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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Tuvalu

Historic Diet

The historic diet on Tuvalu is very limited in variety as the island is home to only a few plants and land animals, partially due to the fact that most islands are coral reef so there is little fertile soil. Fortunately, the surrounding seas have provided the people with animals that have been used for food for years.

The most important plant used for food in Tuvalu 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 is used for its milk and flesh. The coconut is one of the only plants that made its way to Tuvalu 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.

Although these first settlers brought with them new plants and animals, the islands of Tuvalu had plenty of animals in the surrounding seas that were, and still are, used for the people's diet, including crabs, turtles, and fish of all kinds. Sea birds were also commonly eaten, including noddies and terns, as these are still eaten to a degree today.

Culinary Influences

The first major shift in the locally available diet in Tuvalu came when the first people arrived to Tuvalu. These people brought with them plants and animals, many of which are very important in 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 significant external influence on the diet likely began in the 900s when the Tongans took control over the islands. They strongly influenced the people 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 at this time, partially due to Tongan dominance.

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 this process 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 late 1800s, at which point they began to influence and change the food in Tuvalu. These settlers, primarily British, Germans, and Americans, brought their own foods to Tuvalu 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 to their historic foods.

Through the 1900s few large culinary influences changed the diet in Tuvalu, although better communication, transportation, and technology gave the people access to imported foods and non-perishable goods; this 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 arising in some areas, particularly those islands catering to tourists. However, the locals still tend to maintain their historic diets with the addition of these imported foods.

When & Where to Eat

Most people in Tuvalu start the day with a small breakfast, which may include fruit, breads, toddy (made from coconut sap), 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 Tuvalu 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 the 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
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

Funafuti: the island of the capital has more meats and fish in their diets than on any other island; elsewhere taro tends to be more prevalent
Palusami: a dish consisting of taro or breadfruit, coconut cream, lime juice, onions, spices, and sometimes seafood

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Tuvalu varies a bit depending on the setting and your company. Generally, the dining in Tuvalu 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 Tuvalu 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 your host 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 you begin (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 so follow their lead and suggestion.

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, but still 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 Tuvalu, but is becoming more common in hotels and restaurants catered to foreigners.

Celebrations & Events

Most celebrations and events in Tuvalu are centered on a fateles, which is a party with dancing. Of course food is also an important part of every fateles and the food is usually centered on pork. Sweet potatoes are also commonly found at fateles and any other special event or meal.


Tuvalu offers numerous beverages, including nearly every well-known international drink, including juices, soft drinks, tea, and coffee. Another popular drink throughout the South Pacific is kava, which is made from the kava plant's roots, which are ground to release liquid, then water is added and the juice is drank. If you want something else local try pi, which is simply coconut milk drank from the coconut itself.

Tuvalu offers most of the major international alcoholic beverages, especially at hotels and restaurants catered to foreigners. However when it comes to local beverages the one drink to look for (or avoid) is kao, which is fermented from kaleve. As the production of this is often done without regulations it can be very strong and every batch is a bit different so be cautious.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Tuvalu, 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