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The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands—CNMI for short—has grown in popularity over the years as a major tourist hub. This 14-island commonwealth under the jurisdiction of the United States is home to some of the most breathtaking natural wonders in the Pacific, from rolling cliffs to majestic coral reefs. But just as deserving of a visitor’s attention is Northern Mariana cuisine. Indigenous Chamorro flavors, as well as those borrowed from Asian and American culinary traditions, are another facet of the islands that every visitor should experience.
If you’re a first-time visitor to the CNMI, you’ll appreciate this guide to the islands’ best eats. Here you can find info on some must-try dishes, as well as tips on how to find the best restaurants in CNMI. Roll up your sleeves, and be sure to come hungry for an island feast!
The Cuisine of the Northern Mariana Islands at a Glance
Northern Mariana cuisine dwells on the richness of both the land and the sea. Dishes eaten here satisfy a wide range of diets. Poultry, seafood, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables are in ample supply. The Chamorro indigenous people have long cultivated red rice, which is why it’s the staple carbohydrate of most meals in the Northern Marianas. Breadfruit, mangoes, coconuts, and the native bilimbi fruit round off the traditional palate.
No new visitor to the Northern Mariana Islands should leave without trying kelaguen, a signature dish. It’s commonly made with chicken, but it is just as delicious when made with fish or shrimp. The meat is mixed with coconut, onions, and peppers, then pickled in lemon juice, much like ceviche.
Another must-try Chamorro dish is tinaktak, which consists of ground beef that’s cooked in coconut milk. The meal should be accompanied with red rice and washed down with a mango or papaya shake!
Popular Foreign Dishes
Just as much of Northern Mariana Islands cuisine draws from foreign influence. It’s replete with food staples from the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Thai communities that have settled there. Some examples of foods that appear regularly in CMNI cuisine are the Latin American empanada, or filled pastry, and the Filipino-Chinese noodle dish pancit. It’s also common to find international dishes like meat curry, pad thai, teppanyaki, and Korean BBQ in a major tourist location like Saipan.
Lastly, there’s no lack of delicious all-American food within the islands. You won’t be hard-pressed to find a good cheeseburger or steak. And if you’ve never developed a taste for Spam, you just might when you arrive in the Northern Marianas. The people here have found rather creative uses for what was once a wartime ration.
Top Tips for the Best Dining Experiences in the Northern Marianas
No matter which of these you will go for, dining in the Northern Marianas will be a spectacular experience. You’ll be delighted by the variety, freshness of ingredients, and vibrant flavors you’ll encounter here! Here are some additional tips to kick off your tasting tour of the islands.
Decide What You Want to Eat
Every meal can be made a stellar experience in and of itself, particularly if you’ve addressed a particular craving. Before you start your food crawl, make a list of Chamorro dishes you want to try, and make sure sample them on your first few days on the islands. Afterwards, list down your favorite comfort foods from your home country and see if a restaurant in Saipan, Tinian, or Rota serves these as well.
Ask the Locals for Recommendations
Tour operators, hotel and resort staff, or friends based in the CMNI may have good recommendations for you. Get their endorsement on which restaurants, grills, or eateries are the best of the best.
Check Out Customer Reviews
Another foolproof way to look for good eats is to check for positive reviews from fellow diners. If you’re curious about a place, you can look it up online. It won’t be hard to find info about its bestselling dishes, its ambiance, and the quality of its service. If you see consistently good ratings for an establishment, that’s a good sign it’s worth checking out!
Have a Buffet Meal for a Little Bit of Everything
If you can’t make up your mind about what to eat, why not go to an establishment that offers a little bit of everything? Look for a buffet-type restaurant that will help you sample several dishes at once. That variety should be exciting to your palate.
Find Restos with Great Entertainment as Well as Dining Options
Lastly, food isn’t the only thing that will make a dining experience in the Northern Marianas feel special. Search out restaurants that have additional perks, like live entertainment or dancing. That way, when your belly is full, you can enjoy a feast for your other senses.
Delicious dining options are rife in the Northern Mariana Islands. Food is one of the key reasons your trip here will be unforgettable. So look forward to chowing down on the islands’ many local and international specialties!