Walk into many Cook Islands homes and you’ll see donuts on the table, chop suey, mayonnaise, chicken curry, rice, sashimi and sushi. These are fast becoming staple diets at many homes in the country – so much so that they are thought of as national dishes.
But they’re not. Doughnuts are generally traced back to the olykoek (“oily cake”) Dutch settlers brought with them to early New York City. Chop suey can be found on Chinese takeaway menus around the world – derived from tsap seui, a Cantonese dish that translates to “miscellaneous leftovers”.
The French and the Spanish argue about who invented mayonnaise. The chicken curry eaten here uses turmeric, like curries from India. Sashimi and sushi are, of course, from Japan.
So how in the wide world did dishes like these become identified as Cook Islands cuisine?
Local chef Rangi Mitaera-Johnson says if we don’t promote local cuisines, the country will soon lose foods that truly define Cook Islands.
In the past, root crops and vegetables were the food consumed in the southern group islands while the northern group relied heavily on seafood.
Mitaera-Johnson says Cook Islanders, especially those in the southern group, were plant eaters who feasted on crops such as taro, kumara, cassava and breadfruits.
In the early days, the country had abundance of green leafy vegetables which were used to make tiopu or “soupy foods”.
One of the favourite dishes then was tiopu kuru or breadfruit soup, says Mitaera-Johnson, adding in modern day corned beef is added to flavour this traditional cuisine.
“Some of the families to give their soupy food more substance would add chillies or hibiscus leaves but now lot of them don’t really use that in our cuisine.
“Tiopu kuru is more of a home food, not for big occasions and it’s usually the food consumed by people during winter.”
In the northern group people relied on seafood such as fish, clams and pearl meat, since there are not much root crops available there.
Mitaera-Johnson says it’s disappointing to see people are regarding imported dishes such as chop suey, rice, sashimi and mayonnaise as Cook Islands cuisine.
In northern group islands, she says people have considered rice as their staple diet.
Cook Islands mayonnaise is quite famous here and abroad and Mitaera-Johnson says people are mistakenly claiming the dish as a local cuisine.
“There is a debate about mayonnaise being a local cuisine. Obviously its origin is not from here, it’s from the Europe.
“How can that can be of Cook Islands origin when we don’t grow potatoes here, we don’t grow beetroot? Mayonnaise may have come here from Tahiti because of the French dressing used on it.”
Cook Islands Chefs Association president and trainer Karlene Taokia says preserving the traditional cuisine is a challenge.
People don’t realise that the imported food we consume is not designed for our digestive systems and constitutions.
This is one of the major reasons for obesity in the country, she explains.
“Our bodies are used to the local food. In the olden days, Cook Islanders used to eat the food that were meant for them, and their bodies could take and they lived a healthy life. Now we have adopted the palagi food, and the Asian dishes that our bodies are not made to consume,” says Taokia.
“The Chinese can eat white rice because they have been doing it for years, their bodies are used to that. But when we eat white rice, it makes us bloated and fat because simply it’s not meant for us.
“We have a lot of overweight people who may have been healthy before but have adopted different cuisines. Most of these things we are importing is affecting our system.”
To get people back into eating the traditional Cook Islands cuisine, Cook Islands Chef Association has taken a grassroots approach.
The association is holding young chefs competition, teaching and promoting local cuisine to younger generations.
“We are trying to make the local recipes younger friendly and trying to teach them that our local food can also be yummy.
“Children these days don’t like spinach but if you make a sausage roll with rukau in it, I’m sure they would like it.”
Rangi Mitaera-Johnson says many people have forgotten how to make traditional dishes and they are afraid to try them.
“It’s like the language, people are afraid to speak the language because they fear they will make a mistake and others will laugh at them.
“But you can’t learn until you make mistakes. People need to try because if they don’t then we may lose our cuisines forever.”