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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Kiribati

Historic Diet

Most of the islands in Kiribati (pronounced "KIRR-i-bas") are coral reefs so there is little soil and a lack of plant life on most of the islands. Also with few plants there are few animals on the islands, although the surrounding seas are full of animals that the earliest inhabitants used for food, including crabs, turtles, fish of all kinds, and sea birds such as noddies and terns.

The most important plant used for food in Kiribati, both in the past and perhaps today, 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 this food is used for its milk and flesh. The coconut is one of the only plants that made its way to Kiribati 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.

Culinary Influences

When the first people arrived to the islands of Kiribati they brought with them foods in the form of plants and animals. Later waves of people also brought additional plants and animals. 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 major outside influence on the diet likely began in the 900s when the Tongans took control over many islands in the South Pacific. They strongly influenced the people of Polynesia in terms of language, religion, and culture, so it's likely they also influenced the food, but it is unknown in what way. 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, beginning under the influence of the Tongans.

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.

Foreigners didn't make any settlement efforts until the 1800s, at which point they began to influence and change the food in Kiribati. These settlers, primarily British and Americans, brought their own foods to the islands as they introduced cattle, chickens, 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 diet.

Through the 1900s few significant culinary influences arrived to Kiribati, although better communication, transportation, and technology gave the people access to imported foods and non-perishable goods, hence extending 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 arising in some areas, particularly those islands catering to the tourists. However, the locals tend to maintain their historic diets with the addition of these imported foods.

When & Where to Eat

Most people in Kiribati start the day with a small breakfast. This may be fruit, breads, coffee, tea, or the previous day's leftovers. No matter the food it tends to be small and eaten at home.

Lunch was always the largest and longest meal of the day in Kiribati as people would return home to eat a large meal and perhaps take a nap afterwards 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 or school.

For these workers that 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.

Staple Foods

Breadfruit (ulu): this fruit is very common
Coconut: coconuts are used for their milk and flesh
Pandanus: this fruit is common on some islands and is often boiled before being eaten
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

Palu sami: coconut cream, onion, and curry powder wrapped in taro leaves; often served with pork or chicken

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Kiribati varies a bit depending on the setting and your company. Generally, the dining in Kiribati is less formal than it is in many countries and rules are more relaxed. Despite this, there are some formal restaurants in the country and if dining in a business setting rules are more important.

The formalities and most important aspects of dining in Kiribati are related to behavior more than actual eating. For example, bringing food to a dinner, even a small side dish or dessert can be a great offense to the host by indicating they will not prepare enough food for everyone. Also let your host seat you as guests are also often asked to sit in the middle of the table so they may converse with everyone more easily.

Once seated, and you must be sitting to eat, you may notice silverware (cutlery) or it may be absent. Many of the people eat with their hands and if this is the case do the same, although they may offer a fork or spoon. If you do eat with your hands a bowl of water will likely be passed around before (and after) the meal to wash your hands. Prior to taking your food be aware that taking a second serving is rude so take everything you plan to eat before eating (even if this plate is huge as many of the locals will do) and be sure to try every dish offered as this is a sign of appreciation and respect.

Don't begin eating until indicated to do so; your host may expect you to start eating first as the guest, but don't assume this. Most meals also begin with a blessing of some sort and you shouldn't start eating until this. Try to eat at the same pace as everyone else so everyone begins and finishes eating at about the same time. 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 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 it will still be 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 check for a service charge on the bill. Often times a 10% service charge is included in the bill so no additional tip is needed. If there is no service charge on the bill, tip at your discretion.


Today nearly any popular international beverage can be found in Kiribati, such as juices, soft drinks, tea, and coffee. However for a more authentic taste of the South Pacific try kava. This drink 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 gives a very relaxing effect, yet is not considered a drug in the countries of the South Pacific.

Beer is overwhelmingly the most popular alcoholic beverage in Kiribati among the locals, but there are no local breweries so all beer is imported. Hard liquors and wine are also typically available in hotels and nice restaurants, but the selection is somewhat limited in most locations.

The tap water is not safe to drink in Kiribati; in fact in many areas you shouldn't even swim in it due to small organisms that can penetrate your skin. You should entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads.

This page was last updated: April, 2013