Cheap eats Tahiti-style

By Sophie Bond

Fresh Pasifika flavour with French flair ... Sophie Bond's in the markets for a treat.

The spectacular view at sunset from the Papeete seafront, home to Les Roulottes. Photo / Sophie Bond
The spectacular view at sunset from the Papeete seafront, home to Les Roulottes. Photo / Sophie Bond

If you want to eat well and cheaply in Tahiti, try the local meals-on-wheels.

The islands of French Polynesia are certainly beautiful, and as you might expect in a place which is still officially part of France, the food is often superb.

But dining in the lovely resorts isn't cheap. The breakfast in the place where I stayed on Moorea would have set me back $40.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. On Moorea, for instance, I was eternally grateful for the small supermarket over the road.

An even better option, I discovered, was to wander down the road until I found a fruit and vegetable stall.

On Moorea and Tahiti, there seemed to be one every kilometre or so, piled with juicy pineapples, mangoes, pawpaws and limes.

The vegetables were a little sorry-looking, but the fruit was pure deliciousness.

But, as I discovered one sultry Saturday night, when my guide, Vaiani, and I went to Place Vaiete in Papeete, the meals-on-wheels are even better.

Place Vaiete is the home of Les Roulottes - dozens of small caravans which have been converted into kitchens that assemble every evening near the docks, with plastic tables, chairs and cutlery for the diners.

The atmosphere was festive, with many family groups eating out, and the jagged shape of Moorea against a pink evening sky was stunning.

Tahiti is small and Vaiani seemed to be related to every second person eating at Les Roulottes.

"We Tahitians are not that good at cooking," she said. "But thankfully the Chinese are and we all love to come here for take-out."

Many Chinese migrants came to French Polynesia - not necessarily by choice - in the 1860s to work on cotton plantations.

They stayed and their cuisine now heavily influences local food.

Apart from a couple of people selling crepes, the caravans all had much the same menu.

I took the advice of my host and went for something typically Tahitian: poisson cru - raw fish in coconut milk with cucumber, onion and lettuce. It was simple but delicious, and serving sizes in Tahiti tend to be enormous.

Vaiani had the saumon des dieux, or salmon of the gods, a steaming mound of firm white fish that tasted remarkably like chicken, accompanied by a big dipping bowl of barbecue sauce.

I was scolded the next day for not trying the steak and chips. I did see several people tackling this at Les Roulottes: an enormous slab of beef on an even bigger pile of French fries.

I explained to the portly taxi driver (though appearances can be deceptive - he turned out to be a member of the national outrigger-canoe team) that we have a lot of beef in New Zealand and I preferred to try something local.

His eyes glazed over at the mention of New Zealand meat and he launched into an emotional monologue about his multiple trips to our country. Like most people I met in Tahiti, his English was great and he had gone to New Zealand to learn the language.

As for me, I revelled in the opportunity to improve my French on the islands ... and to enjoy the local version of meals-on-wheels.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Tahiti Nui flies from Auckland to Papeete.

Further information: To find out more about visiting Tahiti see tahiti-tourisme.co.nz.

Sophie Bond visited Tahiti with help from Air Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Tourisme.

- NZ Herald

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