Delicious Diversity

Kingdom of Tonga Wholesome Dishes Always Delivered with Smiles

Food in Tonga is always served with plenty of smiles. Though simple, the recipes reflect the island’s history and lifestyle.

- By John Jacobs

Recipes are bits of history in that they develop as a consequence of many factors that include ingredient availability, the lifestyle practices of people, culture and the influence of visitors.

Take Tonga’s Lo’I Feke, for example, which is octopus in coconut cream. It has three ingredients – octopus, onion and coconut cream. Represented in this easy Kingdom of Tonga recipe are the ocean, agriculture and an island. Most of the recipes from the archipelago are simple and nourishing, and many can easily be duplicated by people who live elsewhere.

Fished From the Sea

The Kingdom of Tonga consists of four groups of islands in the South Pacific Ocean called Vava’u, Ha’apai, Tongatapu and Niua. The creation myth believes that the god Maui fished the islands from the ocean. Scientists say they are mostly raised coral islands with some formed by volcanic activity.

The islands were first settled by strong, determined seafaring members of the Lapita peoples, and Tonga became culturally influential over the neighboring islands of Fiji and Samoa. Tongans exercised their influence over the Polynesia region for at least 400 years as seafarers, navigators and adventurers. Europeans first arrived in 1616, and a series of visits continued into the 1800s. Eventually the islands became a Polynesian kingdom ruled by constitutional monarchy (still true today), and in 1900 became a British Protectorate, a status which did not end until 1970.

The capital city Nuku’alofa, located on Tongatapu, has a number of restaurants and most create wonderful dishes with freshly caught seafood. In fact, seafood lovers can find friendly Tongan smiles accompanying freshly caught fish like red snapper, coconut crab (Niuean Uga) sashimi, cups of steaming seafood chowder, seafood or lobster spaghetti, and other foods from the ocean. Dishes like seafood spaghetti represent the mix of Tongan and European cultures on a plate of food. Various types of sashimi are Japanese delicacies that may be served with soy sauce, but on the Tongatapu and Vava’u islands they become local delicacies that are often served without sauce on a platter. Ota Ika (raw fish) is strictly Tongan when served in coconut milk with lime.

Coconut is used in most Tongan recipes which is not surprising. The clear juice that comes out of the coconut when cracked is coconut water. Coconut milk and coconut cream are made by boiling shredded coconut with water to different consistencies. Coconuts are used for sauces, in stewed dishes, in marinades, to make a food that is like buttermilk or cheese, and in Haupia, which is a dessert resembling gelatin.

Even traditional drinks are made with coconut. The ‘otai fruit drink was originally concocted with grated ambarella fruit, coconut water, coconut milk and tender coconut meat. Today the drink is still made similarly, but a variety of fruits are used and sugar may be added, if desired. Fekika, the Tongan mountain apple, is an authentic fruit choice.

The country’s simple but nourishing recipes reflect island life. The staple foods include root crops, roasted fish, fruits like bananas and mangoes, and green vegetables, including taro root leaves. The economy is based on fishing and agriculture, and for visitors that means a regular supply of fresh ingredients and foods. Tongans grow pineapples, papayas, coconuts, watermelons, bananas, taro sweet potatoes, tapioca, yams, peanuts and vegetables.

Common foods like taro are cooked and then turned into poi, a paste. Fruits are used in soups and dumplings. Chicken and pigs are free range animals, and cows, goats and sheep are raised on farms. Shellfish are collected along shores, while other fish like tuna, shark, mullet, mahimahi, salmon, crayfish and sardines are caught farther out to sea. Some of the most unusual food includes seaweed, seaurchin, sea snail (elili), and octopus.

Served on Banana Tree Trunk ‘Plate’

Pork is the most popular meat, and the authentic Tongan recipe calls for cooking it in an umu or underground oven. Coals are heated and covered with palm fronds or banana leaves. A whole pig, breadfruit, yams and other foods are added to the pit, covered with more leaves, and sealed with dirt. Most Tongans have an umu outside their home, and they prepare the umu-baked meal each Sunday for a family gathering after church.

An interesting fact about Tongan foods is that that cooks do not use a lot of seasoning, perhaps because coconut milk or coconut cream is flavorful by itself.

Lu is a traditional food, easy to make, and the ingredients are easily found in Tonga. Lu is the standard dish made of taro leaves, coconut milk and onion, but any kind of meat, pork, mutton or chicken can be added. The name of the Lu indicates the type of meat, like Lu Sipi for Lu with mutton, Lu Pulu for corned beef, and Lu Moa for chicken. The meat is placed on the taro leaves with the onion, and coconut milk is poured over it. The taro leaves are closed to make a bundle that is then wrapped in banana leaves and placed in the emu for several hours.

If trying this recipe in a standard kitchen, tin foil is used instead of banana leaves. Add ufi (white yams), manioke (cassava) or kumala (Tongan sweet potato), and the meal is filling, simple and nutritious. Serve it on a piece sliced from a banana tree trunk for authenticity and ecological practicality.

Another nice thing to know is that sharing food in Tonga is considered a way to be generous to family and friends. Guests are graciously served first. Tongan hospitality is legendary, and lucky visitors will get to participate in a social kava drinking ceremony which binds people together through the sharing of a cultural ritual. Tonga is the only Pacific Island nation that was never colonized by Europeans or other foreign powers, and its rituals are authentic and treasured. Tongans enjoy feasts where dozens of dishes are served on a pola made of plaited coconut fronds.

Whether eating Tongan food on the islands or trying Tongan recipes at home, the same is true: Each dish is a simple and sincere island welcome.

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