Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Food, Glorious Food!

on August 10, 2016

No blog on life in Tonga would be complete without an entry dedicated to food, glorious food! Food is a huge part of the culture and everyday life here in Tonga, and given that I am working here as a nutritionist and am a self-confessed foodie, food is obviously a massive part of my daily life too.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about food here is sharing. Culturally, food is considered to be a token of love or appreciation, and it is very common that if you have food, you share it. Sharing of food is seen as a way to maintain good social relations. In fact, there is a term here for not sharing food – kaipō – which directly translates to ‘night eating’ but in effect means ‘eating secretly so you don’t have to share’!

I think I have mentioned that in the office staff will share various things, like fruit or root crop from home, leftovers from feasts, crackers, loaves of bread with tinned corned beef, or keke, the ‘Tongan doughnut’ (read: ‘deep fried ball of plain dough’). It is sometimes tricky to navigate this aspect… I know many Tongans don’t eat lunch in the office because they can’t afford to cater for everyone, but then the things that do get brought in are typically the super cheap and not very healthy options which are not great to eat regularly. I tend to only bring things in to share when I am running a training session or if it’s someone’s birthday or a special occasion, and the rest of the time I go home for lunch (or sometimes kaipō a snack from my bag!)

work lunch

Gourmet work lunch – sipi (mutton flaps), manioke (cassava) and chicken 2 minute noodles!

With the cultural understanding of food as a symbol of appreciation or respect, it is also believed that the amount of respect is proportional to the amount and type of food… The best food and the most food are given to people of higher status. That brings me to my next point- portion sizes! Religious and cultural events are the epitome of this, where exorbitant amounts of food are prepared for kai pola (feasts) to celebrate. No-one can actually physically eat all of the food on the day, but the provision of plenty symbolises the worth of the hosts, their guests and the community. Truckloads of leftovers are taken home. These enormous feasts are thrown for the church conferences, milestone birthdays, family reunions, anniversaries, weddings, funerals, Easter, Christmas, you name it.


Table set for kai pola

Ben and I were invited to attend a kai pola for the Wesleyan Church conference in June with one of my workmates, Lini. It is crazy to see the amount of effort people go to for these events and the resulting mountains of food. The women are preparing dishes and table centrepieces for days beforehand and the cost is substantial. I have heard it costs about $1000 just to reserve the table! I have also heard some people take out loans for this, and to ensure they can provide a suitable amount of ‘appropriate’ food to impress, or show the right amount of respect, which is pretty outrageous. The imported (more expensive) foods have a higher status than most local foods and are more likely to impress, so the tables are full of chocolate bars and soft drinks, flavoured milk, potato salad, chocolate cakes and imported fruit like apples. More expensive local foods like roasted pig, seafood and yams are also popular.

When Ben and I went, we were picked up by another workmate of mine, Ma’ata, who was coming to Lini’s kai pola as her church (Seventh Day Adventist) doesn’t have a conference this year. It was meant to start at 5pm, but Ma’ata came to get us at 2.45 and we were quite unprepared! When we arrived near the kai pola, traffic was mayhem so we got out and walked. There were vehicles upon vehicles trying to get close to unload huge 70+ litre plastic storage tubs full of food, while other vehicles were loading up the leftovers and dirty dishes from the previous session (yes, there were multiple feast sessions each day during the week of the church conference! There was a schedule published where each church had a timeslot and table allocated.)


Our kai pola session…

We wandered around watching table after table decorate and pile up the food. There were amazing (and hilarious) centrepieces on all the tables, like fruit bowls with skewers of cheezels poking out, fruit bowls dotted with blocks of chocolate, baskets with handles laced with lollipops mounted on huge cans of corned beef, and giant food towers topped with Cheetos. And surrounding these fantastic creations, dishes of food in flimsy imported plastic containers were piled 3-4 layers high on each table.

Once things were set up we sat at our table and waited til 5pm. It took so much self-control to sit in front of so much food with a rumbling tummy and not touch it! I had forgotten to bring my water bottle in the rush to meet our earlier-than-expected pick up, but there were only 1L cartons of chocolate milk on the table (one for each person!), so I couldn’t even sneak a sip of water!

