Cook Islands Dining and Nightlife

A range of tropical root and starch vegetables are grown locally. Maniota (arrowroot) is one of the most popular of the starchy vegetables, eaten like a potato. It is sometimes set with a sweet dish known as poke that is made from arrowroot (tapioca), banana pulp and pawpaw. Taro root (a tuber vegetable) can be an acquired taste, but try the delicious Ruakua – taro baked in coconut cream. Breadfruit and kumara (sweet potato) are also eaten. Non-starch vegetables grown locally include cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, eggplant, pumpkin, tomato, spinach and zucchini.

Fish is a staple of the Cook Islands diet. One of the more popular dishes is known as ika mata – a raw fish dish which is marinated in lime or lemon juice, blended with tomato and chopped onions, then mixed with fresh coconut cream. A variation on this is eke, a dish of octopus cooked in its own ink. Most restaurants have their own fish suppliers and the menu will reflect the catch of the day. The main fish on the menu will be ahi (tuna), mahi mahi (common dolphinfish – not dolphin), swordfish, broadbill, pakati (parrot fish) and ono (barracuda).

Along with fresh fish and vegetables, visitors should sample the tantalising tropical fruits. Pawpaw (papaya), mango, banana, pineapple, orange, avocado and watermelon make a delicious breakfast. Coconuts grow all year round in the Cook Island, and the cream from grated coconut flesh is used in many island dishes.

Restaurants in the Cook Islands range from gourmet cuisine to friendly island-style café restaurants. The food selection includes superb international cuisine through to the old favourites – Chinese, Italian, Indian and Continental. Much of the food used in restaurants comes from New Zealand and is flown in fresh or frozen. The overall quality and presentation of food in the Cook Islands is very high, and a variety of local and international dishes are available. Many of the restaurants, cafés and takeaways have been influenced by New Zealand cuisine however an increasing dynamic Cook Islands fusion style is emerging. All Rarotongan restaurants are licensed with a good selection of ales, wines, spirits and tropical cocktails. Most types of Australian and New Zealand wines are available, as well as most types of liquor. Rarotonga Breweries produces a range of natural beer, which is very popular.

Whatever style of cuisine you find tempting, the staff are only too happy to explain any dishes you might like to try. Tipping is not customary. Some accommodation hosts will arrange transport to and from restaurants. Sunday in the Cook Islands is very much the day of rest but resorts offer restaurant and bar facilities throughout the day for their guests and other visitors. Major restaurants also open for Sunday dining and drinks are served with meals.

A highlight of a stay in Rarotonga is the special Island Night experience, blending a traditional Polynesian feast with dancing. The feast is known as the umukai, and involves baking food in an underground oven known as the umu - a deep pit filled with scorching hot stones.

Traditionally chicken, pork, fish and vegetable dishes (kai) are placed in the umu, covered up with leaves and earth and allowed to steam for around two hours, keeping in all the natural juices of the food.  After the feast, visitors can enjoy the karioi (entertainment). Cook Islanders excel at dancing, singing and drumming, and guests are greeted with the fast-paced tempo of drums, followed by an evening of traditional song and dance.

There is a huge range of licensed bars and restaurants on Rarotonga, and there is often live entertainment featuring local artists as well. Music often comes with a Polynesian twist, and DJs also contribute to the nightlife scene. Many of Rarotonga’s venues are legendary and a visit to a nightspot is a must for visitors. Friday night is generally the most popular night to go out, when closing time is 2am. Clubs are open until midnight the rest of the week. Selected resorts offer guided trips to the nightclubs and usually visit three or more places. These can be a great way to meet people and include all transport and cover charges. Theme nights can add to the evening’s entertainment. In Polynesia, both men and women do the asking when it comes to dancing, so there is no point in being shy. Whatever you do, make an effort to go out at least one night of your stay. You will enjoy the food, the change of pace and the chance to make new friends.