Located in the heart of the Polynesian culture, Cook Islands may not be the world’s most famous culinary destination.
However, don’t underestimate it.
This tiny island nation is surprisingly rich in its distinctive food culture.
If you are hungry to dive right into Polynesian food culture, you can start with this guide and design your very own DIY Cook Islands food tour.
What is Cook Islands food?
Cook Island food is always fresh, simple, and full of flavor. It is similar and closely-related to the rest of the Polynesian food you’ll find on nearby islands.
You can find similar dishes and ingredients in New Zealand, Hawaii, and the rest of the South Pacific island nations.
Some of the basic ingredients of Cook Island food are banana and coconut, two plentiful plants you can find throughout the Cook Islands. Almost every single part of the banana tree is used in the cooking process – banana leaves, hearts and the stalk.
And of course the fruit itself is usable in any state – from the green bananas to the yellow and ripe fruit. Coconut is the same – the young and fresh coconut can be cracked open to enjoy. You can drink its water as a refresher.
Freshly-grated coconut is the main ingredient in many Cook Islands cooking techniques.
Polynesian cooking also uses fresh coconut milk to cook savory or sweet dishes – and even dessert.
Breadfruit, taro, and cassava are also often found in traditional Cook Islands food selections. While breadfruit is treated as a vegetable to boil, fry, roast, or barbecue as a main dish, you can find boiled cassava or taro root as a side dish.
Fresh seafood is another basic ingredients in Cook Islands food. The fresh catch of the day, including yellowfin tuna, crab, and lobster, are plentiful on Cook Islands.
Surprisingly, although it isn’t a native Cook Islands food, Udon noodles are a popular ingredient to use in Cook Islands food. Udon is one of the local favorite to eat at a takeaway lunch spot.
Cook Islands Food Tour Travel Vlog
Take a look at this video. My own DIY Cook Islands Food Tour!
What to eat in Cook Islands
It sounds obvious, but don’t miss tasting some of the Cook Islands’ fresh fruits and vegetables. Bananas and coconuts are the two most abundant plants here, so definitely try some of them.
Also try citrus and other tropical fruits (starfruit, guava, and pawpaw – papaya is the best!), island chestnuts, and garden vegetables (cassava, taro and breadfruit).
Umukai is the national dish of Cook Islands. A Polynesian feast, it is cooked using an elaborate slow cooking process.
It means “food from the oven” in the Cook Islands Maori language.
It is pretty common to find an umu, an oven that has been dug out of the earth, in people’s yards. Residents use firewood and basalt rocks to heat up hot stones.
Then, meat (or ika fish), vegetables and herbs, wrapped in banana leaves and stalks are placed on top of the system.
The oven is then covered and the food sits to cook for several hours.
Umukai is traditionally served on special occasions, such as celebrations or festivals. Nowadays, it serves an important feature in the Polynesian tourism industry.
Umukai is known as hangi in New Zealand.
Cook Islands Poke is a sweet and creamy thick pudding, cooked with coconut cream. Fruit pudding is a very loose term to use – banana or pawpaw are the two most common ingredients used to make poke.
Pawpaw or papaya produce orange poke, while cooked banana yields brownish poke.
On the Vaka Cruise in Aitutaki, I had one poke made from boiled pumpkin. And yes, it was an orange dish.
You can find Poke in many Polynesian food cultures, from Hawaii to New Zealand. Although Hawaiian poke is a completely different dish – it is a raw fish dish with soy sauce and sesame oil.
Curried eke is chopped octopus in a coconut curry broth. It is typically served with rice.
Ika mata is a raw fish salad, marinated with lemon juice. They serve it with coconut milk and finely chopped vegetables. It is similar to Latin America’s Ceviche recipe, except with an island flavor.
At Trader Jacks in Rarotonga, I had a bowl of ika mata and several slices of boiled taro root.
Rori is raw sea cucumber (sometimes cooked), served with butter, garlic, and herbs.
Maniota is tapioca, which is a cassava root product. It is common to fry maniota, and serve them in a similar way you find french fries in North America and Europe.
Rukau is mashed taro leaves, mixed with onions and salt. They are cooked three times in coconut cream.
Where to find Cook Islands delicacies
Cultural events, like the Te Vara Nui Village in Rarotonga, Tamanu Beach Island Night, and Vaka Cruise in Aitutaki, are a great place to start.
Many hotels and resorts in the Cook Islands have weekly cultural events that include a private buffet. Just ask your Cook Islands hotel or resort for details.
At the Te Vara Nui open village tour, for example, you’ll learn in detail how your meal is prepared with the underground umu oven.
