Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eating in Rarotonga - Cook Islands

When I told people that I just came back from Rarotonga, they'd ask "Where?" When I told them it's in the Cook Islands, they'd ask "Where?".

Frankly, before I went, I too had no idea. All I knew before I booked the flight was that it costs just as much to go there as it would Hawaii.

Rarotonga is the main island in the Cooks, a round-shaped land mass in the South Pacific with strange-looking mountain peaks in the center. If you look at it on Google, you'll notice that it is rimmed by a halo ring of reefs which has the distinction of turning most of the beaches into calm-watered lagoons. This meant that anywhere you dipped your toe is a good place for snorkeling.

Most hotels, including mine, offered free rentals on the equipment. Most tourists come to wile away the hot, humid days with their faces submerged under the crystal blue water to get acquainted with Nemo and his pals. I didn't go more than a few steps from shore to be surrounded by schools upon schools of fish, some of which looked very delicious.

Which brings me to the food of the Cooks. There are very few indigenous dishes offered at the island's eateries. The most popular place in the town of Avarua is a burger joint called Palace Takeaway. The cheapest burger retailed for about $5 in New Zealand dollars...and this is as good a bargain as it gets in Raro. Since practically everything is imported from New Zealand and Australia, prices are inflated to factor in shipping costs.

The signature sandwich at Palace costs $10, and it towers so high it must be secured from toppling by way of a bamboo skewer driven through the middle. In the stack, the coleslaw, local lettuce, two fried eggs, bacon, pineapple, and ground beef patty must be smashed and pressed down if you ever hope to get your mouth around it.

There is one dish distinctive of the Cooks more than any other. Called ika mata, it's a cross between ceviche and poke. Like ceviche it is pieces of fish cooked by the cold, acidic heat of lime. Like poke it exists in cubes. But ika mata is its own thing. It is tossed in coconut cream to make it unique to this place, and it eats like a distillation of the land and sea. Diced cucumber, onion and red peppers dot the dish and the best place I found to eat it is at an inexplicably named Cafe Salsa, which served pizza and salads.

Island Nights, which is the Rarotongan equivalent of the Hawaiian luau, will feature ika mata as its central dish, but it was never as good as the one Cafe Salsa made. Hmm, I wonder if the people at Cafe Salsa have ever heard of Taco Bell.

Cafe Salsa
Next to CITC store, Avarua
Phone 22215

Palace Takeaway
On Ara Tapu, Avarua

Indo Ranch - Lake Forest


At 1:24 PM, Blogger NP said...

Cool! I went to Raro about 10 years ago the first time and 5 years ago again. The nonstop Air NZ flight is quite handy.

Really friendly people ; almost feels like how Hawaii might have 60-70 years ok.

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There is one dish distinctive of the Cooks more than any other. Called ika mata, it's a cross between ceviche and poke"

Sounds like poisson cru:


At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



At 11:09 PM, Blogger caninecologne said...

That ceviche looks like "poisson cru" which they serve in tahiti (went there on my honeymoon ages ago)...

okay, i just scrolled down and saw anonymous's comment and he/she said the same thing.

at the time, i was kind of squeamish to try the poisson cru but if i ever went back, i'd totally try it.

Cool to know about Rarotonga!

At 8:56 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


So true. Raro is like what Hawaii might have been 60-70 years ago...a lot of primitive structures with no air conditioning, even in town!


You're right. It's a lot like poisson cru. But I guess since the Cooks are English-speaking, they retained the native term for the dish.


It's a pretty cool place. Hot, humid, but pretty cool.


I decided I like the dish even better than poke, even better than ceviche. Of course, the surroundings may have something to do with that.

At 8:52 AM, Anonymous Alyssa said...

Thanks for introducing me to a new place and new foods!

At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found your post! I returned from Rarotonga this morning and it turns out, I had the ika mata from Cafe Salsa. Fantastic! Another good place for ika mata is Apii Cafe on a back street in Avarua.


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