Expedition To Tonga I: Tiny Pacific Island In The News!

All of a sudden the world is interested in the tiny South Pacific Island of Tonga. All it took was a gigantic seafloor volcano eruption just west of there, which triggered tsunamis felt all around the pacific rim, to get folks to take notice. We were interested in what they eat there…

Loi Feke - © Sue Law via PintrestL’oi Feke: Grilled Octopus simmered in Coconut Milk…

The Kingdom of Tonga, a constitutional monarchy, is actually a Polynesian archipelago of 169 islands spanning about 700,000 km2 (270,000 sq. mi.) of ocean surface, unlike many Pacific island nations that came under French, British, German or other colonial rule for a time in the 18th or 19th centuries. It’s population was just over 100,000 in 2021. While Tonga’s economy has until recently been focused on feeding and housing its people, the country has begin promoting itself as a tourist destination, offering whale watching, big game fishing and the lure of unspoiled beaches which are becoming popular surfing destinations. Cruise ships are beginning to stop at Tonga, as well.

Fishing, forestry and agriculture are the primary commercial activities on Tonga. Wikipedia expands: “[A]griculture and forestry (together with fisheries) provide the majority of employment, foreign exchange earnings, and food. Rural Tongans rely on both plantation and subsistence agriculture. Plants grown for both market cash crops and home use include bananas, coconuts, coffee beans, vanilla beans, and root crops such as cassava, sweet potato, and taro. As of 2001, two-thirds of agricultural land was in root crops.”

So there’s a pronounced cultural emphasis on food.

Tourism Tonga enthuses: “In Tonga food is how all food should be: harvested fresh, cooked fresh and enjoyed fresh. The staples of Tongan foods are pork, chicken, beef, sheep ribs and of course fish to name a few popular meats. Add in some coconut milk, taro leaves and various starches such as yams, taro, sweet potatoes and tapioca and you can taste the true Tongan cuisine. Traditional food is cooked in an underground oven called [an] umu, unless of course it is the most popular spit-roasted succulent pig.” The umu is very similar to the Hawaiian pit oven, made famous by that state’s Luau pig roasting tradition.

On our menu today

Corned Beef: Canned, like you find on your own grocery store shelf, imported from New Zealand. Corned beef takes the place, in Tonga, that SPAM fills in Hawaii. It shows up in a number of favourite mains. An unlikely Tongan staple.

Lu Pulu: Coconut milk, onions, tomatoes and corned beef are wrapped in taro leaves and then in aluminum foul (or, more traditionally, banana leaves) and steamed in the umu.

Lu Pulu - © chefhui.com

They’re often served with a side of rice or yams. You can also get Kapisi Pulu (see photo, top of page), which is virtually the same as Lu, but inner-wrapped in cabbage leaves.

Lu Sipi: Lamb and onions with coconut milk and herbs, wrapped in taro or banana leaves and baked in the umu. A simple combination of ingredients develops big flavour!

L’oi Feke: Grilled Octopus in a coconut sauce. The octopus is simmered until tender in coconut cream and onions.

‘Ota Ika: Raw fish marinated in coconut cream and lime juice. It’s kind of like ceviche or poké.

Ota Ika - © juk.co.nz

The marinade may also include tomatoes, onions, cucumbers or chillis.

Pele Sipi: Lamb Chops simmered with butter, onion, water and salt. When the chops are done…

Pepe Sipi - © 7continents2u.com.au

…add Pele or Bok Choi leaves to the pan, and cook until they’re wilted. Serve with rice.

Kale Moa: Spicy Chicken Curry. Garlic, yellow curry powder, and ginger are combined with coconut, onions and other vegetables.

Kale Moa - © ayearcookingtheworld.com

The chicken is cut in rough 1 in. chunks. The other stuff is diced uniformly a little smaller. Just simmer until the chicken is cooked through and the veggies are fork tender.

’Ufi Lolo’i: Yams cooked in coconut milk. A favourite side dish with many Tongan mains. Tight up there with rice!

So many dishes from so few ingredients!

Tonga is still virutally undiscovered by the outside world. You can start exploring by whipping up one of the mains described above for supper tonight! Tomorrow, we’ll look into some Tongan sweet treats and baked goods.

~ Maggie J.