Culinary dreams of the Islands of Tahiti are usually filled with resort staff serving coconut-milk-laden delights over the blue lagoon, but away from the overwater bungalows, you’ll find a locally loved dish that’s humbler yet surprisingly marvelous: the messy, greasy, and undeniably delicious chow mein sandwich (Casse-croûte chowmen).
This carb-heavy, addictive monstrosity stands out among street snacks in French Polynesia for bringing together the three main cultural influences on the islands—chow mein via the Chinese, fresh baguettes thanks to the French, and the Polynesian ingenuity that brings it all together. Plus, it’s cheap. This thing will keep your belly full for hours and usually costs under five bucks.
An island melting pot
The origins of this unlikely sandwich can be traced back to the last half of the 19th century when Chinese immigrants arrived on the islands to work on cotton and sugarcane plantations. With them, they brought the flavors and culinary prowess of their Asian homeland. Over generations, their recipes adapted to Polynesian tastes and available ingredients to form a distinctly Tahitian Chinese cuisine.
The most popular dish by far is chow mein, a stir fry of egg noodles, cabbage, bok choy, carrots, and chicken, which together form a simple, easy-to-eat dish. This island version is very similar to American-style chow mein, and it can be found at almost every casual eatery in the country.
While Chinese workers were arriving with hopes of better futures, a French take-over of what is now French Polynesia was in full swing. Tahiti became a French Protectorate in 1842, and the five archipelagos that make up the country we know today came officially under French control in 1880. The French, of course, brought their cuisine as well, and soon, alongside dairy products, wine, and French fries, the iconic French baguette became an island staple.
Today baguettes are such an essential part of people’s daily meals that vans make deliveries of fresh, crusty goodness around the island of Tahiti—and some of the other more populous islands—early each morning. Most small, local grocery stores have on-site bakeries that pump out this fresh bread alongside French- and local-style pastries that all sell out by lunchtime.
But what truly sets the chow mein sandwich apart is the ingenuity of the Polynesian people. When and where did islanders put the first chow mein sandwich together? No one knows for certain, but it likely happened sometime in the 1970s or ‘80s on Tahiti. Most people in their 50s remember eating chow mein sandwiches at a young age, while older generations do not.
What is certain is that the long baguette is the perfect vessel for holding whatever yummy things you want to stuff inside of it. While chow mein is the long-running favorite, other common combinations you’ll find in between bready bliss include hamburger, fries, and an oily ketchup sauce; or grilled fish and crudité salad with a mustard vinaigrette. Basically, any meal you’d find on a plate can be brought together inside a baguette to make a sandwich.
A chow mein sandwich is a truly enjoyable mix of textures: the crunchy, un-toasted crust and spongy inside of the bread contrast with the slippery feel of the soft noodles and the bits of chicken and vegetables that require more chewing. Flavors are mild but not bland, and the whole shebang is salty enough to feel like a treat, with the savory taste of meat, the sweetness of the carrot, and the slightly bitter tang of the bok choy coming through. The chow mein is usually a bit greasy while not being gross, making it all go down easy—perhaps too easy. This is one of those foods that many people could eat two of when not even hungry.
Where to eat a chow mein sandwich
“Snacks” are local-style restaurants that range from a window counter with takeaway food to sit-down affairs that feel like a casual restaurant. “Restaurants” in French Polynesia are more elevated, places where you might celebrate an occasion and wear a special shirt or dress; they are also considerably more expensive than snacks. Not all snacks serve chow mein sandwiches, but if they do, it will be from mid-morning through lunchtime, sometimes made to order or other times wrapped in cling wrap, ready to go. Two to try around the capital, Papeete on the island of Tahiti, are Lea’a, across from the Carrefour supermarket in Arue, and La Madeleine, in Taunoa.
Small grocery to large supermarkets also offer sandwiches around lunchtime and will likely have a chow mein version. Small, often Chinese-owned shops are found in almost every village around the islands and are your best hunting grounds for a cheap, well-stuffed sandwich to go.
Moorea Food Tours
Heimata Hall of Moorea Food Tours leads excellent eating tours around the island of Moorea that always include the chow mein sandwich as well as other local snacks and specialty dishes. You’ll get to meet the characters who make and create some of French Polynesia’s most interesting food and learn the fascinating history behind each treat. The tour essentially is a guide that shows visitors how to eat for the rest of their trip: what to order and where to find it. Heimata’s favorite chow mein sandwich is found at the Golden Lake Take-Out Window, a little counter off the side of the larger and fancier Golden Lake Restaurant near the Moorea Golf Course.
Planning a trip
The 118 islands of French Polynesia are scattered over an expanse of blue Pacific Ocean the size of Western Europe. They offer sunny beaches and dazzling resorts with luxurious overwater bungalows, yet despite the prevalence of high-end resorts, the islands have local life buzzing through them, and there are plenty of empty stretches of sand and adventurous mountain trails to explore. Here’s your guide to French Polynesia.
Average Going deal: $814 RT