A Taste of Tonga

Nuku Island in the Vava'u Group. Image courtesy of Emily Kennedy
By Emily Kennedy

Tongans love food. I don’t mean that to sound facetious, Tongan culture is truly food-centic. Food is at the centre of many Tongan celebrations, and it’s customary to prepare feasts of far more food than even the heartiest all-you-can-eat buffet champion could stomach.

A culinary culture
If you haven’t been to Tonga, I can tell you in three sentences what you’ll see most: markets overflowing with yams, taro, squash and the mouth-and-mind-numbing kava root, as well as bananas, papayas, breadfruit, coconuts and mandarins piled high. Pigs and chickens roaming the streets (before becoming dinner) and earth ovens (‘umu) in the yards of each household - some are dug right in the ground while more modern earth ovens are made from modified washing-machine tubs. Visiting Tonga is like visiting the grocery store: food is everywhere.

OK, so you’ll also see frangipani fringed trees, warm aquamarine waters, displays from migrating whales and palm-tree peppered sandy beaches, but when you’re visiting the Kingdom of tropical paradise, that should go without saying.

 Palm trees in Port Maurelle, Vava'u. Image courtesy of Emily Kennedy
 Just a touch of shade from palm trees on the beach at Port Maurelle, Vava'u.

Grow it and give it

Why Tongans are such foodies stems from two main factors: their subsistence economies (farming and fishing) and their land ownership structure. Land in Tonga is owned by the King, the government or members of the nobility. Tongans who live on government land pay tax, but those who live on land owned by the royal family don’t. Instead, they reciprocate to the landowner at funerals and celebrations. So if you’re a farmer on royal land (which many Tongans are) you give away your first harvest.

“Giving first harvest” is an important event. Farmers share the benefits of their hard work with those ranked above them.  For example, a first harvest might go to the farmer’s older sister, to the village chief, to the church minister and to the King. Tongans are genuinely selfless and happy to give away the best of their crops to honour those of higher rank. Afterall, when you grow your own food, the worst thing you can do is waste it.

Traditional Tongan food
Traditional Tongan foods are impressive. I’m not just talking about the final meal, the preparation and cooking of traditional Tongan food involves clever and sustainable uses of natural resources.

For example, the banana leaf is used as an organic “tin-foil” for wrapping foods to be placed in earth ovens; the leaf stem pulled tight is used to peel vegetables; and whole leaves act as lids on cooking pots. Bananas are also used — as food!

Coconut water is a natural “Gatorade,” full of electrolytes; coconut meat can be enjoyed alone or shaved and “milked” (mixed with water and drained through a cloth) to get a rich coconut cream; shells are used as cups and bowls; and the husks are great kindling for cooking over.
 Coconut on the beach in Ha'apai. Image courtesy of Emily Kennedy
Meat from a mature coconut on the beach in the Ha'apai Group.

Yet with the increase in processed foods in Tonga and the influence of other nations’ fast-food cultures, Tonga’s traditional dishes are beginning to decline.

Well, a small contingency of women in Tonga have been making an effort to ensure traditional Tongan food gets passed on through the generations. During my recent visit to the Kingdom, I came across a simple cookbook helping to make a difference. The Coconut Recipe Book, a home-made publication stemming from World Food Day celebrations that took place in Vava'u in 2008, offers simple recipes from Tongans using one of their staples foods: the coconut.

Hopefully by sparking a discussion of Tonga’s culinary culture, new inter-generational interest will emerge, helping to preserve the art of traditional Tongan cooking and what it truly means to be Tongan.

"...by sparking a discussion of Tonga’s culinary culture, new inter-generational interest will emerge, helping to preserve the art of traditional Tongan cooking and what it truly means to be Tongan."

Try a Tongan Recipe!

Here are a few recipes from the Coconut Recipe Book. If this taste of Tonga has you yearning for seconds, research accommodation and activities in Tonga with Jasons, and start planning your next getaway to this culinary Kingdom!

Confetti Coconut Salad
1 cup coconut (grated)
1 cup carrot (grated)
2 cups green papaya (grated)
1 cup capsicum (diced)
4 tomatoes (diced)

2 limes (juiced)
½ cup coconut milk
1 tbs soya sauce
1 tsp sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

1.   Mix all salad ingredients in bowl
2.   Combine & mix dressing ingredients
3.   Pour dressing over salad and mix
4.   Serve in coconut halves
 Papayas from a Tongan market. Image courtesy of Emily Kennedy

Tropical Coconut Drink
1 green coconut
1 lemon
1 cup ripe papaya
1 tbs sugar
5 cups water

Blend all ingredients and serve chilled (preferably in a coconut half!)

The author drinking a coconut in Ha'apai. Image courtesy of Emily Kennedy

Coconut Bread

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup coconut (grated)
1 egg
1 ½ cup coconut milk
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp scraped vanilla bean

Coconut bread. Image courtesy of Emily Kennedy
1.   Mix flour, baking soda, salt and grated coconut in a bowl
2.   Whisk egg, add sugar, vanilla and coconut milk and mix well
3.   Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well
4.   Pour into greased loaf tin
5.   Bake for 1 hour at 180