On the Vaka Cruise and the cultural night in Tamanu Beach Resorts or Aitutaki Pacific Resort, fresh yellow fin tuna is prepared with a barbecue style.
Cultural events with a buffet-style feast are a good value for eating out while enjoying a cultural experience on the Cook Islands. They even have an event where they show you how to properly husk and open a coconut!
In Rarotonga, check out the Punanga Nui Market Rarotonga, where some stalls provide a few options of local delicacies.
Look for coconut rolls (a savory sticky bun covered in thick coconut sweet cream sauce), or “Aunty Pat’s” coco candy (baked coconut shavings with additional flavors).
Some of the town’s takeaway places have great poke or ika mata dishes. Ask for the specials in each restaurant, as they typically prepare these based on availability.
Otherwise, you can always find Polynesian food on the menu at any Cook Islands restaurants.
Drinks on the Cook Islands
The most popular non-alcoholic drink on the Cook Islands is coconut water and fresh tropical fruit juices. As you can imagine, there is an abundant supply of coconut and fruit on the Cook Islands to make these drinks, and they are delicious!
Alcoholic drinks are mostly tropical fruit cocktails. You can easily find Mai Tais, Pina Coladas, or Mojitos in many of the bars on the Cook Islands.
However, none of these are really traditional Cook Islands drinks.
Tumunu (Bush beer, or bush pub) is a Cook Island specialty brewed from sugar, oranges, bananas, pawpaws or hops, yeast, and malt. When the missionaries arrived on the islands, they enforced a prohibition on locals drinking kava.
As a result, Cook Islanders secretly brewed their own beer, and the name “bush beer” sticks even today.
When prohibition ended, brewing bush beer was no longer necessary. You can find the remaining bush beer brewing practice only on the island of Atui.
Local Cook Islands Breweries
There are two Cook Islands breweries worth mentioning. Both are in Rarotonga.
Rarotonga Brewery was founded in 2016, and produces one of the most recognized brands on Cook Islands – Cook Islands Lager.
They produce three different types of beers: Cooks Premium Lager, Cooks Original Blonde, and Cooks Cheeky Darkie.
The brewery offers free brewery tours daily at 11 AM and 1 PM.
Matutu Brewing Company produces several signature beers, as well as celebration and seasonal brews. You can choose from the Mai (a refreshing lager – highly recommended), Kiva (a Pale Ale) and the Maeva 2015 celebration Indian Pale Ale.
If you like stout, try the locally-sourced coconut and vanilla flavor stouts! Matutu Brewery offers brewery tours every day at noon and 1 PM for NZ$15.
They can even pick you up for an additional NZ$5 per person.
Where to eat Cook Islands food?
It is impossible to list all of the great places to eat in the Cook Islands. But I’ve found some highlights of eateries in two major Cook Islands destinations – Rarotonga and Aitutaki – that I think you’ll like.
While the focus for me was on traditional Cook Islands food, I’ll also list some local favorites, as well as popular tourist places.
Restaurants in Aitutaki
Located in the picturesque O’otu Beach, Koru Café Aitutaki is one of the local favorites for breakfast and great coffee. Try their Gourmet Bacon and egg roll – its relish and aioli are to die for.
It’s a fulfilling and delicious breakfast sandwich. Koru is a pretty chill cafe on the island, and there are even chickens are roaming around in the garden.
You can choose to sit at the manicured garden’s picnic tables, on the porch, or inside a cozy indoor cafe and lounge.
Koru will even pack a picnic lunch for you if you’re going on a day trip!
Pacific Resort Aitutaki Restaurant
The Black Rock Bar, along with its restaurants, is one of the most scenic places to eat in Aitutaki. It overlooks Amuri Beach.
Because it faces west, it’s the perfect place to watch the sunset while enjoying a meal or a drink by the beautifully-designed infinity pool. Don’t miss their South Pacific culture nights.
Enjoy an evening of live song and dance performances while enjoying a plentiful feast.
Tamanu Beach Resorts and Restaurants
Tamanu Beach Aitutaki hosts two weekly cultural and food events. Every Sunday, enjoy a barbecue night with a buffet style dinner and live music.
The tradition derives from the “after church” culture, where families would gather to feast in the grandfather’s home. However, for the best Cook Islands food plus cultural experience in Aitutaki, don’t miss their Thursday’s Island Night Buffet.
It includes live music, a fire show, and of course an island feast – Polynesian buffet style.
Mangoes Takeaway is one of the local favorites to eat. The restaurant is very centrally located and open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
Tauono’s Garden Café
Tauono Café is a must visit for home-cooked meals in a local garden setting on Aitutaki. It is famous for locally-sourced and fresh produce. It’s also a destination for organic farmers and WWOOFers.
