IT’S AN EXCITING TIME TO BE DINING OUT IN RAROTONGA, WRITES ELIZABETH LATHAM
Perhaps all this would seem more logical on one of the French Polynesian islands, rather than one where the British Empire staked its claim. Food in the Cook Islands, however, has its DNA firmly rooted in French cuisine. The pioneer chefs on the island were trained
in the classic Swiss French school of cuisine, as were most of the chefs who migrated to the Antipodes. They arrived from the old world with a missionary zeal, ready to enliven and educate those of the new world. Whisks at the ready!
Among other things, those early chefs started the Pacific chapter of the French gastronomic society Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, recently revived by another European import, German chef Phillip Nordt of On The Beach (OTB), located at Manuia Beach Resort. In Europe (and
in France in particular), membership is exclusively the domain of Michelin-starred chefs; but the Cook Islands chapter is a mix of professionals and gourmands who meet to celebrate food, wine and the pleasure of the table.
Nordt describes it as a simple philosophy that links people around the world with a passion for food and a desire to educate young chefs. The Cook Islands is the only Pacific island chapter – not even French Polynesia or New Caledonia are members.
Why here, you might ask – and maybe the answer lies in the fact that there is a surprisingly large and diverse range of eating places in Rarotonga, despite the island being a mere 35km road trip around, with a population of just 10,000.
From simple offerings at Punanga Nui Market stalls to the more sophisticated dining rooms, visitors and locals alike are provided with much choice.
As in most of the Pacific, there is an abundance of tropical fruit and vegetables such as pawpaw, coconut, mango, pineapple, citrus, herbs,maniota (arrowroot), taro, snake beans, rukau (spinach) and even local turmeric. Fishermen provide fish such as tuna, broadbill, parrot fish, marlin and mahi mahi. Octopus (eke) is another local treat. To complement the local and seasonal, there is extra virgin coconut oil with chilli and lime-infused options.
Chefs are producing flavoursome and innovative dishes from local fish. Tony Bullivant and Boyd McKenzie of the Anchorage Restaurant (at Sunset Resort) feature sesame-crusted yellow fin tuna with coconut rice, wakame, toasted nori, pickled ginger and miso syrup,
while Phillip Nordt celebrates eke at OTB with octopus carpaccio, extra virgin coconut oil, chilli, pawpaw dressing and bush basil. Tanus Henry and Jaycarlo Ignacio, meanwhile, work with manager Louis Enoka and his wife Mina at Little Polynesian Resort to showcase smoked marlin fish cakes with roast tomato, hollandaise and chilli balsamic dressing.
It is clearly an exciting time for this Pacific destination as the culinary experience matures