The recently launched Takurua O Avaiki Raro, Avaiki Vaenga, Manavanui is just the beginning of the Cook Islands cuisine journey. International chefs are backing this innovative programme and helping to develop the strategy, which is focused on defining Cook Islands cuisine culture. Chefs for Development takes a look at how Takurua will help define Cook Islands cuisine, so can play a bigger part in attracting people to the beautiful shores of the Pacific island along with climate, islands, beaches and people…
Cook Islanders live to eat, not eat to live.
Food is an integral part of their culture and there is so much depth to all elements of food and what it represents for Cook Islanders, who chant, sing and dance about delicacies found in the tropical paradise nestled in the South Pacific.
Staged over the course of one week in late June and early July, the Takurua O ‘Avaiki Raro, ‘Avaiki Vaenga, Manavanui programme showcased Cook Islands feasts and cuisine through a series of workshops, site visits and events.
International chefs such as New Zealand chef, author and cuisine ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, Robert Oliver gathered in the Cooks along with representatives from 25 businesses and groups sponsoring the event.
Organised by the Cook Islands Tourism Marketing Corporation (CITMC), the launch programme marks the start of the Cook Islands cuisine journey, CITMC Sales and Marketing Director Karla Eggelton says.
“The strategy will be developed from this initial spring board of collaborative effort,” Karla says.
“We have led the efforts of multiple stakeholders comprised of government agencies, private sector, and non-government organisations, including the Ministries of Health; Cultural Development; Education; Marine Resources; Agriculture; and Climate Change as well as associations and individuals who see value in developing a cuisine programme.”
The CITMC is eager to develop the “Takurua” brand with a focus on defining our cuisine culture so it can be as big a part of attracting people to our shores as our climate, islands, beaches and people are, Karla says.
“Takurua is intended to provide a platform from which the Cook Islands can speak to food, the meaning of food, types of food, cooking and service methods of foods, and the cultural importance of foods and food ceremonies to the nation.”
To keep momentum going in the Takurua journey, a “consumer facing programme” is planned as the next step of the strategy.
This will include a national food event where everybody can participate.
For the Takurua to evolve and be successful, it requires both local and international support, Karla says.
“To grow it, we require a partnership approach in addressing the challenges facing the domestic support.
“Internationally it requires plenty of promotion and marketing, but we are very confident visitors will welcome our Cook Islands cuisine programme.”
Designed to bring all sectors of the community to collaborate on what is one of the most important aspects of Cook Islands life, the benefits of Takurua if it takes off, are immense.
“As a voyaging people, food forms the fabric of our survival, our discovery of new lands, our history,” Karla says.
She says that first and foremost, it is crucial to document the Cook Islands connection with food, and provide access to the records for all Cook Islanders.
“This is the beginning of a journey of discovery.
“We know what we are and who we are, but how do we ensure the information is conserved for future generations?”
From a tourism perspective, food tourism is a current buzz word in the industry that will not be going away any time soon.
More and more, people are looking for meaningful reasons to travel to destinations and have authentic experiences.
Visitors want to connect with everything local – because that is where unique experiences can be had, Karla says.
“Cook Islands Tourism Marketing Corporation is excited about exploring this area and establishing a sub sector that understands the potential of success by working together.
“Equally importantly, these destinations, islands, villages can benefit from keeping it local – addressing income, employment, farming and fishing opportunities, and even de-population.
“Solutions for social issues around health and nutrition can also be considered.”
There are endless opportunities for improving the lives of Cook Islanders through food tourism, she adds.
To further develop the cuisine of the Cook Islands, it is imperative to take any opportunity to learn about other world cuisines, and how they have progressed and evolved.
The inaugural Takurua programme has received support from international chefs such as Robert Oliver, Oliver Fritton, James Raukete, Jason Stubbs, Tausani Semi Barton, Rangi Mitaera Johnston, Sam Timoko and Adrienne Clarke-Ellis.
“It is imperative we learn and understand from those experienced in cuisine the real opportunities and challenges a journey like ours will entail,” Karla says.
New Zealand chef, author and cuisine ambassador for Le Cordon Bleu in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, Robert attended workshops and helped prepare various meals throughout the week-long programme.
