Overview of Tongan Cuisine History
It is considered that the Tongan region has been inhabited since the 5th century BC. Traditional Tongan fare include many dishes such as suckling spit-roasted pig; fresh seafoods either raw or cooked in coconut milk such as fish, lobster, and octopus; and fresh tropical fruits. Many restaurants in Tonga often serve foods originating from Taiwanese, German, Italian, Indian and, Japanese cuisine, including a mix of tastes from neighboring island countries.
Traditional Tongan Dishes
In former times, there was only one main meal, a midday meal cooked in an earth oven. Villagers would rise, eat some leftover food from the previous day’s meal, and set out to work in the fields, fishing, gathering shellfish, etc.
The results of the morning’s work would be cooked by the men, and served to the assembled household. The remnants would be placed in a basket suspended from a tree. This food is served as an end-of-the-day snack as well as the next day’s breakfast. Food past its prime was given to the pigs.
The diet consisted mainly of taro, yams, bananas, coconuts, and fish baked in leaves; shellfish were usually served raw, as a relish. The liquid from the center of coconuts was commonly drunk, and the soft “spoon meat” of young coconuts much relished. Baked breadfruit was eaten in season. Pigs were killed and cooked only on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, feasts honoring a visiting chief, and the like. Tongans also ate chickens.
Food could be stored by feeding it to pigs. Pre-contact Tongans also built elevated storehouses for yams. Yams would keep only a few months. Hence a household’s main security was generous distribution of food to relatives and neighbors, who were thus put under an obligation to share in their turn.
Many new foods were introduced in the 19th and early 20th centuries, following Western contacts and settlements. The cassava plant was one such introduction; it is called manioke in Tongan. While it lacks the prestige of the yam, it is an easy plant to grow and a common crop. Introduced watermelons became popular. They were eaten either by themselves, or pulped and mixed with coconut milk, forming a popular drink called ‘otai. Other fruits, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, became popular. Tongans also adopted onions, green onions, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, and other common vegetables. In the last few decades, Tongan farmers with access to large tracts of land have engaged in commercial farming of pumpkins and other easily shipped vegetables as cash crops.