History of South Pacific Cuisine

The first inhabitants on the islands of the Pacific came from Southeast Asia more than 20,000 years ago. They were hunters and gatherers who depended on the plentiful supply of seafood from the ocean that surrounded them. They became known for the great fishing skills they developed.

New islanders who arrived around 3000 B.C. are believed to have introduced agriculture to the Pacific region. Bringing with them seeds and livestock from the Asian mainland, they planted and harvested crops and bred animals. They introduced foods including bananas, coconuts, sweet potatoes, yams, and breadfruit. The animals they brought with them included dogs, chickens, and pigs.

Explorers from Europe in the 1500s brought more new foods to the islands. These included carrots, potatoes, turnips, beef cattle, and sheep. It took a long time until the Western world showed serious interest in the Pacific Islands. By 1900, however, the United States, France, Germany, and Britain all claimed control of islands in the Pacific. Over time, they made a lasting impact on the food customs of the islands they controlled. Cooking styles on the island of Tahiti, for example, continue to reflect a strong French influence.


Seafood, particularly fish, has long been the primary dietary staple and source of protein for Pacific Islanders. Nearly 300 varieties of fish are found in the waters of Polynesia alone. Fish is typically eaten raw, poached, or grilled. Root vegetables and tubers, such as taro (also known as a cocoyam), sweet potatoes, and yams, are also central to the diet of the region. A wide variety of tropical fruits are also eaten in large quantities. These include bananas, plantains (similar bananas), mangoes, papayas, and pineapples.

One dish that is uniquely Hawaiian is poi, made from the taro root. Traditionally, the root was roasted in an underground pit filled with hot coals for several hours, and then pounded with a stone to make a sticky paste. By adding water, the pudding-like poi was created. Hawaiians ate poi by the bowlful, using only fingers to scoop it up.

The coconut, a common fruit grown in tropical regions, is a main dietary staple. Nearly all of the Pacific islanders use coconut milk as their main cooking ingredient. The starchy fruit of the breadfruit tree is another Pacific island staple. When it is cooked, it has a texture like bread (which is how the tree got its name). It can be peeled and eaten whole or mashed into a paste that is dipped into warm coconut milk. The most commonly used spice in the Pacific islands is soy sauce. Gallon containers of it can be found in many households.

Introduced by Westerners, corned beef and Spam (canned meat, usually of chopped pork) have become very popular throughout the region. Popular beverages include coconut milk and beer.