He also gave an enthusiastic and passionate presentation focusing on the potential for the Cook Islands to further develop the Takurua concept.
Robert has dedicated many years to supporting Pasifika people and their cuisines, and says the most skilled local chefs within Pacific nations – and in this case, the Cook Islands, can foot it with their counterparts anywhere in the world.
He also spoke about the benefits a clearly defined and healthy local cuisine could bring to the tourism industry – and just as importantly, the local community.
Robert certainly knows what he is talking about – he won an award for best cookbook in the world in 2010 for his book Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific, and a best TV chef cookbook in the world award for follow-up cookbook Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia.
The presenter of television series Real Pasifik, Robert is clearly passionate about wanting to see genuine Pacific cuisine enjoyed around the world and in the islands, working with the United Nations to develop projects to help organic farmers in Samoa sell their produce to commercial kitchens.
Recently, Robert opened a Pasifika themed restaurant in the heart of Auckland city, Kai Pasifika, where he says he seeks to create a food product that supports peoples’ well-being, validates culture and empowers local agriculture and community.
Panel discussions took place during the week’s events, with chefs, tourism government agency representatives having their say on supply and demand for food and food security; healthy foods; and culture and foods.
Prickly issues like the need to create a sustainable supply of local produce; the impact of climate change; the high cost of local fish to locals; and why we are so high on the list of obese nations with high non-communicable disease rates were also discussed and debated.
Showcasing the versatility and vibrancy of the Cook Islands cuisine, five visiting chefs were in charge of sourcing local food to produce mouth-watering dishes for the main event launch on July 2, at Te Vera Nui, Rarotonga’s leading cultural attraction.
Preparing food for the launch was Sani Simei, the current Head Chef at Sails Restaurant, who had previously worked with Robert in New Zealand.
Sani was the first New Zealand chef to win three Australian Good Food and Travel Guides (AGFG) Hat Awards, the Australian based food award system similar to the prestigious Michelin Stars system based in Europe.
Head Chef of the Britomart Restaurant Group in Auckland, Oliver Fritton was hands-on in the kitchen for the launch.
Oliver has been a Head Sous Chef and has broken new ground in pastry cooking and he is now working at Super Café along the Auckland waterfront.
Cook Islander James Raukete is currently the Executive Sous Chef at Auckland’s Eden Park Event Centre.
Formerly at Crown Beach, James was the only “local” among the visiting chefs.
Joseph Stubbs from the Naturally Otway organisation in Melbourne also joined the launch crew.
Naturally Otway takes the hassle out of stocking up for your holiday away from home by taking your order for the food and drink supplies you require and delivering them to your accommodation ready for your arrival.
The meal was preceded by a detailed explanation of the place of takurua in traditional Cook Islands culture by Professor Jon Jonassen.
With the help of a visual presentation, he explained the traditional concepts behind the term takurua, which in earlier times described religious and chiefly occasions.
The food itself was served between segments of a dance show highlighting the hugely talented young dance team.
It began with korori pearl meat and coral cod served on a chilled oyster shell.
This was followed by a meal featuring wild boar and smoked marlin (replacing eel, which proved to be in short supply), then a vegetarian course, another featuring wild goat and black taro, and an uto coconut dessert.
Summing up the Takurua launch, CITMC Chief Executive Halatoa Fua described local cuisine as an integral part of an authentic experience for visitors.
He says it showcases what the Cook Islands could offer visitors.
“But it is more than just for our visitors to enjoy, it is a key part of the Cook Islands culture and our identity as a unique place in this world,” Halatoa says.
Throughout the week of the launch, the coming together of a community to work on Takurua was observed, he adds.
As the promotional arm of government, it is important for CITMC to have a clear understanding of our local cuisine and its benefit towards economic development and social wellbeing.
“The workshops and panel discussions have been very useful to broaden our focus to wider social and economic topics that impact on our local foods,” Halatoa says.
“From the work completed this week, we will use Takurua as part of the Cook Islands’ image to diversify our products and experiences available to our visitors.”
“The promotion of local cuisine is a key part of the Cook Islands’ distinctive culture.
“Takurua gives us the tools to integrate our local cuisine into our destination marketing strategies in a way that we have not done before.”
For more information on the Cook Islands and its cuisine, visit https://cookislands.travel/.