Tuvalu, the small island nation of only 11,000 people, is home to a food culture that reflects its seaside resources as well as a long history of cultural fusion.
Despite spanning 9 partially connected atolls and islands, Tuvalu’s limited land size and resources create a uniform cuisine across the nation. Its history as a former British colony as well as its interactions with Polynesian and Indian culture have contributed to the country’s current identity, a fact expressed through their customs and cuisine.
Now, Tuvalu carries the status of being the least visited country in the world. It is one of the most remote nations in the world and its low elevation leaves it vulnerable to sinking under rising sea levels in the Pacific. Regardless of these obstacles, Tuvalu continues to persist and showcase the beauty of its islands’ resources through its most popular dishes.
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Most Popular Tuvaluan Dishes
Tuvalu has only a few unique dishes of its own and shares many of its popular dishes with neighboring Oceania island nations such as Fiji, Samoa, Nauru, Tonga, the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands.
Tuvalu has a largely subsistence-style economy, meaning that most citizens are fishermen and farmers. Tuvaluans get much of their food right outside their doors or, given the lack of room for large-scale farming, as imports from abroad. Most of their cuisine centers around seafood including coconut crab, fish, and seabirds as well as their main crop, Pulaka.
Most meals are enjoyed with rice and curries have become popular through historical trade routes with India. With no room for livestock, meats such as pork and beef are rare in Tuvaluan cuisine and are typically reserved for fatales, or lively parties that include music and dancing.
Here are the most traditional dishes of Tuvalu along with recipes to try for yourself.
Fekei is a dish made of grated pulaka that is mixed with coconut cream and steamed inside pulaka leaves. It is a traditional dish that is enjoyed across all nine of Tuvalu’s islands.
The dish itself has a subtle flavor, slightly sweetened by coconut cream. It is easily transportable and can be enjoyed as a snack or a dessert.
The grating of the pulaka has often been a tradition shared by and passed down between generations of women. They use a special tool made of limestone with holes drilled into it, which they scrape the pulaka across. All of the ingredients used in Fekei come from the islands’ resources and are therefore regarded as an important piece of cultural heritage.
Pulaka is a staple crop of Tuvalu and the country’s national dish. It is included in many meals to add flavor and carbohydrates and is an important part of the everyday diet on the islands. It is also known as “swamp taro,” named for its similarity to taro’s appearance and taste while being grown in below-sea-level pits, where it draws nutrients from the mud around it.
The corms of the Pulaka plant, while full of calcium, also contain toxins. They must be prepared carefully by soaking them in water for several hours.
Unfortunately, despite Pulaka’s popularity and ubiquity across the Tuvalu islands, this staple ingredient is endangered by rising tides, and so may soon become rare in Tuvalu cuisine.
Toddy is what Tuvaluans call the sap of a coconut tree, a thick liquid that can be used in everything from beverages to snacking to flavoring a variety of dishes.
While coconut trees are surely not unique to Tuvalu, some of the ways in which Toddy is incorporated into Tuvaluan dishes are unique to the islands.
The flavor is quite sweet and seen as similar to honey. It can be eaten by itself but it is often mixed with other food or drink. Toddy is added to other dishes, especially ones featuring pulaka, to sweeten the dish and combat the bitterness that can sometimes linger with pulaka.
Tulolo is a dish enjoyed in Tuvalu as well as other Pacific Islands, made by pouring coconut cream over beaten pulaka pulp. Originally from the Cook Islands, Tulolo has moved around the Pacific and become a well-known main dish.
In Tuvalu, Tulolo has been altered to fit the lifestyle. In place of the taro root more often used in other nations, Tuvaluans will use their pulaku as the star of the dish. It is also popular to eat this dish alongside canned corned beef.
Rourou Taro Leaf Soup
Originally from the Fiji islands, Rou Rou is a stew made from taro leaves cooked and simmered in coconut milk.
This dish is a child born from both Pacific Island and Indian cooking with the combination of coconut milk and taro leaves. It can be made with either a mild and sweet flavor, though it is not uncommon to add some Indian spices for added heat.
Coconut Taro au Gratin
Taro Leaf au gratin is a Tuvulaun and Pacific Islander take on the French dish gratin, made with coconut cream-covered taro that is baked and coated in cheese. Originally popular on the island of Guam, the dish has since spread to Tuvalu as well.
This dish goes well with freshly caught fish from the sea or Tuvalu’s main lagoon and popular fishing spot. However, if fish is unavailable, Taro Leaf au gratin is just as easily enjoyed with the canned beef favored by Tuvaluans.
Palusami is a baked dish made with an onion, coconut, and corned beef mixture that is wrapped in banana leaves. It was brought to Tuvalu by Polynesian travelers and found its foothold among the Tuvaluans, made with ingredients they already knew and loved.
The dish is often enjoyed at large festive gatherings and is easy to make in plentiful batches.
Tuvalu Tuna is a curry dish consisting of tuna steaks, coconut milk, curry powder, and soy sauce, all cooked in a slurry and served alongside basmati or jasmine rice.
This dish is native to Tuvalu and showcases the island’s incorporation of imported ingredients made popular through historical trade routes.
Tuvalu Tuna is one of the multiple curries enjoyed on the islands.
Coconut Crab Curry
Another curry to add to the list is Tuvalu’s Coconut Crab Curry, a dish using one of Tuvalu’s most important resources (coconut crab) alongside onion, curry powder, and spices.
Originally from the islands of South India, this dish was brought to Tuvalu sometime in the not-so-deep past, where it became favored by locals for its strong flavor and use of the abundant coconut crab.
There is no better way to end this list of Tuvalu’s most popular dishes than with their sweet Coconut Pudding, an easy-to-make dessert dish made with coconut milk and cornstarch.
Tuvalu’s Coconut Pudding, also popular on the Solomon Islands, is a refreshing treat for the hot summers that the tropical island experience.