In 2017, I had the opportunity to visit the Marshall Islands. After a seemingly endless series of red-eye flights from Fiji on Our Airline, I made it to Majuro, capital of the tropical archipelago– highest elevation, just under 10 feet. For a brief 20th century history lesson of the Marshall Islands, you may want to read this tear-jerker.
While in the Marshallese commercial, cultural, and political hub, being in a new country and region, I just had to try some of the local Marshallese food. And if you’re thinking it’s simply coconuts and fish… partial credit.
The first local meal I recall trying was at The Tide Table restaurant of the Hotel Robert Reimers. Being jet-lagged but peckish, I chatted with the waitress about Marshallese eats; surprise, surprise, coconuts and fish came up, in addition to the Hawaiian dish known as “loco moco.”
Loco moco consists of boiled white rice, a hamburger, scrambled eggs, and some mysterious brown gravy. It’s not local, but then again, it was the most regional dish on their menu. I kind of liked it, but perhaps the drinks menu could offer something more appetizing?
Pandanus juice– that’s the orange liquid in the mysteriously unlabeled bottle. Pandanus — or pandan — is a tropical plant commonly found as an ingredient in Southeast Asian desserts. It was delicious! But describing the flavor is a bit difficult. Quite sweet, and always reminded me of Fruit Loops cereal, with a hint of vanilla.
Now, if we take pandan and put it on the delicious side of the Marshallese food spectrum, what’s at the other end? Easy: the noni fruit.
The noni fruit – native to Southeast Asia and Polynesian islands – might be known to some of you in pill or extract form to treat various maladies. I know it better as a disgusting, vile food that might even put some durian to shame.
For background, I went to a beach party, and found one of these pock-marked fruits lying around on a table. Ever the adventurous if naïve eater, I took a bite. Yuck! It tasted of rotten bleu cheese. One of my peers saw my reaction, and brought a fresh coconut over to drink.
As for exploring the capital city Majuro, don’t expect much from the local food scene. Renting a car is easy, but you could also take a shared cab that plies the one main road running through the Majuro Atoll.
Fortunately for me, the Marshall Islands accepts US dollars, but the question was, what was there to spend it on?
Coupled with one of the most random newspaper ads I have ever seen, I sat down at a casual place for a very filling meal. To start, I ordered a predictable coconut water, some pumpkin porridge, and grilled red snapper. Simple fare, both fresh and welcoming.
Note the condiments on the left: tabasco sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
Since the porridge and snapper were nicely prepared, I wanted to give them more business. Above, we have mashed sweetened sweet potatoes, and on the left, a staple starch of the Marshall Islands, the breadfruit. Having never tried a slice of breadfruit, I was blown away by its billowy French toast texture, just-right sweetness, and abundant presence in the tropics, for the next time I’m in the region.
Right before leaving Majuro, I went with a few peers to go fishing. Our local contact gave us a sampling of his home-smoked swordfish jerky, and some mercilessly hacked coconut meat.
Individually, they tasted pleasant, but combined they were even better, reminding me that cities like New York City and London might have flavors from all over the world, but the quality from freshness is sorely lacking.
After one week touring Majuro and a few of its islets, it was time to take the long journey back to the states, starting with that trippy flight to Honolulu. You know, one of those take-off in the evening of Day 1, and land in the early morning of Day 1 flights. There was a problem, though. I forgot to buy edible souvenirs!
No worries, Majuro Airport (MAJ) has you covered.
Rum, Rice Krispies Treats, and eggs. Wow! This flight is going to be blast.
Have you been to the Marshall Islands? If not, which of the above foods would you most want to try first?
I had good tuna at the restaurant at Reimer’s Hotel my last trip to majuro. When my mom lived in majuro in the 1960s, the food was spam and taro and other less appealing things. There also wasn’t a supermarket like there is now across the street from the hotel. And to get to Laura it took a full day, instead of less than an hour by car now .
Hi Joe, thanks for your comment! Ah, so you’re familiar with the terrain … when were you last there? Which other foods do you recall were available, besides taro and spam?
Also, have you heard of Rongelap Atoll?
I’ve only been once, in 2018, when I did the island hopper and stopped in Majuro, Pohnpei, and Palau (last stop not technically on the “hopper”), but I’ve long been interested in the Marshall Islands since my mom lived there. She resided for several months in Majuro Atoll, then a few years in Wotje and Likiap atolls. I only visited Majuro atoll, including Laura and Eneko. I intended to take the boat to Arno atoll but didn’t have enough time. I also know the current Marshallese Ambassador to the U.S. and former Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Embassy in Majuro.
My mom hasn’t been back for decades and laughed when I told her there were restaurants and supermarkets in Majuro. She went so long ago she actually had to learn Marshallese, whereas now a lot of the population speaks English.
And yes, very familiar about the history of Rongelap since the 1940s.
Thanks for the backgrounder, Joe!
As I understand it, the renewal of the Compact of Free Association is more contentious than ever.
China wants to have its way with the republic, and the U.S. wants to continue to … have its way. It might’ve helped the latter’s case if they didn’t bomb the **** out of the country decades ago.