Cooking it up in the Cook Islands

Visit the Cook Islands and you are likely to hear people say, ‘We live to eat, not eat to live!’ – food and cooking is an important part of Cook Islands life, so take some time and savour the unique Cook flavour.

Forget candle-lit dinners; take your dining experience to new levels – over water and under the warm glow of flaming torchlight.
An evening cultural village tour with Te Vara Nui gives you a chance to connect with local Cook Islands Maori who will share their stories, knowledge and culture. Be entranced by the drama of ‘ura po’ as dancers and musicians perform by flaming torchlight on the floating and fixed stages of a sublime waterfall garden. This really is paradise! Then enjoy the exceptional flavours of a delicious ‘umukai’ – a feast cooked in an earth oven. 

Volcanic rocks are placed above a shallow pit fire, and when the rocks are red-hot, the umu food is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed under layers of leaves and sand. It takes about three hours for the umu process to be complete, so anticipation – and therefore enjoyment levels – are high. As you enjoy succulent feasts, you'll remember that 'good things take time'.

New Zealanders – or those familiar with a traditional Maori earth oven feast – may be surprised to find a different taste to a hangi, even though the techniques are very similar. It’s the moisture of the steamed banana leaves that add the distinctive taste. 

Click the + sign below to get more of an idea of what tastes you'll will enjoy on a menu in the Cook Islands.

Discover Cook Island cuisine

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 Islands, and the cream from grated coconut flesh is used in many island dishes.

From gourmet cuisine to friendly island-style café restaurants, the 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. The chilled products of the few local breweries are also very popular.

  • First tip: tipping is not customary in the Cook Islands!
  • There’s no rainy season, but consider visiting around December through to about May, when the days are longer and flowers are in bloom.
  • Rarotonga is the capital of the Cook Islands and has most of the resort type features.
  • Whet your appetite: order your free Cook Islands guide and map.