Dining out in The Cook islands
There is a multitude of accommodation to choose from on Rarotonga, which can range in price from a budget $90 a night to well over $1000 at an international resort. Some will have restaurants and a lot won’t, most are semi self-contained, but if you are planning on being independent, then there are some tips you need to take on board.
Most foodstuffs are expensive on the Cook Islands, owing to the fact that the small island cannot self cater to 70,000 visitors a year and be self sustaining. So most of what is required is imported and this includes fresh fruit and vegetables.
While prices in Avarua, the main township can be a little exorbitant, if you are prepared to go sightseeing around the island, you will find that the lettuces that cost you $3.50 in the supermarket for example, can be purchased off a road stall for just one dollar. The same applies to most fresh fruit and vegetables.
Meat on the other hand is a different story and is expensive, no getting around it. We looked at boneless chicken, which was $16 a kilo (a smoked one was $45!) But there are market areas where you can buy fish and this is relatively cheap although it is not as plentiful as you might expect being in the middle of a large ocean.
The somewhat infant fishing industry is being expanded with direct help from the government, but as matters stand, there is a small boat population available trying to attain the quotas required by even just the resorts. So at this stage, a fair bit of fish is imported from New Zealand and certainly almost all crustaceans, crayfish excepted, are brought in from New Zealand primarily.
Some, such as Trader Jack’s, for example, provide their own fish from their attached fishing fleet – so you can get a crayfish which costs $5 per 100 gms, which works out to be around $20 for an average sized one. Very few places in the world will you get a delicacy of this calibre for that price.
The island fruit are absolutely beautiful. Pineapples in particular are juicily sweet, as are the pawpaws and the mangoes. You may find island staples like the breadfruit and taro somewhat of as much acquired taste as say avocados are, but they can be presented in unusual ways which enhance the otherwise very bland taste.
Food on the wing
You will find that takeaways are also expensive, with the average burger with extras starting at $9 and usually around the $15 mark, so it is not a cheap way to live, although there are some that start as low as $5.50. And the Cook Islanders do like food cooked with a lot of fat, so you will find it somewhat greasily attractive.
The batter used for fish or mussels is unlike almost anything I’ve tasted anywhere, but if you like a dense rather than delicate texture, it will suit you. they do know how to cook and the many restaurants you will find here in Rarotonga offer some extraordinarily beautiful dishes that melt in your mouth and are not just Pacific Island culture based.
Reception at Sails
Just Burgers- Tupapa (just east of the main township of Avarua) – A good spot for a hamburger and fries lunch.
Saltwater Café- Titikaveka (south side of the island, just west of Titikaveka village) – Good for lunch. Specialists in all-fruit smoothies for $5.00, all you need for a healthy lunch on a hot day. Burgers start at $7.00, Ika Mata (island-style marinated raw fish) $9.90. Fish and chips featuring fish steaks $12.50. Wednesday night features Thai food and you can take your own wine. Main dishes around $18.00.
Longline Bar and Grill- Panama (just west of Avarua) –A favorite place for lunch. Smoothies at $3.50 and a wonderful value smoked marlin triple decker sandwich for $4.00. The 'Full Monty' breakfast is $10.50.
Edgewater Resort- Arorangi (west of the island) – Light meals between $12.50 and $15.00. On Theme nights main dishes are around $19.50.
Trader Jack's- Avarua – This is a solid favorite. Not the cheapest but good quality and a superb view. A reasonable dinner for three is around $70.00.
Chilis- Tupapa (east of Avarua) – Top value at night for the hungry. Fully licensed so you can't take your own wine. But all main dishes are $13.00. They include Mexican chilli, BBQ steak, fish or chicken, burritos and fishburger. All accompanied by one pass at the extensive salad bar.
Kikau Hut- Arorangi (just south of Black Rock) – Nights only, BYO (wine only) with mains around $22.00. It's wise to make a reservation.
Sails Restaurant- At the Sailing Club on Muri Beach. A la carte menu and blackboard specials. www.sailsrestaurant.co.ck
There are many international chefs who have passed through the portals of the Cook Islands and their influence on the menus remains to this day. You would expect to be paying on average around $70 per head for food and beverage combined for the night however. Sadly, I am going to have to go on a serious diet when I do get home. I have not had food like this since.. well, since I can’t actually remember. The island may seem a backward place in some respects, but boy do they know how to cook! The absolute finds of the two weeks I spent here were definitely Da Carlo’s, a wonderful restaurant run by an Italian family who brought the magic of the Mediterranean with them, along with the Paw Paw Patch – a gastronomic delight superbly presented in funky surroundings, reminiscent of a good restaurant in Auckland, Sydney or other cosmopolitan area. There are definitely others who prepare delicious foods, but those two were standouts.
Seafood and tropical fruit are the specialty of the Cook Islands with the ever-present coconuts adding their own distinctive flavour to many dishes. The hugely popular umukai is the traditional Polynesian feast and is prepared in an underground earth oven where food is wrapped in leaves and then steamed over hot stones. One dish not to miss is raw fish marinated in lime juice and mixed with coconut cream. If you have a love of crayfish and coconut crabs, these are delicacies on Aitutaki. There are many types of places to choose to eat from in the Cook Islands, with restaurants ranging from top class eateries to friendly island-style cafes, ethnic restaurants (Italian, Asian, Cajun/Creole, Mexican, European).
For the resorts which have their own restaurants, you can be entertained with an Island Night while enjoying the umakai by traditional dancing and singing. Meals range from $ NZD 10-20 at budget cafes to $NZD20-35 for a moderate restaurant meal and $NZD30 and upwards at a top restaurant. Most restaurants have their own fish suppliers and what is on the menu will reflect the catch of the day. The main fish on the menu will be tuna, mahi mahi (dolphin fish) and parrot fish. Another seafood specialty is curried octopus. Along with fresh fish and vegetables, visitors should sample the tantalising tropical fruits. Even if you don't try the fruit at night, you will find pineapples, pawpaw (papaya) and bananas make a delicious breakfast. The overall quality), and presentation of food in the Cook Islands is very high and a variety of international dishes are available. Where possible try some of the traditional local foods such as eke (octopus), taro (tuber vegetable), rukau (spinach-like taro leaves, kumara (sweet potato) and poke (pawpaw pudding). Coconuts grow all year round, and the cream from grated coconut flesh is used in many island dishes.