Surprisingly, one of the most common questions I’ve received since returning from the islands of Tahiti has been:
What is the food in Tahiti like?
The food of Tahiti blends of Polynesian, French, and Chinese cultures. And it’s really quite delicious.
Picture an idyllic island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean with roadside vendors selling tropical fruits, food trucks billowing plumes of smoke from a grill, and unpretentious eateries called “snacks”. The cuisine ranges from extravagant French cooking at a resort to affordable meat on a stick from a beachside shack.
In the mornings, locals walk along the street with baguettes tucked under their arm. Fishermen hang their catch of the day on roadside racks. The seafood here is abundant. Fruits de mer is what the menu reads.
Expect the most decadent sauces to pair with a meal, as sauce is popular and varied in French Polynesia, a nod toward the French influence. Restaurants serve steaks smothered in poivre vert, reef fish served in vanilla sauce, Roquefort sauce to dip in ANYTHING…
Tahitians do not have a palette for spicy food.
Food not regionally produced is imported; French Polynesia is a chain of islands, after all. Many comestibles, such as beef, are supplied from New Zealand. Imported French cheeses don the shelves at grocery stores.
Hours of operation are limited for many restaurants. It’s advised to confirm the open times prior to visiting. Many businesses shut down in the afternoon, especially in Moorea. It’s best to avoid acquiring an appetite between 2 and 6.
Oh, and there are pizzerias everywhere…
What is traditional Polynesian food? What are the staple Tahitian ingredients?
Now, the traditional Tahitian fare — that is, before the Chinese and French culinary influence — uses an abundance of native ingredients you can still eat today.
If I could pick one item to define Tahiti food, it’d be coconut. A multipurpose, sustainable fruit/seed, Tahitians drink fresh coco glace, eat the shavings of coconut meat, apply coconut milk for dressings and marinades, and use coconut husks and shells as fire starters for grills.
Tropical fruits are abundant in Tahiti. More on that later. Vegetables are less prominent, with taro and sweet potato taking center stage.
Vanilla is cultivated in Tahiti. Those familiar with other varieties of vanilla will notice more floral notes with the flavor of Tahitian vanilla. Tahitian vanilla is special. Because it is a unique species with specific, time-consuming production requirements, it is the second most expensive spice in the world.
Many traditional Tahitian feasts are prepared in an underground oven, called a hima’a. These ovens slowly cook suckling pig and a native dish called chicken fafa — chicken marinating in coconut milk and taro leaf. For dessert, sweet dense coconut bread and po’e, a rich banana pudding.
Here’s how you can experience Tahitian Food:
Go on a Polynesian Food Tour
Foodies, rejoice! The first food tour in French Polynesia has officially arrived to Moorea. Meet Heimata Hall. He created Moorea Food Adventures out of a love for the local eats and the desire to teach tourists about the flavors of the islands. His infectious passion for Polynesian cuisine coupled with his native knowledge create a truly authentic and intimate food tour for visitors vying for a taste of the Tahitian food scene. While food takes center stage, it’s the framework for a tour that also delves into the culture and history of French Polynesia. The tour is more than stopping at roadside fruit stands, throwing back shots at a distillery, making fresh coconut milk on a beach, and eating all the food a stomach can fit; it’s a food tour that encourages confidence to try new exotic foods and leaves guests with a greater understanding of Tahitian culture (oh, and a very, very full belly). Definitely add this tour to your Moorea itinerary.
I highly recommend this tour for anyone interested in learning more about the food of French Polynesia. If there’s one food experience you should NOT miss, it’s Moorea Food Adventures. Book a tour for the beginning of your trip and tell him that Amanda from The World Incorporated sent you! :)
Try a Polynesian Plate
If a smorgasbord of native Tahitian foods is a priority, seek places that offer a Polynesian plate or a Polynesian food buffet. Expect dishes like poisson cru, roast pork, chicken fafa, fish, breadfruit, po’e, coconut bread. Two places where I experienced this:
- Tiki Village | A bit kitschy (and pricey), Tiki Village hosts an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet and Polynesian dancing show. Prior to the buffet, the hosts demonstrate a traditional Tahitian underground oven and explain the origins of traditional Tahitian food. Keep in mind that it is a buffet, which means the food is batch cooked and the additional hoards of guests will elbow their way through the buffet queue too.
- Moorea Tropical Garden | Along Mount Rotui with beautiful vistas of the bay, Moorea Tropical Garden cooks up a Polynesian lunch on Friday and Saturday. In addition to the Polynesian plate, guests can sample fresh fruit juice, homemade jams, and a look at a small vanilla plantation any day of the week. Admission to the garden is free. Be warned: the road is a bit steep, so if you’re a nervous driver, you may want to hire a taxi. We went here on our food tour!
