Local food in Vanuatu
Vanuatu is a tropical country with volcanic soil. This means that you can plant anything you want and you will get gigantic vegetables and fruit. It also requires minimum maintenance, so local people don’t have to use any pesticides to protect their harvests. As a result, you can easily eat organic food in Vanuatu. Despite quite a wide range of vegetables and fruits, most Ni-Vanuatu prefer to eat rice with animal protein like beef, chicken or fish. That’s why being vegan in Vanuatu can be challenging but definitely not impossible.
Here are the most common vegetables that you can find in Vanuatu: cucumber, ginger, local cabbage, white cabbage, eggplant, kumala (white sweet potato), kakae (orange sweet potato), yam, beans, green beans, corn and bok choy.
And this is the most common fruit that you can find: avocado, paw paw, mango, pineapple, banana. green banana (used for cooking), watermelon and passionfruit. Coconuts are also everywhere and provide a good source of hydration and food.
Finally, certain nuts grow natively in Vanuatu, including gung gung and nangai.
Where to eat local food in Vanuatu
If you Visit Port Vila, you have to go to the market place. It’s a large market where all the locals bring their goods from their gardens around the island. You can stock up here with fruits as well as have a hot plate of “island food” stuffed with veggies, rice and boiled kumala (local white sweet potato). Just ask for a vegetarian option at one of the stands at the waterfront and ladies in colourful dresses will prepare you some seasonal veggies with light curry sauce. The portions are quite big and will leave your plant-based soul satisfied with a flavourful meal. Don’t forget to grab a fresh coconut from one of the stalls too for your drink. For dessert, you can always come back to the same stall where you got your coconut and get it cut in half for you or grab some other fruit from one of the many stands.
There are other smaller markets dotted around the islands of Vanuatu, where you can always buy some fruit, often some vegetables and sometimes a hot meal. Often you will also see women selling their goods from their gardens at makeshift stands on the side of the roads. One of the markets that you can visit on the north side of Efate island is Emua Village road side market.
Another spot where you can have some snacks or sometimes even a proper dinner is at a kava bar. For locals a kava bar is like a pub, but the food in a kava bar can be much healthier. This is what we ate in a kava bar near Port Vila: lap lap, omelet, rice, local cabbage (a green super veggie) and some of the best desserts we had in Vanuatu, a banana tart and a coconut lime sponge cake.
Another common way of eating local food is to stay in bungalows located in or near to villages. They will often have some kind of restaurant where they are serving local dishes. Some of the bungalows will have meals included in your stay, especially if you stay somewhere on the outer islands of Vanuatu where there aren’t any options for eating out. Other accommodations usually offer to make you homemade meals as requested. This usually costs around 800 - 1,000 VT for a plant-based plate.
Check out this article to find about our green stays in Vanuatu.
If you’re staying on one of the main islands of Vanuatu like Efate or Espiritu Santo, there could be other cafes or restaurants near by where you can also eat local food. Prices in the restaurant can be slightly more expensive than when you have your host cooking for you.
Local dishes in Vanuatu
The most famous dish in Vanuatu is lap lap. This dish is made with banana, kumala (local white sweet potato), yam, and coconut wrapped in banana leaves and baked. Surprisingly this dish turned out to be vegan as well, but locals often consume it with fried fish or beef placed on top. We found its consistency to be quite gluey and also somewhat bland to our palate as there are no spices or salt used. But you should definitely give it a go. Sometimes there is also some local cabbage wrapped in the lap lap, which definitely makes it tastier. Lap lap can be found at Emua Market or at any celebration. Locals always prepare it for a bigger feast.
Paw paw salad is our absolute favourite and must-try dish. It’s made of grated green papaya (locally called paw paw,) green onion, garlic, lime and coconut milk. Have it with a local curry and rice, and you will be craving for more.
Paw paw curry is another favourite of ours. Their veggie curries are usually made with some yellow curry powder (quite mild and subtle in taste) and some water. Paw paw curry usually has some ginger, garlic and coconut milk added to it, which makes it more flavourful.
When we travelled to the outer island of Gaua, we had a chance to eat like a local from the gardens of our host. We were surprised how much variety Vanuatu cuisine has to offer. Another dish that we were amazed by was local cabbage in coconut milk. Local cabbage reminded us of spinach, but with a stronger and a little more bitter taste. This dish was served with rice and it was a perfect duo.
Another dish that won our hearts was the most simple one - fried kumala and banana. You can only have so much white rice before you get sick of it. Fried kumala was definitely a nice break from processed carbs. There are also other types of sweet potato and other root vegetables that can be boiled, fried of mashed. Just ask your host or the restaurant for: kakae, kumala, taro or yam. Sautéed beans were another favourite of ours for our protein intake. We found out that there are three different types of beans growing on the doorstep of our lovely host in Gaua.
One of our favourite restaurants when staying at bungalows was at Lonnoc Beach Bungalows. They would either grow or buy fresh fruit and vegetables everyday for their meals. Ask for the kakae patties, kumala fries or kumala mash with garlic sauce.
Another favourite restaurant where we stayed was at Million Dollar View. We had a vegan plate with paw paw curry and Gilbert’s signature rice. On our last day in Vanuatu, we experienced a special manioc dish made by locals prepared at Million Dollar View. It looks like an erupting volcano. The base was made of cooked manioc and in the middle there was coconut mildly boiling on the hot stones. Although the dish didn’t have an official name, our host Gilbert called it a volcano, while Jon and I called it Ni-Van fondue, as you have to dip pieces of manioc into the hot coconut milk. Although we liked the dish we preferred manioc being served as fried from Gilbert.
Eating Western food in Vanuatu
If you get tired of local food, you can always head to a restaurant in Efate or on Espiritu Santo. Most of the restaurants will be located in a resort. Be prepared to pay a western price for your meal and be aware that most of the things that don’t naturally grow in Vanuatu will be imported.
In Espiritu Santo, we had lunch at Turtle Bay Lodge. We had a vegetarian pizza and a bowl of roasted veggies on the side. The pizza was pretty good and the veggies had a good variety with nice olive oil. We washed everything down with some local Tusker beers. When we did a day trip to nearby Aore Island Resort, they also made us a vegetarian pizza that wasn't actually on the menu. More Tusker along with a fresh coconut this time did the trick.
When in Luganville, Attar Bakery and Cafe offers western-style breakfast, lunch and snacks. They also offer coffee. It’s more suitable for vegetarians than vegans. We loved the pancakes with fresh fruit.
In Efate we discovered a really good veggie burger at Breakers resort. We had it with kumala fries. The price for lunch was very reasonable and you could also enjoy their pool and the beach. We would definitely recommend this place if you have a hankering for western food.
We also visited a local bakery in Port Villa that we later found out was a chain from New Caledonia. It’s called Le Fournil De Vila and is located at Tana Russet Plaza. They had a good variety of healthier bread, like multigrain and rye baguette. We even tried their lime cheesecake despite the fact it wasn’t vegan, it was so delicious. As a bonus at the same plaza there was a shop that had lots of vegan and organic products, mainly from Australia.
Travel itinerary for Vanuatu
Read this article to discover our recommended 14-day travel itinerary of Vanuatu. (With 21-day and 7-day options also included!)