Good food is an enormous part of local culture in Samoa. Every big celebration in Samoa always includes a feast – and we’re not talking a light snack. So much love and preparation go into traditional Samoan food and eating together with extended family is one of the greatest joys of Samoan life. If you want a true Samoan experience, make sure you eat as the locals do during your stay.
Being an island nation, seafood features widely in local cuisine and is usually complemented by delicious tropical fruits and vegetables. In fact, fruit is plentiful including bananas, mangos, papaya, star fruit, and pineapple. Coconut is also used widely through a variety of dishes, while the meat used in Samoan meals is normally chicken (moa) and pork.
Surrounded by water, seafood is fresh and plentiful in Samoa, from yellowfin tuna to octopus and crayfish – and everything in between. Fishing has been central to Samoan life for thousands of years, with the sea traditionally providing the family’s daily meals. Today, fish (i’a) such as snapper and tuna along with other seafood such as crayfish, masimasi, and octopus, are still caught daily and form an important part of modern Samoan culture.
A favourite dish with visitors to Samoa and locals alike is palusami: baked coconut cream cooked inside coconut leaves in the umu (earth oven). You’ll also see oka everywhere on menus and you can’t leave Samoa without trying this delicious dish of freshly caught raw fish cut into chunks and mixed with coconut cream, freshly squeezed lime juice, chopped onion, and tomato.
Umu is the cornerstone of Samoan cuisine. Traditionally, an umu (an above-ground oven of hot volcanic stones) is laid three times a day to cook the family meals, a custom that you will still see in many villages today. Covered in freshly made coconut cream, umu-cooked food (usually fish or other seafood, pork, chicken, lamb, taro, bananas, and other vegetables) is infused with the beautiful smoky flavours typical of this style of cooking.
So, how is it done? Stones are heated in a fire before the food is placed on top, wrapped in banana leaves or coconut fronds, or put into half coconuts. More banana leaves cover the top to seal the 'oven'. The umu is lifted after about two hours and the food is served immediately. If you stay in a fale owned by a village, you may be invited to eat this style of food, but if not, many hotels and resorts offer umu buffets at weekly fiafia nights. It’s a must-eat.
If you want to see how locals buy their fish – if they haven’t caught it themselves – check out the Apia Fish Market for fresh seafood and a peek into everyday local life.
If experiencing authentic Samoan food is on your agenda, you can’t miss a visit to the Apia markets. You’ll find amazing, juicy fruits like mango, star fruit, guava, bananas, tropical avocados, and fresh cocoa (by the pod). And you must try the local drink Koko-Samoa which is a pure, semi-refined cocoa that is grated and dissolved in hot water or milk, then sweetened with sugar – served with a coconut or jam filled donut on the side, of course.
The locals also love Samoan pork buns, sapasui, baked breadfruit, taro, palusami and yams, and you can enjoy all of these at the markets or choose to take your treats back to your accommodation to enjoy later.
If you want to experience authentic Samoan food as it’s eaten by the locals, join a cultural experience night. Most hotels and resorts offer traditional Samoan food, particularly at their regular fiafia (cultural) nights, which includes food cooked in an umu with hot stones alongside dance and music. Ask your accommodation provider for details about what food experiences they offer.
For a more in-depth look at local cuisines, the Savai’i Food and Cultural Tour begins with an umu demonstration and takes visitors on a walk through the village to show locally grown produce. The tour finishes with a buffet of traditional food.
People are often surprised to discover plenty of choice when it comes to chic dining options in Samoa, particularly around Apia and in resort restaurants. Samoan chefs have a bounty of incredible produce right on their doorstep and they find so many creative ways to cook it. High quality international cuisines are also easy to come by in resorts and urban areas.
Enjoy a true Samoan feast paired with locally brewed beer to experience the real and unforgettable flavours of the Pacific.
Samoa Breweries is the main brewer in Samoa. Established in 1978, it brews a German type lager beer, called Vailima. ‘Vailima’ is literally translated as ‘water in hand’ and has its origin in a Samoan folktale where a woman revives her dying lover by carrying water to him in her hands. Alternatively, ‘Vailima Natural’ uses locally grown breadfruit as a replacement for malted barley.
Whatever you choose to eat during your Samoan holiday, from the freshest fruit sold at roadside stalls and markets to gourmet restaurants, you’ll be sure to come away wishing you could take the food home with you.
Having been around for as long as Samoan people have lived on these islands – more than 3,000 years – umu conjures up the smells and flavours of Samoa like no other dish. It creates a smoky and savoury yet sweet smell with a tantalising hint of coconut.
In small Samoan villages you’ll probably find there’s very little in the way of cooking equipment, so umu is still relied on as a staple cooking method.
Because preparing an umu takes considerable time, it is not exactly a spur of the moment way of cooking, but one umu will feed many people in the family or village. It’s easy to see why preparation, and food in general, is a central part of Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way.
So, what is an umu, and how do you cook food in it? Here are the stages of preparing a deeply traditional and truly delicious Samoan feast.
The heat in an umu comes from heated volcanic rocks, which in turn are heated by a fire lit underneath them well before the food comes near the umu.
Volcanic rocks are favoured for their ability to hold heat for a long time. An umu fire is tightly packed, and ready when the burning wood and coconut husks have been reduced to coal.
Getting an umu ready takes time and this prep work is traditionally done by the men, who must get up very early on Sundays to start the process so there is an umu feast ready in time for the all-important Sunday lunch.
To ensure the food is ready to go when the stones are perfectly heated, it is all prepared before loading up of the umu begins. This preparation can take many hours. An umu may contain meats such as chicken or pork, seafood including different types of fish or octopus placed in half coconut shell ‘bowls’ with coconut cream, a variety of vegetables and fruit like talo (taro), ulu (breadfruit) and unripe bananas (fa’i).
To aid the cooking process, flavour the food and prevent it from drying out, coconut cream is added and the whole lot wrapped in coconut and banana leaves, individually and as a whole.
In a swift operation, the top layer of volcanic rocks are removed, the food is placed on, and hot rocks are put carefully on top. That is then covered with banana leaves or mats to seal in the heat and cook the food.
The umu takes from half an hour to an hour to cook, all the while spreading very tempting cooking smells. Traditionally this is the time when baskets and plates are woven from coconut fronds.
When it is decided that the food is ready, the top rocks are removed, and the food is placed in the baskets.
Finally, it’s time to eat. In front of you will be a delicious, steaming array of food smothered in coconut cream and cooked to perfection with smoky flavours. Grab your plate and dig in. It doesn’t get more authentic Samoa than that.