Explore a Fruit Stand
Roadside tables display plump fruits bursting with flavor. Some fruits are completely foreign – ramboutan that look like spikey Christmas ornaments and star apples that appear as smooth lemons. But there’s familiarity to the fruit too – massive avocados the size of a football player’s fist and pineapples strung on a tree like tropical garland. There are four different varieties of banana in Tahiti. The mango is crunchy and tastes like an apple with an essence of mango. The passion fruit oozes its luscious seeds. The grapefruit tastes distinctly different, in a good way (as someone who typically doesn’t like grapefruit, I couldn’t get enough of the Tahitian grapefruit… it has a milder flavor and less punchy zing).
Of course, the fruit you’ll find depends on what is in season and what the farmers harvested. The rainy season is considered a season of abundance for local plants and fruits.
If you’re apprehensive about what you’ll encounter at a fruit stand if you go alone, I highly recommend going on Heimata’s food tour. He’ll provide a fruit tour for your tastebuds and give you the confidence to visit more fruit stands on your own.
Buy Mape from a Roadside Vendor
Makeshift stands along the road hold signs that advertise: MAPE 250. What is this mystery word, mape? Mape is Tahitian chestnut. Only edible when cooked, mape is either boiled, roasted, grilled, or baked. It’s the size of a small fist and tastes like a dense, mild walnut. Eaten any time of day, purchase mape from a roadside vendor for an affordable Tahitian snack. Mape tastes best when warm! We saw a ton of mape stands in Tahiti.
Try Breadfruit in every possible form
Breadfruit, or Uru, is a staple in Polynesian cuisine. The fruit has a storied history in the South Pacific. Breadfruit tastes similar to potatoes or bread, but with a sweeter bite. When in season, breadfruit finds itself on restaurant menus in many forms. I even saw breadfruit gnocchi on one menu. My favorite? Uru frites, or fried breadfruit. Like french fries, but a crispier, more luscious taste with a less starchy consistency.
Learn how to make fresh Poisson Cru
I’d like to introduce you to my favorite fare and the unofficial signature dish of Tahiti: poisson cru. French for “raw fish”, it’s a Tahitian ceviche served at nearly every restaurant. Poisson cru is salted and peppered raw tuna soaked in fresh-squeezed lime juice mixed in with crunchy onion, carrot, and tomato topped with coconut milk rung from fresh coconut shavings… most photogenic when served in a coconut. It’s a dish of opposites that harmonize beautifully; the tenderness of the fish contrasts the crunch of the vegetables and the tangy acidity of the lime agrees deliciously with the sweetness of the fresh coconut milk.
My favorite poisson cru of the trip was prepared on a private motu during a snorkel tour with Captain Taina in Moorea. The group was shown a step-by-step demonstration of the creation of the dish.
Visit a Roulotte
Roulotte, French for “caravan,” is a food truck. The most famous roulotte destination is Viate Square in Papeete. The roulottes typically begin to stake out in the evenings. It’s the ideal gathering place to rub elbows with locals and indulge in some generous food truck dining. Definitely try the chow mein or steak frite at a roulotte. This steak frite is a grilled steak smothered in sauce served with a heaping pile of french fries. Plastic chairs and stool scoot up to tables topped with plastic cloths. Everything about eating at a roulotte — the food, the atmosphere, the people — feels authentically Tahitian.
Eat the Ocean
Tahitian cuisine is rich with fish: reef fish and local prawns and raw tuna and mahi mahi… ahh, Tahiti is a pescatarian’s paradise. Smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific, the massive expanse of ocean means one important culinary thing for this island nation: fish! Besides the classic poisson cru, we enjoyed reef fish smothered in Tahitian vanilla sauce, grilled swordfish skewers, sashimi tuna swimming in passion fruit, fresh scallops, and so much more. The Polynesians certainly know how to craft an exquisite fish dish.
Feel French at a Patisserie
When the French arrived in Tahiti, they brought along their French culinary influence, including the patisserie, or French bakery. It is French Polynesia after all. The patisserie sells French coffee, cakes, pastries, sweets, quiches, and sandwiches. I particularly recommend anything that uses imported French cheese in the ingredients (like that goat cheese sandwich pictured below).
If Tahitian food or French Polynesian has ever tickled your curiosity, I hope this Tahiti food guide helped! Prior to my visit to French Polynesia, I couldn’t find a wealth of information about the food in Tahiti. In fact, may blogs I’d encountered weren’t overly impressed with Tahiti’s culinary scene. I disagree! The food is a mosaic of cultures, delicious and varied, when you step outside your comfort zone and explore new, tropical tastes.
Have you been to French Polynesia? Are there are dishes or restaurants you’d recommend? Add them to the comments below for future readers!
PS: If you like this post, be sure to read more about my adventures in French Polynesia!
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Tahiti Food Guide: What to eat in French Polynesia