Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dinner with the Locals

Obviously, when in Rarotonga, one must eat like the Rarotongans at least once. However, as in many countries where the traditional local culture is quite different from that of most visitors, having an authentic meal easier said than done. On Rarotonga, a number of resorts offer "island nights" where they serve supposedly traditional food and feature supposedly traditional dancing, but it always feels odd to me to have an "authentic" experience when the only locals are the ones waiting on the western tourists.

Fortunately, Sarah and I came across a man who offered "progressive dinners" in the homes of locals. The dinners are three courses, with each course cooked and served by a different family. Surprise, we chose this option over one of the island nights.

The entree (which is actually what Americans would call an appetizer course) was at the home of a couple whose backyard was chock full of plants I'd never seen, proving just how ignorant Americans are about where their food comes from. This included not just the usual delicious fruit veg, but also coffee, lemongrass (for tea), and more. In fact, everything they served us was from their backyard except for the tuna, which they had purchased at the local market.

Below is ika mata (translation: raw fish), a common local dish. It's not actually raw because it's marinated in lemon juice for hours and the acid cooks the fish. They then add coconut cream and some veggies, ending up with a heavenly result.

The entree also included fresh fruit from the garden: starfruit and pawpaw (papaya)topped with freshly grated coconut. Whenever I have fresh fruit like this, I always wonder why I continue to live anywhere that's not the tropics.

Next was on to the main course at a beautiful house up in the mountains. Rarotonga has an interesting topography because in addition to all the beachfront, the middle of the island is treacherously mountainous. Much of the dinner food was relatively familiar--BBQ chicken and fish, salad, etc, but of course it was all locally produced and therefore fantastically fresh. They also served taro, a staple on Rarotonga. I am still deciding my thoughts on taro, which I've tried a couple times in New Zealand. It's not exactly tasty, but it's also not bad. Just kind of bland, so it's really only good when cooked right (but I guess that goes for most food).

Finally was dessert at the home of the man who organised the tour. Of course it included more fresh fruit. There was also banana cake which, although not exactly a "traditional" Rarotongan food, was still delicious.

To anyone planning to visit the Cook Islands (which really should be everyone), I highly recommend the progressive dinner. The food was fantastic, and being in real homes made it feel more like dinner with friends than a tourist activity. When you're only somewhere for a week, it's hard to see how people really live, but this felt like a pretty good taste, both literally and figuratively.

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