Let’s face facts, one of the most important things about a holiday is the food. So I’ll eschew all the talk about the weather and the like for now, and get straight onto the good stuff.
There’s two types of fare I encountered; generic commercial food, and stodgy local food.
The generic commercial food is stuff you’d recognise from any restaurant or cafe in New Zealand. It follows all the conventions of fashion, and is basically familiar and therefore palatable to tourists. At times I could have been transported to a cafe in Ponsonby, only with average coffee.
I want to state that this isn’t actually a criticism. I like cafe food. But, I only eat it occasionally. Having to eat it up to three times a day, at tourist prices, isn’t something I necessarily hold with.
And that’s where stodgy local food, like that pictured above, comes in. The picture above is taro, rukau, and beef. All served with a delightful coke manufactured in Thailand, a fine vintage. It was $8 and actually a meal for two. Contrast that to the minimum $40 you spend on a meal anywhere catering to tourists, and you’ll be feeling happy you stopped at the markets on Saturday morning.
Rukau is actually a great food. I’m currently looking for it here in Wellington, because it’s healthy like your spinach or silver beet, but doesn’t have the bitterness or zing common to many leafy greens. I’ll ask some questions at the Waitangi Markets this weekend. I tried it a few ways. Cooked with the beef was good, but cooked with coconut milk was better. Recipes abound and it can be used for all sorts of stuff. Second Chef even found some in a kebab.
The problem with local foos seems to be that tourists don’t seem to get into it (unless you’re a local that is, who seem to not mind too much). But this is proper tourist behaviour -Maccas and other franchises operate almost entirely on familiarity (and expensive advertising) after all. The upshot of this though is that it undermines motivation to experiment with its preparation and develop a broader local cuisine.
That said, well-known gems like Ika Mata were generally delicious (I ate it everywhere), along with super moist coconut breads, incredibly sweet citrus, and local bananas (weirdly earthy). And, of course, taro and cassava cooked in a range of ways. My favourite was cassava chips. Damn good.
And of course, pawpaw. I ate so much pawpaw I should be orange!
The secret with Rarotonga seemed to be the need to seek out food that wasn’t prepared for people out of the resorts. When we did we got unusual flavours that while unsophisticated, were fun and honest. Something I respect in food more than fashionability and recognisability.