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Welcome to the ‘Friendly Isles’, a description coined by Captain James Cook during his first visit in 1773. This archipelago of some 170 coral and volcanic islands, of which only a fifth are inhabited, forms the southern point in a triangle between Fiji and Samoa. Tonga is unique among the Pacific nations, as it never completely lost its indigenous governance. Although it was under British protection for 70 years, it has been a constitutional monarchy since 1875.
Similar to some of the Fijian islands, the International Dateline juts around this island kingdom making it one of the first countries to see the sunrise. This appears to be a point not lost on the locals as the capital city of Nuku’alofa features the International Dateline Hotel, established in 1964. Nuku’alofa means land or abode of love, so those things considered, it sounds like a romantic holiday away. Of course Tonga also has white sandy beaches, clear waters and swaying coconut palms; It's the South Pacific after all.
A little over 100,000 people live in Tonga itself with a similar number residing outside it, chiefly in New Zealand, the United States and Australia. One telling statistic that emerges from this is that 30% of Tonga’s GDP comes from remittances, or sums of money sent home from Tongans living abroad. The other mainstay of the economy is agriculture. The chief cash crops include bananas, vanilla beans, coffee beans and root crops like yams, taro, breadfruit and cassava. This reflects strongly on the basic diet of Tongans and is often combined with seafood, pork, chicken and beef. Just like those of previous generations, today’s people remain hunters and gatherers both on land and at sea.
From our little research of Tongan cuisine we found that Tongans simply love food. Their culture revolves around it and it is at the centre of their celebrations. This makes good sense considering their subsistence economy. Accompanying this is their land ownership structure. Land is either owned by the government or the royal family. The former means you pay tax while the latter means giving away your first harvest at funerals and celebrations. The giving away of your first harvest is therefore an important event.
With that in mind, our first harvest of Tongan cuisine was happily shared with two special visitors from the US, Karla’s cousin Hillery, and her boyfriend, Levi. Our main dish was Kapisi Pulu, which is cabbage and corned beef in coconut cream. This dish is often made in an umu or earth oven. We opted to use corned beef, not of the can variety, but from our local supermarket. You can find the recipe here. Accompanying the main dish was a loaf of coconut bread. Wow, coconut bread is A-MAZING. This side was easily the favourite with everyone. With the summer weather still out and a cocktail of sorts needed we found a recipe for Tongan punch or Watermelon Otai. The addition of some vodka, although not called for, added a lively twist to the drink.
For dessert, Karla had the opportunity to perfect her caramelising technique (following the Fiji saga) and make Faikakai Topai, a sweet Tongan delicacy. ‘Nailed it’ would be an appropriate summary of the delicious caramelised raw sugar and coconut cream sauce. However the jury was out on the dumplings themselves with the gelatinous texture not quite hitting the spot for all. The dumplings are simply made of flour dough and are cooked by dropping in hot water.
INGREDIENTS LIST (AS PER ORIGINAL RECIPE):
Large cabbage leaves
1 can corned beef (corned silverside or brisket can be used)
1 onion, chopped
1 tomato chopped
1 can coconut cream
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup coconut (grated)
1 ½ cup coconut milk
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp scraped vanilla bean
2 cups coconut milk
500g shredded coconut
A little sugar
Curshed pineapple if desired
Faikakai Topai - Coconut Sauce
2 cups raw sugar
2 cups of coconut cream
4 cups of plain flour
4 teaspoons of baking powder
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 cup of coconut cream
2 - 2 1/2 cups of water
Pot of water to cook
Some necessary kitchen gadgets and tools:
Round cake tin or baking dish
Large cooking pot
Cocktail/ punch glasses
Here are some of the fun facts that were brought to the dinner table. The best of the night went to Levi’s triple headed coconut tree!
One of Tonga’s top-rated tourist activities is to visit the triple-headed coconut tree. According to locals it is the only coconut tree with three separate crowns in Tonga…and maybe the whole South Pacific.
According to the Church of Latter Day Saints, Tonga has the highest proportion of Mormons of any country in the world.
Respect for religions ranks as high as that for royalty. The country shuts down on Sundays and it is then illegal to swim, play loud music or conduct business. Some visitors have said that Tongans only do three things on Sundays: lotu, kai, and mohe (church, eat, and sleep).
PDA is an absolute no-no. Apparently, Tongans feel deeply embarrassed and ashamed seeing this, even if that person is your spouse.
We're yet to visit Tonga ourselves, so here's a couple of activities we wouldn't mind joining in on:
Swim with the migrating humpback whales between June – November
See the flying foxes of Kolavai. These rare fruit bats, some with wingspans of up to 1m (3ft), number in their thousands at the Flying Fox Sanctuary
Take in the impressive blowholes near Nuku’alofa. Waves send the seawater some 18m (60ft) into the air through holes in the coral reef
And that's our trip to Tonga done and dusted. Our next stop is just a short hop, skip and jump away to Samoa. Don't forget to join our subscribers list and you'll get an email informing you when our next update is up!