Tahiti is famous for its natural beauty including its stunning turquoise lagoons, lush tropical vegetation, and white sandy beaches. It is also known as the world’s largest producer of black pearls, highly valued for their unique color and luster. When you think of Tahiti though, its cuisine isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. It should.
In March 2023, Merge was fortunate to spend a few days in the Tahitian capital Papeete, and the lovely Orama introduced her to the tastes and flavors of Tahiti. Tahitian cuisine is a blend of French, Polynesian, and Chinese influences, with a focus on fresh seafood, tropical fruits, and coconut.
The French influence on Tahitian food can be traced back to the late 19th century when France established colonial rule over Tahiti and other islands in French Polynesia. One of the most prominent examples of French influence on Tahitian food is the use of baguettes and other French breads. These breads are an everyday staple for the Tahitians and are often used to make sandwiches or served alongside meals.
The Polynesian influence is perhaps the most significant and profound of all the cultural influences that have shaped Tahitian cuisine. The Polynesian people have inhabited Tahiti for over 1,000 years, and their food traditions have been an integral part of the region’s culture and cuisine. Fresh tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, guava, and papaya, and vegetables such as taro, breadfruit, and coconut are used widely.
The Chinese influence goes back to the 19th century when Chinese laborers were brought to the island to work on the plantations. Over time, their culinary traditions were gradually incorporated into Tahitian cuisine. One example is the use of soy sauce which is a common ingredient in many seafood dishes. Another is the popularity of noodles which are often stir-fried with vegetables and meat or seafood.
Orama and Merge started their day together with breakfast at a lovely little street cafe where they sampled poisson-cru au lait coco accompanied by firi firi. Poisson-cru au lait coco is French for “raw fish in coconut milk”, and is not only a classic Tahitian dish, but also often considered the national dish of French Polynesia. Not surprisingly, it is made from raw fish (usually tuna or mahi-mahi) that has been marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, and then mixed with diced vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumber, and onion. Evey cook in Tahiti has their own version, and this one was made with fresh-caught (that morning) tuna, chopped up green vegetables, and a little bit of taro root. The firi firi, made with flour and coconut milk, was similar to a deep-fried beignet and balanced beautifully with the lightness of the poisson-cru. As unusual as it might sound to North American palates, this breakfast combination was absolutely delicious.
Next stop was at a Chinese bakery that sold handheld savoury and sweet snacks, very popular with the locals for a quick meal on the go. Umko is a fish beignet, essentially thin pieces of fish dipped in a seasoned flour batter and lightly fried. A pai is a hand-held pie with savoury (fish or meat) or sweet (fruit or pastry cream) fillings. Merge tried several pieces of umko, and both a tuna pai and a guava pai.
Well-fortified by now, Merge and Orama made their way to the Mapuru a Paraita (the Papeete Municipal Market) that opens everyday in the early morning hours, and then stays open for most of the rest of the day. This covered market is the beating heart of the city, bustling all day with people stopping for breakfast, lunch, takeout dinners, flower and grocery shopping, and a whole host of other products and services. As they wandered through the market, Orama pointed out the different sections — the flower alley, the weaving alley, the prepared foods section, the fresh fruits and vegetables, and the seafood and meats. They stopped at the table that was selling still unripe mangoes and sampled bonbon mangue – mango slices sweetened with Chinese plum powder. Light and fresh-tasting, this was the perfect palate cleanser for the other culinary delights yet to come.
Left – rima rima (finger bananas)
By this point, you would think that their stomachs were full, but they weren’t done yet. Next stop was a Chinese restaurant for an early “working man’s” lunch. The dish they sampled is called Ma’a tinito, which literally translates to “Chinese food”. When the Chinese labourers came in for lunch from the plantation fields in the days of yore, this is what they would eat. Made of macaroni, beans, pork, and spinach (or other greens), and served with rice and soy sauce, it was a cheap, filling nutritious meal. Today, it is a popular menu item in every Chinese restaurant in Tahiti. Orama said that it was as ubiquitous in Tahiti as “ginger beef” might be on Chinese menus in North America.
After all this eating, it was time for dessert! At La Orana Gelato, local flavors were the stars. Merge sampled gelato corossol, which is gelato made with soursop. It wasn’t sour as the name implied, more sweet than any other taste.
They also tasted a local sweet snack called retia. Once she got over the way it looked, Merge enjoyed that it wasn’t overly sweet.
No good food tour would be complete without learning more about adult beverages, so Orama and Merge went next to a local liquor store. There are several beers brewed on the islands, Hinano and Manzana are the most popular. Tahitian rum, made from sugarcane grown on the islands, has a unique flavor that sets it apart from other rums. It is usually aged for several years in oak barrels, giving it a smooth and complex taste.
There was more eating to come, but it was time to walk a little to make some room for the next courses. They wandered through downtown Papeete and into Les Jardins et le Bassin de la Reine, a green, shady and cool oasis in the middle of the city. Literally translated, it means the Queen’s Gardens and Pool, and it was established in 2012 as a way to showcase local flora.
As they wandered happily around the city, they saw large-scale murals on walls and buildings. These were from the 2022 ONO’U Tahiti Graffiti Festival, a street art event held annually in May. The festival was first organized in 2014 by Tahitian street artist, Tuan Huyhn, and has since become a significant event in the global street art scene.
The graffiti murals usually feature a mix of traditional Polynesian motifs and contemporary street art styles, resulting in a unique fusion of cultures and artistic expressions. These three were a few of Merge’s favourites.
After all the walking, it was time for an adult beverage and dessert — beer and papaya tatin pie perfectly fit the bill. The beer was Hinano, one of the most popular brands in the country. The papaya tatin pie was served with coconut sauce and ice cream. Yum!! After all this eating, it was time to return to the ship that Merge was staying on, conveniently docked a the pier.
But Merge wasn’t done checking out the Tahiti food scene. Place Vai’ete Square in downtown Papeete hosts the famous roulottes (literally “caravans” in French) of food trucks every evening. Fortunately, it was just steps from the cruise dock, so she returned that evening for dinner. The tradition of the roulottes dates back to the 1990s, when a few food trucks started setting up in the square to cater to night-shift workers. Over time, the concept expanded and became popular with locals and tourists alike, who enjoy the informal and lively atmosphere, as well as the delicious and affordable food. These brightly lit trucks serve a variety of local and international food, including seafood, crepes, burgers, noodles, kebabs, and more. Merge had received advice from Orama earlier in the day, so went straight to a Chinese food stall to try their Chao men au curry. Mmmmm!
Merge had successfully eaten her way through Tahiti. Mission accomplished!! 🙂