Paradise island = tropical fruits heaven.
Wild coconut palms everywhere you gaze and clusters of paw paw like bunches of balloons at the top of spindly tree trunks. Mango branches laden with baby fruit, passion fruit vines tangling over fences and a scent of frangipani and hibiscus across the water.
Fruits in Rarotonga are plentiful and free. This is foraging bliss.
With nuts and seeds brought from home and a donated watermelon, we didn’t spend a cent on Kris’s birthday breakfast and what a delight it was. Paw paw, passionfruit, watermelon, coconut, almonds and pumpkin seeds combine to deliver protein, minerals, fats, vitamins and antioxidants aplenty.
But beyond the abundance of fruits, what I didn’t know about Rarotonga was that food and its sharing – the daily rituals and generosity of kaikai are central to Rarotongan culture.
Everywhere we went, we were encouraged to sit down and eat. At the Rakahanga community hostel where we stayed, the trestle tables in the downstairs hall were home to rotating shared feasts of chicken and Chinese cabbage in coconut cream, local fish – marlin and mahi mahi – with tomato chilli chutney and paw paw salad, arrowroot slices, giant watermelons, pineapples and trays and trays of cake.
At a 50th wedding anniversary, before the happy couple had even finished their ‘first dance,’ we were emphatically and repeatedly encouraged by the singing Reverend to approach the vast buffet and ‘take food home for your families.’
The tables laden with fried chicken, salads, roast ham, taro root, lamb baked in leaves, corned beef stirifry and fish were overwhelming. Despite a lady declaring firmly and with a warm smile: ‘help yourself – you are family’ (we were one of only three white people there), I filled what I thought was a large-ish plate for Kris only to be laughed at for its diminutive size by another guest. Watching people leave with pretty much full roast dinners for four in their arms, we realized that this island is very much about family and very much about food. And it made me want to stay.
Pregnant in Raro?
‘What are you going to eat?’ cried the lady at security at Auckland airport when I excitedly told her we were ‘babymooning.’
‘Coconuts?’ I replied.
But on first appearances, she may have seemed right. The traditional ceviche style raw fish in coconut cream was out. As was tuna because of its high levels of Mercury. Also, the Rarotongans do love buffets, barbecues, potlucks and leftovers – all things we are advised to steer clear of in case the temperature has dropped post cooking and encourages bacteria growth.
But it was a glorious fortnight of feasting. My daily diet consisted of tropical fruits, nuts and seeds for breakfast, eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers for lunch, and dinner of whatever was on offer at whoever’s house we were at. Snacks were fresh coconut water cracked on the side of the road and the odd Picnic bar. (What? Cravings!) I made sure not to eat any raw fish or tuna but with everything else I just lightened up.
At the Muri Beach night markets, I had beautiful wahoo pieces (yes, there’s a fish called wahoo!) on a vinaigrette pea and potato salad with cheese sauce. A joyful Fijiian man with a kitchen on the side of the road made me marlin with two fried eggs, chips and salad and beamed as I gobbled it all up. And we enjoyed two dream date dinners with our feet in the sand, each time ordering fish of the day. Mama Andrew gave us paw paws and taro, the sticky root vegetable that is grown all over the island, Papa Ru’Au aka ‘Soldier’ made a mean corned beef stew and Pitiea’s family fish with rice was cooked the best of any I tasted on the island.
On our last day, we had a takeaway lunch on the beach. A beautiful spicy taro leaf cooked down in coconut cream and chilli, dipped into with maniota chips and washed down with coconut water. The taro leaf, I was told, is a fantastic source of iron for pregnant women and what the locals add to their diet when they are expecting.
Extras on Raro for pregnancy:
Coconuts. See more below.
Custard apple. Not only my favourite fruit, all juicy and delicious like a mango passionfruit cross but, unusually, stuffed with iron and copper. Don’t eat the seeds, though, as they can bring on early labour.
Simple coconut bread
But the coconut is the star of the island.
Kris did the coconut walk/shimmy and we enjoyed one or two kiko (coconuts) a day. Fresh juice from the young green nut was just blissful. Mama Andrew has a machine that grinds up the coconut flesh into cream and this is used as a base for so many dishes, sweet and savoury.
It features in Ika Mata (raw fish ceviche style), curries and stews, paw paw salads and simply straight up as a sauce alongside cooked fish. The arrowroot slice – a sweet rubbery cake – is made with coconut cream, mashed arrowroot and sugar. And the poke uses coconut cream as we might use milk to produce a pudding cake flavoured with banana or paw paw.
Coconut is super antioxidising and is about 50% lauric acid, which means it protects against heart disease and reduces cholesterol and blood pressure. It boosts the metabolism, assisting with weight balance and supports a healthy hormone system. It’s anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral (wow!) and improves digestion and eases stomach complaints. Cleansing for your liver and kidneys, the fresh coconut water is also packed with electrolytes so is great after exercise. Coconut also stabilizes blood sugar and facilitates calcium absorption so maintains healthy bones and teeth.
With properties like this and a versatility that sees it providing so many drinks and dishes, it’s an excellent staple food.
We searched for an elusive coconut bread that Kris had tried once before on Rarotonga but to no avail, so here’s a recipe that (apart from baking soda) uses only produce found on the island. It’s the simplest bread you can make and is delicious naked or with some extra coconut oil or cream on top.
3 cups of dessicated coconut
4 large free range eggs (this is a must as, without them the bread is too chewy and if you add extra small eggs, the bread will taste too eggy)
1 tbsp coconut oil, melted
1 mashed banana
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking soda
Blitz in a food processor to mix and pour into a lined loaf tin. Bake at 150 degrees Celsius for 45 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
This is brilliantly good for you with all that coconut and the protein and folate from the eggs and totally lush with extra toppings.
With love, xxx
More on the coconut on Wednesday, as we head to Franheim Kareka’s winery to sample his infusions, liqueurs and essences.