We’re here in those rarified minutes of dusk – the moments in Rarotonga when the Tiare Maori and the Tipani smell the sweetest, as the hot day begins its slow cool-down towards dark – and Louis Enoka is leading me round the backyard of his 163-year-old property, Plantation House.
He’s showing me where many of the ingredients for the three-course organic island meal he’ll serve in a few minutes on his sprawling verandah come from. I see them growing in the rich volcanic soils here at Matavera, in the shadows of the tall green mountains of Rarotonga’s interior.
Soon, we’re seated, a short prayer is said and 20 or so of us share arguably the best Polynesian-inspired cuisine in the South Pacific. We’ll be sharing the bathroom with Louis’ kids here at his family home, but that’s the novelty of this experience: here you get to experience what it’s like to eat as Polynesians traditionally did (and are beginning to again).
It wasn’t long ago that visitors coming to Rarotonga had little access to Polynesian cuisine. For years I endured tinned pears at the breakfast tables of resorts, and outdated European dishes championing meat imported from New Zealand.
But no longer. Now, thanks to people like Enoka (and partner Minah Purotu Henderson), Polynesian cuisine is making a comeback in the Cook Islands - though it’s Polynesian cuisine with a modern, funky twist to it. And visitors are able to reap the health benefits of one of the world’s most dynamic cuisines.
While home-grown dining experiences must be sampled on any trip to Rarotonga (along with Plantation House, there are innovative progressive dining opportunities where you can eat courses in people’s homes), arguably the best place to sample a modern take on Polynesian cuisine is actually at a resort.
I’ve eaten plenty of Chicken Kievs and Steak Dianes at resorts here during the 90s, but you sure won’t find those sorts of outdated European dishes at the Silver Sands Restaurant & Bar at the Muri Beach Club Hotel.
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General Manager Erika Butt is passionate about bringing Polynesian cuisine back into vogue. She’s throwing dishes in front of me and asking me to taste them, telling me none have a single imported ingredient.
Since 2012 she’s been in charge of researching the health benefits of Polynesian cuisine and how to incorporate Polynesian ingredients and dishes into her menu. She’s been staggered by what she’s found.
“The traditional Polynesian diet is essentially 85 percent Gluten-free and 65 percent Lactose-free,” she says.
“There’s far lower rates of cancers in the Pacific Island region where locals are avoiding European cuisine. We’re in the Garden Of Eden here, we don’t need to import all our food from New Zealand.
“When we bring it in, we irradiate it, but why, it’s all here? So what we’re doing is substituting everything with local ingredients – taro crisps over chips, no cane sugar, no salt, no pepper even – we use pawpaw seeds, and so much more.”
She pushes a chocolate mousse in front of me and tells me to taste it. It’s wickedly sweet. “There’s no sugar in it,” she says with a sly smile. “The raw ginger fools your taste buds.”
And across Rarotonga restaurants are following suit. While Silver Sands has been the recent champion of Polynesian cuisine and its health benefits, you’ll find the best of the best on display in restaurants such as Nautilus Resort and at the irrepressible Tamarind House, with its remarkable view across manicured lawn to the lagoon from within a 19th-century colonial homestead.
Rarotonga is rapidly becoming one of the leaders in bringing Polynesian cuisine to the world. And these days, there’s barely a tinned pear in sight.