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Food, Dining, & Drinks
Much of Tonga's population today lives on the volcanic
islands of the country as these islands are much better suited to growing plants,
and hence they also attract more land animals. On the coral islands there was and
still is little plant life. Although the soils are fertile on these volcanic islands,
few plants or animals are native to the islands of Tonga and most of what is eaten
today was later introduced by the first inhabitants or later people.
The most important plant used for food historically in Tonga
is the coconut, which made its way to the islands by water. The coconut is the staple
food for the people in the past and this continues today as coconuts are used for
milk and flesh. The coconut is one of the only plants that made its way to Tonga
prior to the islands' first settlers, although these settlers later brought
with them numerous plants and animals that make up much of today's diet.
When these first settlers did arrive, they found plenty of animals in the surrounding
seas that were, and still are, used for the people's diet, including crab, octopus,
turtle, fish of all kinds, and water fowl, including noddies and terns.
When the first people arrived to Tonga they brought with
them foods in the form of plants and animals. Later waves of people also brought
additional plants and animals, many of which still make up the base of the diet
today. These plants and animals included pigs, rats, dogs, taro, rice, yams, breadfruit,
bananas, lemons, and sugarcane among others. Although it's not known when or
with whom many of these foods arrived, it is clear they arrived with the early waves
of settlers and all were present by 1200 at the latest.
The next large culinary change likely came in the 900s when the
Tonga expanded their influence over much of Polynesia; in fact today there
are numerous similarities across the Polynesian cultures in terms of food. Although
the Tongans strongly influenced people in the region in terms of language, religion,
and culture, they may have also adopted foods or cooking techniques from other islands
or passed their foods to these other islands. No matter who influenced who, it is
clear that Polynesian cuisine became quite uniform at some point and this may have
happened in the 900-1400s as communication throughout all of Polynesia peaked at
Among the many culinary links throughout Polynesia, one of the most significant
is a cooking method that begins with rocks that are heated then placed in the ground
as they are topped with food wrapped in banana leaves and covered in dirt. This
essentially acts as a pressure cooker and can be found throughout Polynesia. Although
when it began is unknown, it is common in New Zealand
among the Maori so this cooking method likely existed prior to about 1300, which
is about when the Maori settled that country from Polynesia.
In the 1600s the Dutch landed on the, but these foreigners
didn't make any settlement efforts until the 1800s. These settlers, primarily
British, brought their own foods to Tonga as they introduced cattle, chicken, wheat,
potatoes, cassava, watermelons, pineapples, papayas, oranges, mangoes, onions, and
tomatoes among many others. These foods added to the local diet and gave these foreign
settlers a familiar diet, but most locals still relied heavily on their historic
Through the 1900s few large culinary influences changed the diet in
Tonga, although better communication, transportation, and technology gave
the people access to imported foods and non-perishable goods, which extended the
shelf life of many foods. Today these foods make an impact on the diet as canned
meats are common and western foods and restaurants are popular, particularly those
catering to the tourists. However, the locals tend to maintain their historic diets.
Breadfruit (ulu): this fruit is very common
Coconut: coconuts are used for their milk and flesh
Rice: a common base or side for many meals
Taro: taro root is prepared in numerous ways, including as poi;
it is one of the main staples throughout Polynesia
Yams: yams, a member of the potato family, are found in many meals
Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
'ota ika: raw fish or seafood marinated in citrus
juice and coconut milk then served with raw vegetables
'otai: the kava plant's roots, which are ground
to release liquid, then water is added and the juice is drank; a similar variation
is known as kava
Lū: a dish of beef and coconut milk wrapped in the leaves
of the taro plant, all of which is eaten
When & Where to Eat
When and where the Tongans eat is somewhat individual as
different people and different jobs dictate when and where people eat more than
the culture does. Generally most people eat a small breakfast at home, food that
is usually leftovers from the prior day's meal.
