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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Tonga

Historic Diet

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.

Culinary Influences

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 this time.

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 diet.

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.

Staple Foods

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
: 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 Etiquette

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 offered.

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 leave hungry.

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 more common.

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 significance


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.

This page was last updated: April, 2013