Vanuatu’s tropical climate and fertile lands bless it with fresh seafood, succulent meats, organic tropical fruits and fresh-from-the-garden vegetables. However, the availability of foods can be affected by the vagaries of seasonal changes, cyclones, earthquakes, drought and transport difficulties. Food crops, including most of the fruit plantations, were damaged or wiped out by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, creating food shortages worsened by drought and severe water shortages. Some estimates say it will take five years to fully recover.
Staples & Specialities
Ni-Van families have their first meal – a chunky slice of bread – around the open fire as the sun comes up. Bread is baked in the small metal wood-fired ovens that you see throughout the countryside, or in a pot over an open fire. Children take a banana-leaf-wrapped bundle of rice (which is mostly imported) with them to school. The evening meal will be vegetables from the family’s garden. Village families live mainly on vegetarian or fish diets, eating meat when it’s freshly available since there’s usually no refrigeration. If the yield from the garden is inadequate, the family eats very little.
Markets sell produce grown in village gardens, when available: look for coconuts, pineapples, bananas, pawpaw, yams, cucumbers, grapefruit, carrots and tomatoes, as well as cooked foods such as the national dishes laplap and tuluk (smaller parcels of laplap).
Laplap, Vanuatu’s national dish, is made by grating manioc, taro roots or yams into a doughy paste. The mixture is put onto taro or wild spinach leaves and soaked in coconut cream. Pieces of pork, beef, poultry, fish, prawns or flying fox are often added. Leaves from the laplap plant (similar to banana leaves) are wrapped around the doughy mix, tied up with strands of vine and then placed in a ground oven, with hot stones above and below. Nalot is a dish made from roasted taro, banana or breadfruit mixed with coconut cream.
Local specialities found in restaurants on Port Vila include roussette (flying fox or fruit bat) and nautou (green-winged ground pigeon). Roussette and nautou are almost edible when served au vin (in red wine). Poulet fish is common and delicious. River prawns are delicate, but best of all is Tahitian fish salad: the fish is marinated in lime juice, then sweetened with coconut milk. Beef, from those contented Charolais and Limousin cows wandering around the coconut plantations, is also excellent.
Coconut is naturally a ubiquitous staple. It is used in five stages of ripeness: the first (young coconut) is for drinking; the next has a tasty jellied flesh; the third, when the flesh is firm but succulent, is the best for eating; the fourth is for drying into copra (coconut fibre); and the fifth is when the nut sprouts while the milk inside goes crispy, making ‘coconut ice cream’.
Other edible fruits include nakatambol, clustered cherry-sized fruits that turn yellow when ripe, and naus, which is similar to mango. You’ll also probably see the rose-apple tree; its small pink-and-white fruit has apple-like flesh beneath its skin. Villagers flavour their food with its blossom, known as the kae kae flaoa (food flower).
Several edible nuts are grown; these include cut-nuts, also called narli-nuts or island chestnuts, and nangae, an oval nut-containing fruit that tastes like an almond.
A man taking a nimangki grade will provide a magnificent feast. He lines up scores of pigs and walks along, killing selected animals with blows to the head, touching others to show that they’ll be slaughtered later. He then presents woven mats and sufficient yams and taro for the lavish meal.
For a lad’s circumcision celebration, the father holds a grand feast. Villagers dress in wildly colourful costumes, with face and body paint, and amazing headpieces. Miles of bright material form shade-screens, and peacock feathers are used as decorations. Dancing lasts all through the night to celebrate the rite of passage of the boy. Adding to the colour are huge piles of gifts – food, mats and baskets – paid to the paternal extended family.
Feasts are prepared for every festival and anniversary, for a new house, for someone arriving or leaving, for births, deaths and many other reasons. The women work together throughout the day, preparing laplap and nalot. The men catch fish and a pig is slaughtered. For a large gathering, it might be a cow. Everybody calmly wanders around selecting food and sitting on the ground in small groups to eat it with their fingers.