Lunch was always the largest and longest meal of the day in Tonga
as people would return home to eat a large meal and perhaps take a nap afterwards,
perhaps to avoid the hottest part of the day outside. This is still common in many
villages, especially among farmers, fishers, and others who spend their time outside.
In most places lunch has become a shorter meal as most people eat at work.
For the workers who eat lunch at work, dinner is the largest meal of the day now
and it tends to be a large feast with the family. Often times there is enough food
made for this meal and the following day's breakfast and lunch. For those people
who have a large lunch, dinner tends to be a bit smaller and usually consists of
the leftovers from lunch.
Dining in Tonga is fairly relaxed and it is difficult to
insult or offend the people, but there are some rules that you must be aware of
to spare yourself and those around you some embarrassment. Generally, if in doubt
look to your host for clues, but some things are up to the guest to lead and this
may be you.
The formalities and most important aspects of dining in Tonga
are related to behavior more than actual eating. For example, bringing food to a
dinner, even a small side dish or dessert is a great offense to the host by indicating
they will not prepare enough food for everyone. Guests are also asked to sit in
the middle of the table so they may converse with everyone more easily, but let
your host seat you none-the-less.
Once seated, and you must be sitting to eat, you may notice silverware (cutlery)
or it may be absent. Many of the Tongans eat with their
hands and if this is the case do the same, although they may offer you a fork or
spoon. As you begin taking your food be aware that taking a second serving is rude
so take everything you plan to eat before you begin eating (even if this plate is
huge as many of the locals will do). More importantly, be sure to try every dish
Once everyone has their food, the eating pace is up to the guest of honor whether
or not he or she knows it. This means you should wait to see if anyone starts eating
and if not, they are likely waiting for you to begin, meaning you are the guest
of honor. In this case be sure to pace your eating with everyone else because no
one will begin eating until you do and no one will finish eating until you do; once
you finish eating everyone else must also stop and you don't want anyone to
Most of the people will leave some food behind then will take their excess food
home for a latter meal. You are welcome to do the same, but as a guest your host
may insist that you finish your food.
If dining in a restaurant many of the above rules also apply, but there will most
definitely be eating utensils and the setting will be more formal (although will
still be but less formal than most of Europe,
Australia, or North America). The host
of a meal is expected to pay for everyone present; if this is you tip at your discretion.
Tipping is not expected in Tonga, but for good service
it is appreciated and in hotels and restaurants catered to tourists it is becoming
Celebrations & Events
There are a few foods and drinks commonly consumed at celebratory events and holidays
and these events wouldn't be complete without these foods. The first, and perhaps
most traditional of these is 'otai (or kava), which is a drink
that is often accompanied by speeches and other formalities. Another important food
in cultural ceremonies is pork as pigs were only killed and eaten for important
personal events such as weddings and funerals; although today pork is more common
it is still eaten at every important event.
Another important dish is lu, which is made from taro root, meat, and coconut
milk. Again this dish is found at most important events, but is also eaten more
regularly as it has become a dish served on Sundays in many houses.
A final food of importance is topai, which are boiled flour and sugar dough
balls. This food, served with syrup and coconut milk, is a common funeral food,
but primarily due to their ease of preparation as opposed to having any true cultural
Today nearly any popular international beverage can be found in
Tonga from juices and soft drinks to coffee and tea. These are gaining popularity,
but for a more historic and traditional taste of the islands, try the kava
or 'otai. Kava is made from the kava plant's roots, which
are ground to release liquid, then water is added and the juice is drunk. This drink
holds an important place in the Tongan culture, as does 'otai, which
is made of ambarella or fekika juice (although other juices are
used today) and coconut, which is mixed then chilled.
Beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice in Tonga; both
imports and homemade beers, called hopi, are popular. Hopi is
popular because the government limits who can buy alcohol and how much they can
buy so home brewing has taken over much of the market. International brands of beer,
liquor, and imported wines are readily available at hotels and restaurants for foreigners.
Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Tonga,
but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people
may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be
different from what your system is used to.
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