoka (and second favourite spot in all of Fiji) is this museum themed restaurant. The casual, friendly restaurant is run by the FRIEND trust of Fiji, who are a co-operative that uses and supports local produce, growing and making some ingredients themselves, and cook over an open air oven. Address: Foothills of Tavu overlooking Tavu Bay (15 minute taxi ride from Lautoka). Website: www.fiji.travel/us/dining/tukuni-restaurant
Samoan food is at the heart of the country’s culture. Hearty home cooked meals are rightly starting to earn a place on a more international stage showcasing the importance of family and community in Samoan culture where food is love and flavours are local, fresh, and comforting.
Robert’s recommended foods to try:
Fa’apapa – Samoan’s sweet tooth mean there are delicious local dessert offerings, often using coconut. This sweet coconut bread, and is heavy and satisfyingly doughy.
Oka – Raw fish. This is Samoas’ version of French Polynesia’s poisson cru, or Latin America’s ceviche. Often marinated in coconut milk as most things are in Polynesia and here usually served as a cold appetizer with a piece of cooked taro or banana.
Panikeke – These sweet banana fritters are served fresh and will make you salivate. Not the healthiest option, but worth it for the taste.
Samoan palusami – Similar to the Fiji version of the dish, young taro leaves are baked in coconut cream and various optional vegetables are added. Meat is used as often in the Samoan version than in Fiji.
Taro – The popular starch around Polynesia is king in Samoa, used wherever we might use potato in the West, and is used as the staple in most dishes.
Toonai – Sunday lunch. This is a big affair in Tonga, with family and food being the nation’s highest priorities. Any or all the other dishes mentioned here are usually served.
Restaurants to try by port:
Apia (in Western Samoa on the island of Upolu)
Lupe’s Beach Fale and Resort: The place to go for Sunday lunch or toonai (pronounced to’o nai), which is a huge event and family affair in Samoa, is Lupe’s Beach Fale. The food is prepared in the morning, then cooked over a traditional umu (open oven made of lava rocks) and is worth the effort. Once the slow food locally sourced courses are ready, they are spread over the table and several hours of quality time ensue, a truly Samoan event to cherish. Allow time to spend on the beach and swimming where you may even meet a turtle or two. Address: Beach Road, Maninoa. Website: www.facebook.com/LupesBeachFale/
Paddles: This family run restaurant celebrates the blending of its Italian and Samoan owners, fusing their respective culinary cultures. The result is carb-tastic, bursting-with-flavor dishes from chef Dora (the daughter) such as spaghetti marinara, baked fish and pork belly. Mama supervises while the fabulous Giovanni works the floor. Here you’ll find a truly family atmosphere with a killer sunset vista. Address: Beach Road. Website: www.samoa.travel/activity/paddles-restaurant
Scallini’s: Chef Joe Lam serves up haute Samoan cuisine. As President of the Samoa Culinary Association he promotes culinary skills in Samoa through training new chefs and his work can be sampled here, including Scalini’s Sua I’a (island style seafood soup), scallops, and pork belly. Address: Cross Island Road, Motu’otua. Website: www.scalinissamoa.com/
Seafood Gourmet: Samoa’s favourite seafood eatery is simple but won the reputation of having the “best oka ever” (raw fish), excellent poke, grilled fish, large portions (especially the cheesecake for dessert) and good prices. Address: Beach Road, Matautu. Website: www.seafoodsamoa.com/
Tonga was nicknamed the “friendly islands” by Captain Cook, and I think he may have named it this after eating with the locals. Comfort food made with fresh ingredients is the signature style with lots of meat in the form of sheep ribs, pork, beef, chicken and of course seafood, and plenty starches such as tapioca, taro, yams, and sweet potatoes, with coconut milk never far away to add flavour.
Robert’s recommended foods to try:
Dry octopus – Octopus are dried by hanging them on trees and sold in markets to locals as well as being exported father afield. It can be eaten dried like this, similar to jerky or re-hydrated and boiled with coconut milk.
Lu Ika – Grilled fish cooked in coconut sauce. This is a popular dish utilizing the plentiful fresh fish of Tonga. It is often served with taro.
Sea slugs – Sea slug species, primarily the wily nudibranch, are eaten in Tonga. They are consumed raw or cooked in coconut milk or garlic – similar to their French cousin with a shell –escargot.
Seaweeds – Limu, has been eaten for centuries as a regular part of the diet near the sea. Used in salads and cooked, it is nutritious and detoxifying.
Taro (mei) breadfruits – Taro is one of the most important and widely used crops in Tonga. Much like the common potato, it is cooked in, and used in, a myriad of dishes. It can be fried, baked, cooked with coconut milk, roasted, mashed, and used in puddings. If you have any food out while in Tonga, you will very likely have taro as part of the meal in some form.
Banana leaf – The leaves are used to line the Umu, wrap food in to cook, serve food on, so you will likely see it be part of any dish. The young shoots and fleshy roots are sometimes boiled down to eat to add fiber into the diet.
Bamboo plates – Not to be eaten, but noticed in the culture, are these reusable, disposable bamboo plates are used throughout Tonga. This eco-friendly practice makes for more sustainable living as well as being very pleasant to use.
Restaurants to try by port:
Friend Café: Right in the centre of town of Nuku’alofa, less than ten minutes walk from the ship dock, is this café with tourist centre. You can find local dishes such as ota ika, fresh fish with taro fries, and lobster Polynesian, as well as good coffee and smoothies. They have paid Wi-Fi available, but check the connection is working before purchasing, as it can be intermittent. Closed on Sundays. Address: Taufa’ahau Road. Website: www.friendstonga.com
‘Oholei Beach Resort: Absolutely traditional Tongan cuisine is served in this quirky cave restaurant at the beach. The Tongan feast cooked in an umu offers seafood, suckling pig and lu kapapulu (corned beef steamed in greens with onions and coconut cream) as a buffet before a traditional dance show in the Hina Cave. Address: ‘Oholei Beach. Website: www.oholeibeachresort.com
Vakaloa: The restaurant bar is located right on the idyllic beach, open from breakfast, lunch and dinner, with buffet dinner and floor-show on Wednesdays and Fridays. The regular menu includes fresh seafood such as coconut lobster, prawns and grilled fish. Address: Ikalahi Road, Kanokupolu. Website: www.tonga-travel.travel/Vakaloa_Beach_Resort
So those are Robert’s top picks of where to sample some local cuisine while you’re in the South Pacific. We hope that his tips have inspired you to try some local food while in Polynesia. I shall certainly be working my way through them when I am sailing in the area.
Remember to check out my interview with Robert here (COMING SOON).
To learn more about the food culture of these countries, you can watch Robert’s fascinating show Real Pacifik on New Zealand Online and some episodes are also on YouTube.
Here is Robert’s upcoming project, the Pacific Island Food Revolution, in association with LAUNCH as well as all of Robert’s other projects.
You can purchase Robert’s award winning cookbooks at fishpond (Australia and New Zealand’s Amazon).