The owner and chef, Sonja, gets her fresh ingredients directly from the organic garden surrounding the café. You can also buy them fresh from her market.
Tauono’s limited menu options are always innovative. Chicken with banana stuffing, hot or cold roast pork, three pepper spiced dishes, yellowfin tuna with Cajun seasoning, and arrowroot pudding, starfruit salsa, and carrot with cumin. Oh, don’t miss her coconut cake dessert!
It’s open daily from noon to 2 PM and some evenings from 3-5. If you want to go on Sunday, book ahead of time, as there can be a long waiting list!
Cafe Tupuna Aitutaki is open seven days a week for light teas, snacks, lunch, and dinner.
Located in the center of the island, this café offers a relaxed island atmosphere and good food.
Blue Lagoon Restaurant – Aitutaki Village (Samades)
Blue Lagoon Restaurant is also open seven days a week. Here, you can get drinks and snacks in a wonderful location on the lagoon-side of Aitutaki.
They offer water sport rental equipment as well as an “island night” on Tuesdays.
Boatshed Restaurant and Bar
Located next to the end of the airport runway, Boatshed is a local favorite that’s open every day. They have a great selection of cold beers.
On Sunday evenings, you join their weekly karaoke event.
Its eastern side property is the best spot to watch the sunrise in the morning.
Interested in learning more of Aitutaki? Check out our Aitutaki culture post!
Restaurants in Rarotonga
Rarotonga Punanga Nui Market
Punanga Nui Market in Avarua is definitely a must visit for a Cook Islands food tour. The market is one of the largest in the South Pacific. Every morning, the market opens at dawn.
Locals buy and sell fresh produce, meat, and fish.
There are a few local stalls that serve Cook Islands food, including ika mata, savory coconut, fresh local fruit smoothies, and great crepes! There are lots of baked goods, like homemade cakes and pastries, fresh from the oven.
Don’t miss Punanga Nui Market on Saturdays from around 8 till 2 in the afternoon. During this time, they have cultural performances at the center stage, free of charge.
Performances start at around 10.
But remember, you’re on “island time,” so be patient if they don’t start right away!
Muri Night Markets
Muri Night Markets is located between the Sails Restaurant sign and the Beachcomber Accommodation, on Rarotonga’s famous Muri Beach.
Weather permitting, stroll through the lively atmosphere of night markets stalls and taste many different dishes – rows of crepes, pastries, seafood and local Polynesian delicacies.
Trader Jacks always gets a nod its seafood options and pizza. You’ll find it in Avarua, across from the New Zealand High Commission building by the edge of the water.
Trader Jack’s is a great place to have lunch, and try the mahi mahi dish.
I had the ika mata and it was delicious!
Bamboo Jacks is a restaurant operated by Trader Jacks. They specialize in Southeast Asian cooking. You can find anything from Satay (Indonesian meat on a skewer with peanut sauce) to Laksa.
If you’re looking for more of a local flavor, get the curried eke – octopus cooked in ayellow, red or green curry paste.
Delicious, spicy heat!
Mooring Fish Cafe
Mooring Fish Cafe is a legendary Muri Lagoon restaurant, popular with both locals and visitors to Rarotonga. It occupies a converted shipping container. As the name implies, freshly caught fish is their main selling point.
They serve them in form of fish sandwiches on Turkish flatbread. Try the FOB filling – Fresh Off the Boat. It is a crumbled mahi-mahi filling with lime mayo.
The fishing club is right next door, so rest assured that all of the fish is fresh. On a good day, you can even order your meal and sit by the jutted docks!
The friendly staff will deliver your food and drink right to you!
Le Bon Vivant
Le Bon Vivant, aka LBV, is mainly a breakfast place for great coffee and pastries, but they have a few other things as well. A few people recommended I try the ice chai tea latte.
Refreshing, yet herbal and enjoyable!
One of my personal favorite places to eat in Rarotonga was the Tuakata Cafe. There, you can get great coffee and one of the best coconut products you’ll find on Rarotonga – the Coconut Delight.
The recipe combines three layers of coconut: finely grated coconut cooked in coconut cream to form paste strips, and coated in coconut sugar and baked.
You’ll love it when they serve it toasty warm with your morning coffee!
Te Vara Nui
Te Vara Nui is a cultural show and buffet in Muri Beach. Here, can eat buffet style while watching the Highlight Paradise cultural performance over the water.
Yes, this is one of the touristy things to do in Cook Islands, but it is worth it.
The performance takes place three times a week, and pre-booking is essential. You can book it online at their official site.