Dining can be hit-and-miss in Vanuatu and variety lacking as a result of changing availability of ingredients, especially on the outer islands; but pick a winner (sublime crab perhaps, or perfectly cooked organic steak) and you’ll remember it for months.
Port Vila is by far the best place in Vanuatu for eating out, although there are also some good restaurants on Santo and a few on Tanna. Resort dining is usually of a high standard. There are numerous independent cafes and restaurants in Vila and Luganville where you can get pizzas, burgers, local lobster or bouillabaise. Most large resorts in Port Vila have at least one island 'feast night' weekly, when food is served buffet style accompanied by dancing and other entertainment.
Restaurants are hard to find in more remote regions, and many bungalows include meals with your stay for this reason. If you do see a local restaurant, call in. Some are surprisingly good despite the restricted menu, though with little refrigeration they may only remain open until the available food is gone.
If you’re staying in a bungalow, you’ll usually be eating what your host cooks up. It’s worth keeping in mind that access to fresh food (and funds to buy it with) can be limited (this is especially the case since Cyclone Pam). Unfortunately, in the outer villages convenience has taken over from tradition and taste, and your stay in a bungalow might be accompanied by a meal of tinned beef mashed over instant noodles or a large pile of boiled rice. This can be a cost-saving exercise on behalf of the bungalow; if you're willing to pay a bit more, when you arrive ask your hosts about what they serve for dinner and make some suggestions, such as fresh fish or vegetarian dishes.
Dining at the bigger town or resort restaurants in Vila or Santo is rarely cheap; expect 3000VT plus for a main meal, particularly if it involves seafood. At local markets you can get filling, tasty meals for 400VT. Supermarkets in Vila and Luganville carry local and imported foods.
Where they exist, most bars and pubs have a fairly good western-style food menu. BYO snacks to kava bars.
It’s called the peace drug. Its hallucinogenic properties make your mind happy and you feel clever. You love the rhythm of talk. Many people wouldn’t consider a day complete without a couple of ‘shells’ of the stuff.
Kava has a pungent, muddy and slightly peppery taste. It looks like dirty dishwater, and many say it doesn’t taste much better. But it’s not that bad. Kava etiquette dictates that you should down the shell in one go (first-timers should opt for the half shell). Your lips will go numb and cold; your limbs become heavy; and you’ll probably want to do nothing more than think about life. Also, your eyes become sensitive to light, so flashbulbs are intrusive.
Kava ceremonies are held to welcome visitors, seal alliances, begin chiefly conferences, and commemorate births, deaths and marriages. For such occasions, there are strict rules for preparing and drinking kava. On Tanna, for example, prepubescent boys prepare the roots by chewing them into a mush that is mixed with water and filtered through coconut fibres (don’t worry, just ask which nakamals use a grinder). First the chief drinks, followed by any honoured guests, then other men in order of precedence. Etiquette requires drinking each shell in a single gulp. Also, it’s drunk in a quiet atmosphere.
Kava drinking is traditionally an exclusively male activity surrounded by all sorts of tabu. However, these days most islands have places where women are welcome to partake. If you’re asked to join kava drinkers, consider yourself honoured, as the invitation amounts to a formal welcome.
Known botanically as Piper methysticum, a relation of the pepper plant, kava is grown in damp places, often around the edge of a taro paddy field, and is one of Vanuatu's major cash crops. Many islands claim to grow the best kava but Tanna's is said to be the most potent and Pentecost's some of the best.
Long-term use of kava can result in liver and kidney damage, and there’s little doubt that its use also causes loss of productivity, though kava is never consumed before 5pm. You can recognise a kava bar by its single red or green light.
Local village stores on Vanuatu's outer islands – where they exist – may be limited to shelves full of tinned food, packet noodles, biscuits, a few sacks of imported rice and (with luck) some fresh bread. Stock up on snacks and treats in Port Vila or Luganville for those long truck rides or airstrip waits. Also seek out the local village market, where you can buy fresh produce and seafood.