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Tahiti has a food-wise truly bad reputation. The honeymoon paradise on earth is thought to be expensive, even wildly expensive, and disappointing in fine dining terms. But is this so true?
This metropolitan legend has been spread by those who have only ventured as far as five star hotel dining rooms and exclusive gourmet menus, only to complain later of astronomic bills and mini-portions.
The best tables in French Polynesia serve gargantuan portions at fair prices, but they are the ones with plastic tablecloths, a roof of stars and a kitchen that is so on view that it stands in the middle of the street. We can prove it.
Polynesian cuisine today
Today’s Tahitian cuisine is fruit of local traditions and ingredients, mingled with the cultural influences of those who have come to these islands in the last three centuries. Tropical fruit, coconut, taro, breadfruit, fish and the odd chicken: this was the zero km diet prior to the arrival of the first white man in the late 1700s.
Consisting of islands which are either mountainous and rainy or arid and parched by the tropical sun, not a lot of crops grow here and the variety of species at 6000 km from the nearest mainland has always been somewhat limited. Even today, however, it is not possible to farm much in this climate and most of what you find in the supermarkets (including dairy produce, cereals, meat, fruit and vegetables) comes by ship from New Zealand – with consequentially high transport costs.
French Polynesia has been a French overseas collectivity for a couple of centuries and French cuisine has had a strong influence on local eating habits, mainly evidenced by the use of cream, butter and baguettes. Neither is there a lack of other influences, those of the Chinese in particular, who came here to work bringing their noodles, rice, cabbage and soy sauce. The current diet therefore comprises the inevitable fish, bread buns, steak and chips, and bowls of steaming chow mein.
Less popular than it used to be, a truly typical “local speciality” is a Spam-type tinned meat called Punu Pua'atoro. Probably the only thing even the most enthusiastic foodies might pass on…
This is not a food truck
Here, food trucks are called roulottes, even though they are not really caravans at all and are devoid of wheels, having been standing on the same spot for years. They are the most popular and busy eateries for an evening meal, with no more than a pavement or, at the best, a deserted car park for a dining room. The other term worth knowing is snack, meaning diners which essentially all serve the same things (the menus look like photocopies), but they operate from a kitchen set up in a proper “building”, and mainly open only for lunch.
Roulottes have become a national attraction in the downtown Place Vai'ete di Papeete in Tahiti. Here locals and tourists mingle amongst the roulottes serving crêpes bretonnes, pizza, raw fish in its many variants but, above all, Chinese food and steak & fries - a real obsession. Our favourites are La Roule Rouge creperie, try the generously filled savoury version (there is nothing French about it once meat, eggs and vegetables have been added), the Roulotte for poisson cru and steaks, Chez Mamie for a Sino-Tahitian cuisine experience.
Roulottes are not only to be found in the city centre. On the contrary, the locals prefer alternative spots and various other street food agglomerates have formed along the main road which skirts the coast all around the island. Close to the airport of Faaa, stands the renowned Chez Aro, whose speciality is grilled food, and another roulotte park is located near the little leisure port of Orohiti, at Puna'auia, on the west coast. To seek them out, all you have to do is wait for dusk and take a walk along the main street outside the hotel. They have no websites or Facebook pages, but some are shown on Google Maps.
The copycat menu
Its literal meaning in French is "break-fast", or snack, but in this part of the world it takes the form of a 40 cm long, generously filled baguette. A lunchtime classic you will find on sale everywhere, from the ready-to-eat and cling-film wrapped versions supplied by supermarkets to kiosks which make them up on demand, brimming over with all sorts of goodies.
The more meagre ones are filled with ham and cheese (avoid them) but the kiosks are able to demonstrate what a lunchtime casse-croûte really is: its filling can include raw fish, chicken in coconut milk, strips of meat or taro chips… in Thailand the French culinary influence has produced the bánh mì, while here they have casse-croûte – one can fill a whole family.
Where to eat it At the Marché de Papeete starting from midday, in the kiosks beneath the balconies. Eat standing up or seated at the tables.
Price From 300 to 500 CFP (from 3 to 5€)
Going under the name of Ota ika in the Mahoi language, this is the national dish. Raw fish, coconut milk and lime: they define it as Tahitian ceviche. Here, the fish is neither flash chilled nor frozen; when it arrives every morning, it is cleaned and plunged into water and salt, ready to be diced and dressed with whatever nature has to offer.
It is on the menu everywhere and at all times of the day, for Sunday breakfast and lunch, for dinner every day. It can be served traditional-style or contaminated by the cultural influences brought by the Chinese and Japanese people who landed here during the 19th century, in little sushi-type slices or chaud froid, which means pan-seared on the outer surface with roasted sesame seeds. Served with plain boiled rice or cabbage and carrot salad.
Where to eat it Everywhere
Price From 1200 to 1800 CFP (from 10 to 16€)
Coconut milk and water
No relation whatsoever to the industrially made versions we are used to buying in our supermarkets, sold in tins or Tetrapack. Here, no part of the coconut goes to waste and the local economy is based on this palm tree (ever since there has been any economy at all, following colonization).
Coconut water is extracted from green coconuts. It makes a refreshing beverage and a simple yet delicious cocktail when mixed with light rum. Coconut milk is obtained by grating and squeezing ripe coconut pulp; this rich and fatty ingredient is ideal for cooking raw fish, chicken and even for making bread, the delicious pain coco.
Where to drink it At the Marché de Papeete, served by the kiosks facing the fish stalls.
Price From 150 to 300 CFP (from 1.20 €)
The only potato chips on the island are those which arrive frozen, which taste the same anywhere in the world, but in Tahiti you can enjoy chips made from taro or breadfruit (soft, sweet and delicious). Try them!
Where to eat them As an accompaniment to the ubiquitous raw fish at the Maeva Cafe, on the first floor of the Papeete market.
Price Main course and side dish approximately 1800 CFP (16 €)