Indicate on the booking if you need a pickup from your accommodation in Rarotonga.
Vegetarian and gluten-free options are available and well-marked.
Charlie’s Cafe and Bar
Charlie’s Cafe and Bar is in Titikaveka Village, near the Matutu Brewery. It’s the perfect place for a combo brewery tour and lunch experience. You must try their sandwiches!
Charlie’s is also one of the most budget friendly meal places in the Cook Islands.
They have daily live music from 6:30-8 PM and serve locally-brewed Matutu beer at far cheaper pricves than other establishments – definitely must-try beer!
Tamarind Restaurant is one of the fanciest restaurants on the Cook Islands. It occupies one of the most historic structures in Rarotonga. They did a great job renovating it and converting it to a very upscale restaurant with a colonial feel.
Its well-manicured back garden overlooking the water is a perfect place to enjoy a romantic dinner, while watching the sunset in the distance.
It is also a great place to celebrate special occasions, or for anyone seeking an upscale dining atmosphere on the island.
Beluga Cafe is a must-visit Cook Islands restaurant. Located not far from the Rarotonga Backpackers Hostel (a budget hostel in the Cook Islands), it is a popular food destination for both budget-conscious and casual visitors. They have great coffee and breakfast menu.
Plus they have awesome selections for vegan and vegetarians. Beluga Cafe has a great atmosphere – they have great collections of arts for sale at their main dining area.
Sandals Restaurant is located at the Pacific Resort in Muri Beach. Pacific Resort has a great romantic atmosphere with a gorgeous backdrop of the Muri lagoon.
The restaurant offers delicious food where you can sample Cook Islands food.
Nothing beats the torches and meticulously manicured landscape of the resort!
Local favorite restaurants and other food
Globalization and tourism has brought other cuisine into Cook Islands food scene, including Indian, Chinese, Italian, and other Polynesian cuisine.
Rarotonga has the lion’s share of restaurants and bars in the Cook Islands. There are no less than twelve licensed bars and restaurants in the capital with live entertainment.
Many restaurants and food establishments have daily arrangements with fishing boats to supply them with the freshest seafood for their restaurants. Same thing with farmers and growers on the island.
Yes, the locals do go out to eat, and many Cook Islands takeaway places are extremely popular with both locals and tourists alike.
A takeaway place is typically a small restaurant on the side of a road, and food ranges from traditional Polynesian food, delicacies like ika mata or poke, udon and noodles, as well as fried chicken.
The cheap and convenient Rarotonga fried chicken offers a great food combo, and they are open 24 hours!
Things to know about Cook Islands food culture
Drinking age in Cook Islands
What’s the minimum drinking age in Cook Islands? It’s 18. Unless you are obviously younger than 18, they seldom (like, almost never) ask for ID to prove it.
Cook Island tipping
It is not part of the Cook Islands culture to tip. Some big restaurants and resorts will include a section to add a gratuity if you pay with credit card. It is solely your choice to fill in an additional amount as appropriate.
In short, tipping is not “a thing” in the Cook Islands.
Cook Islands very religious. Alcohol is still sort of taboo on Sundays. As a result, only a few restaurants and hotels offer alcohol on Sunday.
Many establishments have signs that say they don’t sell alcohol on Sundays.
Cost of Cook Islands food?
How expensive is eating out in Cook Islands? Food prices are similar to what you would pay in Australia and New Zealand. A typical of cheap lunch will run from NZ$ 15-20, while dinner can go up to NZ$40 with a glass of wine.
Takeaway on Cook Islands
Takeaways restaurants are very popular places to get good Cook Islands food. They range from burgers and chips, doner kebab, pizza, noodles dish, and fried chicken.
These takeaway places are also great for local treats, such as ice cream or juices.
Sometimes you can find local Cook Islands food and delicacies like poke and ika mata.
Vegetarian and vegan options
Although there are a few options available for vegetarians in a typical Cook Islands restaurant, there are still not many exclusively vegetarian or vegan-only restaurants.
One great vegan and gluten free restaurant is the Le Rendez-vous Cafe next to the airport.
They indicate on the menu items that are vegetarian and vegan, including breakfast items and pastries.
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Cook Islands Accommodations
Find Cook Islands hotels and resorts here:
If you are looking for a Couchsurfing host in the Cook Islands (there are only a few registered hosts, but worth trying!), check out our Couchsurfing tips.
They’ll help you create or improve your profile, write requests, and be a great guest.
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Halef moved from Indonesia to the US nearly two decades ago to go to college here. He hasn’t looked back. He’s been to over forty countries and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s a Landscape Architect in Atlanta, GA.