Finally, the minster started the opening prayer, during which Ben spied a stealthy young boy quickly pinching the block of Milky Bar out of the fruit bowl in front of him! Once the prayer had finished, it was on. Being newbies to this experience, Ben and I didn’t realise it was an unspoken rule to rock up with an empty bag of reasonable size and start hoarding right away! All the ladies around us started clearing out the fruit and chocolate from the centrepieces, tucking away cartons of flavoured milk and stacking dishes of the foods they wanted to take with them later around their part of the table!


Waiting for the feast to begin with Ben, Ma’ata and Miho (note the 1L chocolate milks…)

Then started the eating – so many different dishes to try (and deliberate over whether or not eating it would give us food poisoning since all were at room temperature!) There was sweet and sour fish, potato salad, roast chicken, clams, octopus, roast suckling pig, baked fish, lobster, plates of yams, seafood salad, giant trays of cakes amongst a myriad of other things I’m sure I have forgotten…

Beside us, a bunch of older men tagged out and a new contingent of hungry younger men jumped in. We were reaching capacity and no-one had even touched the suckling pig! Ma’ata said we should take it home. We said we don’t need a whole pig, so she gave us half. Then began the process of our Tongan friends trying to give us aaaaall the food, and us trying to bargain for a smaller amount! We ended up with half a suckling pig, an enormous tray of chocolate cake drowning in frosting, a box of yam, a whole octopus, 3 apples and several containers of sweet and sour fish and potato salad. We didn’t have to buy food for a week!

So besides kai pola, every day portions here are still quite big (and cheap to buy!). Here are some examples – 1) A lunch box I was given (one per person!) at a meeting, 2) a $6 serve of Chinese food from Tiger Inn, and 3) a $5 serve of fried chicken (aka ‘Kentucky’) from Singapore Restaurant. (For reference, I am talking in Tongan pa’anga – T$1 is roughly AU$0.60 at the moment!)

Don’t be fooled by the name, Singapore Restaurant is first and foremost a fried chicken joint, best on the island according to many. We’re pretty sure they have kidnapped Colonel Sanders and he is being held out the back of Singapore churning out batter filled with his 11 secret herbs and spices… Fried chicken is all called ‘Kentucky’, and it is hugely popular here. The scent frequently wafts past you as you’re cycling around town. You would be hard pressed to find a take away restaurant that doesn’t sell it, all the Tongan restaurants and even the Chinese restaurants all have it on the menu!

Now for dessert…

Yes, ice cream is dirt cheap here, and almost as big as your head! When I asked how much the ice-cream was for that last one, the lady said ‘$4 for one scoop, or $4 for 2 scoops’ What…?! So it was the obvious choice really!

Here is the famous ‘Juicy Lucie’ double patty burger at Billfish Bar and the wonderful breakfast item ‘Tonga Toast’ from Coffee Post…

The Tonga Toast is obviously inspired by the Tongan method of making a sandwich which I think I have previously described, but basically consists of getting an unsliced loaf of white bread, breaking it in half, pulling out the middle and stuffing it with something else, for example, tinned corned beef, ice-cream or even soft drink if you happen to be thirsty!

White bread is super cheap here, about $1.20 a loaf, and it’s not unusual to see people walking out of the bakery with 9 or 10 loaves to feed the hoardes! That brings me to my next point – bulk buying. Foods that are cheap are often bought in large quantities. An example is keke (the deep fried dough balls) which cost about 20c each and are usually seen purchased by the shopping bag! (Us palangis are always scared about suggesting the idea that they would taste so much more delicious rolled in cinnamon sugar because of the sheer volumes that are consumed!) Pork and fish is sold in massive hunks and chicken in bags of about 1.5kg as standard.

Local crops like root vegetables (sweet potato, cassava and taro) are always available cheaply in big quantities (like an entire shopping bag or basket for $10) which will last several months in a palangi household. Same with coconuts ($7 a basket) and bananas ($3-5 for a whole hand). Vegetables are sold in ‘piles’ in the market which always cost $3, however the size varies depending on how much is available. In season, tomatoes are $3 for an entire shopping bag full, out of season, $3 for a pile of 4-6 small fruits. It’s always a battle to eat all the fresh foods before they become overripe, disintegrate or start to sprout! We ended up with about 12 cucumbers for $3 once so Ben got into making pickles!

