Modern Tahitian food is a fairly balanced melange of French, Chinese and Polynesian influence; béchamel, soy sauce or coconut milk all have an equal chance of topping your meal.
Staples & Specialities
Ma’a Tahiti, traditional Tahitian food, is a heavy mix of starchy taro and uru (breadfruit), raw or cooked fish, fatty pork, coconut milk and a few scattered vegetables. On special occasions, the whole lot is neatly prepared and placed in a hima’a (cooking pit) where a layer of stones and banana leaves separate the food from the hot coals beneath. The food is covered with more banana leaves then buried so all the flavours and juices can cook and mingle for several hours. The result is a steamy, tender ambrosia of a meal.
Open-sea fish (tuna, bonito, wahoo, swordfish and mahi mahi – dorado) and lagoon fish (parrotfish, jackfish and squirrelfish) feature prominently in traditional cuisine. Poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk) is the most popular local dish, though fish is also served grilled, fried or poached. Lobster is not plentiful but is available at finer restaurants; chevrettes (freshwater shrimps) however, often served in curry, are farmed locally and can sometimes be found even at budget restaurants. Salmon and trout generally come from Australia or New Zealand, and prawns may be imported or farmed locally.
Pua (pork) is the preferred meat for the traditional underground oven. Although chickens run wild everywhere, most of what is consumed is imported frozen from the US and is of low quality. Lamb and beef, from New Zealand, make regular appearances on menus and are as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world. In the Marquesas, goat meat takes pride of place, and dog is still eaten on the remote atolls of the Tuamotus.
Among Chinese specialities, chow mein is the most popular. This fried noodle dish usually has pork and/or chicken in it, but vegetarians can always order a meat-free version. Pizza and pasta are also easy to find on the touristy islands.
Fruit & Vegetables
French Polynesia is dripping with tropical fruit, including mango, grapefruit, lime, watermelon, pineapple and banana. Pamplemousse (grapefruit) is the large, sweet, Southeast Asian variety. The rambutan, another Southeast Asian introduction, is a red spiny-skinned cousin of the lychee. Fruits on the high islands are seasonal; different ones will be available depending on when you’re visiting. In the Tuamotus fresh produce is always scarce.
Vegetables are not a major component of Polynesian cuisine. Uru is a staple, and is eaten roasted or fried as chips. Fei, a plantain banana, is only eaten cooked and is much less sweet than a common banana. Taro root is usually boiled, as are sweet potato and manioc (cassava), but can also be fried as delicious chips. Fafa (taro leaves) are used to make poulet fafa, a stew with chicken and coconut milk. Carrots, Chinese cabbage, cabbage, tomatoes and bell peppers all make regular appearances in dishes like chow mein and poisson cru.
Several delicious fruit juices are made locally, notably the Rotui brand. Pape haari (coconut water) is the healthiest, cheapest, most natural and thirst-quenching drink around. If you want a real coffee, order a café expresso (espresso coffee), otherwise you’ll probably be served instant Nescafé. The further you get from the tourist hubs the further you get from espresso machines.
The local brand of pia (beer), Hinano, is sold everywhere, and foreign beers, notably Heineken, are also available. Allow at least 350 CFP for a beer in a bar or restaurant.
Most supermarkets stock red and white wines (from around 1000 CFP), imported from France. It can be excellent, but the tropical heat is a good wine’s worst enemy, and you sometimes happen upon a crate of bottles that has spent time sitting in the sun at the port. The cheapest (and nastiest) is boxed (cask) wine for around 450 CFP for 1L. Restaurants enjoy a tax reduction on alcohol, which makes it affordable (allow 1500 to 3000 CFP for a bottle).
The classic Tahitian holiday drink is the maitai, a yummy cocktail made with rum, fruit juices, coconut liqueur and, in some cases, Grand Marnier or Cointreau. This concoction is also available readymade as Tahiti Drink in 1L cartons found at grocery stores.
Where To Eat & Drink
There is a wondrous array of restaurants on the island of Tahiti, where you can find everything from French cuisine to sushi, but the rest of French Polynesia has more limited options. The prices are fairly intimidating – expect to pay 1200 to 2000 CFP for a main in a midrange restaurant – but the food is very good. Most resort restaurants host buffet and dance performances a few times a week, which usually cost around 8000 CFP.
Supermarkets of varying sizes can be found around the islands. Some have dusty little collections of tins and packaged goods, while others, particularly those on Tahiti, Mo’orea and Ra’iatea, are very well equipped. The biggest supermarkets on Tahiti are the Carrefour chains (in Arue and Puna’auia).
There are no vegetarian restaurants in French Polynesia, but you can usually ask the chef to tweak a dish for you.
‘Snack’ & Roulotte For Good, Cheap Meals
A ‘snack’ in French Polynesia is actually a little snack bar–cum-cafe and sometimes may even be more like a small restaurant. These places are simple, cheap, and serve everything from sandwiches (made from French-style baguettes) and salads to poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk) and meat or fish burgers. Even cheaper are roulottes, mobile vans with a kitchen inside and a fold-down counter along each side. The nightly gathering of roulottes near the tourist office in Pape’ete is a real institution and you’ll find others dotted around all the bigger islands.
- brochette shish kebab of beef heart, beef or fish
- carpacio du thon thinly sliced sashimi: quality raw tuna with a sprinkling of olive oil, salt and pepper, and capers
- casse-croûte sandwich on a French-style baguette
- chevrettes/crevettes freshwater shrimp/saltwater prawns
- chow mein Chinese wheat noodles with carrot, cabbage, Chinese greens and chicken
- poisson cru raw fish marinated in lemon then doused in coconut milk and mixed with tomato and cucumber
- sashimi thinly sliced raw tuna served with a sauce
- steak frites steak and chips (French fries)
Meal Price Ranges
The following price ranges refer to a standard main course. Unless otherwise stated tax is included.
- $ less than 1200 CFP
- $$ 1200 CFP to 2400 CFP
- $$$ more than 2400 CFP