Tonga, a Polynesian country located in the South Pacific, is known for its stunning natural beauty, friendly people, and rich culture. It consists of 170 mostly uninhabited islands.
The food of Tonga is a unique blend of Polynesian and Melanesian flavors, with a strong emphasis on fresh seafood and tropical fruits. Due to its location, seafood is a staple in Tongan cuisine, with fish, octopus, and shellfish featuring prominently in many dishes.
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Most Popular Tongan Dishes
Tonga also has a rich tradition of preparing and cooking whole pigs or lambs for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. The meat is typically roasted on an open fire pit or in an underground oven, called an umu, which is made by heating stones over a fire until they are hot, then placing the food on top of the stones and covering it with banana leaves.
In addition to seafood and meat dishes, Tonga is also known for its tropical fruits, such as papayas, mangoes and bananas.
One of the most popular fruits in Tonga is the breadfruit, which is a starchy, low-fat, high-fibre fruit that is often boiled, fried or roasted and served as a side dish. Another popular fruit is the coconut, which is used in many dishes, from coconut milk-based curries to desserts like kulfi, a creamy coconut ice cream.
Here are the absolute must-try traditional dishes of Tonga, along with recipes to try for yourself.
Ota Ika (Fish Salad)
Considered the national dish of Tonga, Ota Ika is a raw fish salad made with coconut cream, lime juice, and diced vegetables.
The raw fish is marinated in acidic lime juice until the outside appears opaque. The coconut cream balances out the sharp flavor of the lime.
Similar dishes are popular throughout Oceania, for instance in New Zealand, Ika Mata is prepared the same way, usually with tuna fillet.
Keke Pua’a (Pork Buns)
A popular Tongan snack is keke pua’a, a sweet and savory bun made with pork and coconut cream. They can have a range of fillings, including different combinations of meats, vegetables and/or fish.
The name Keke pua’a translates to ‘pork cake’ in Tongan. These are usually steamed and resemble Chinese bao buns.
Feke is a simple dish consisting of tender pieces of octopus that are cooked with coconut milk and onions in an umu. It is a creamy, flavorful seafood dish that can be enjoyed as a main meal, usually served with yams or sweet potatoes.
Faikakai Topai (Sweet Dumplings)
Faikakai Topai is a sweet coconut pudding that is typically served as a dessert at special occasions or family gatherings. This dish contains fruit-filled dumplings in a sweet sauce.
The dumplings are made with a simple flour dough and usually filled with coconut, banana or breadfruit. Once the dumplings have been boiled, they are coated in a sweet, coconut caramel-like syrup.
Lu Sipi (Slow Cooked Lamb)
Lu Sipi is a dish made of coconut cream, and chunks of tender, slow-cooked lamb. This dish is often eaten on special occasions and holidays. Traditionally, Lu Sipi is prepared by wrapping the ingredients in taro leaves and covering in tin foil before heating in an underground oven called an umu.
Vai Siaine (Banana and Coconut Pudding)
Vai siaine is a sweet Tongan dish made by boiling bananas in coconut milk to form a smooth, sweet pudding. This simple dessert is served warm and can be topped with coconut shavings or pieces of fruit, such as banana or mango.
‘Otai (Watermelon Drink)
‘Otai is a refreshing drink made with watermelon, coconut milk, and pineapple juice.
Traditionally, ‘Otai contained chunks of fruit so was eaten with a spoon, almost like a smoothie bowl. Today it is common to find ‘Otai blended into a smooth drink, perfect for cooling down in the Tongan heat.
Lu Pulu (Corn Beef)
Similar to Lu Sipi, Lu Pulu is another traditional dish made with taro leaves and coconut milk, but uses corned beef instead of lamb.
This dish is also made by slowly cooking the marinated corned beef and vegetables wrapped in taro leaves until rich and tender.
Kava, also known as kava kava, is a Polynesian drink consumed throughout the Pacific islands, made from the ground roots of the kava plant. It’s purpose offers some of the most interesting insights into traditions, culture and the rituals among the cultures who consume it.