To help use up the copious cucumbers, I tried making these Indian cucumber pancakes which Ben and I enjoyed for breakfast with yoghurt and chilli sauce. I thought I’d take them to work as the recipe was pretty healthy and cucumbers were prolific, but the workmates weren’t so keen on them (though I did bring them in without dipping sauces…) They asked me, ‘Amanda, what would you put in this to give it flavour so kids would eat it?’ I said it has lots of spices to add flavour, but the difference they were probably noticing was that it didn’t taste like salt! The response was, ‘Maybe people who were health conscious would eat it, but most Tongans, maybe not…’ Sai ke tau ilo (good to know)… no good putting that one in the recipe book! I guess when kids these days are eating Twisties and chocolate biscuits from before the age of 2 they are conditioned to strong salt and sweet flavours… however people will happily munch on plain crackers or boiled cassava, so go figure! All part of learning what recipes appeal to a Tongan palate!


$3 of cucumbers…!

There was a lot of drama during the ‘Sugar Crisis’ of 2016, when earlier this year the entire country was running out of sugar. A vital ingredient Tongan tea and other sweet treats, people were freaking out. Normally you buy raw sugar here in giant bags of 2-3kg for a few dollars a kilo, but all the shops were sold out. The more expensive white sugar disappeared off the shelves, and then the brown sugar. Apparently the bakery was illegally selling off small bags of their stocks at black market prices, and everyone started rationing out their remaining sweet stuff. Every now and then someone would get a hold of some sugar – I remember one day at work all the ladies disappeared and I asked where they were going. They said ‘Bela has sugar!’ so they were all going to grab a share! Our household managed to survive relatively unscathed, we successfully rationed until the next supplies had arrived (albeit at higher prices, I think because it was imported from Australia rather than South America).

The other major national food challenge has come with the closing down of the bakeries on Sundays. The Sabbath is enshrined in the constitution of Tonga, that “no person shall practise his trade or profession or conduct any commercial undertaking on the Sabbath Day”. Previously, the bakeries were exempt because of a cyclone a while back and they were allowed to stay open so people could access food, but that rule was never repealed until July 1st this year. Disaster for those Sundays you wake up craving a pie and a coke after a few too many drinks on a Saturday night! Initially they tried to shut down all restaurants, even those with accommodation, but it seems like that has been given up now (which is great for the sake of tourism… and the expats!). So there are still a few sneaky places you can get food and drinks in Nuku’alofa on the Sabbath if in need. Phew!


Really, even for a Melbourne native, Nuku’alofa is a pretty decent place for food-ventures. I can get my locally grown and roasted ‘Kingdom Koffie’ beans to use in my stovetop espresso maker, or I can buy a nice strong double-shot latte from Coffee Post. I can go out for Korean food or Fijian curry or pizza or find an awesome kebab (if I feel like a trek to the west coast!) and to top it all off, a ‘bubble tea’ shop just opened here!

At home it has been great to experiment in the kitchen with all the local ingredients- using pele, the local leafy green (edible hibiscus), any variety of root crop, arbitrary sour citrus from the tree in the backyard, green or ripe papayas from the backyard, breadfruit from the tree next door, cheap fresh fish and seafood from the market, bananas and coconuts… We have been able to try out a lot of different meals besides our standards. I will leave you with some images of our culinary creations… Til next time, ‘ofa atu! (cheers!)

2 responses to “Food, Glorious Food!

  1. mackmarie says:

    I have never heard anything about Tongan food (I hope I said that right ?!), so this was super informative! Thank you a bunch for sharing!! I love the pics!

  2. Keith Hill says:

    Well I am getting on a plane for a Juicy Lucie double patty burger and a VB, followed by $4 for 2 scoops of icecream. Then probably a siesta!
    Thanks for the wonderful blog – it sounds like a very different but wonderful culinary experience!

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