Sue Carruthers, one of the most celebrated ‘foodies’ in the Cook Islands
Iconic colonial residence, now well-known restaurant Tamarind House, is the indisputable natural habitat for foodie, chef, restaurateur, author and world-traveller, Sue Carruthers.
Tamarind House, Cook IslandsFronted by lawns reaching out to the coral covered waterfront at Tupapa, Tamarind House was built a hundred years ago as a home for the management of the Union Steamship Company, later the home of the British Consul. It was refurbished and opened as a restaurant in 2004 by Sue Carruthers and her husband, Robert Brown.
So established the restaurant had become when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga in 2012, the Secretary dined more than once at Tamarind House.
Sue was born and grew up in Nairobi moving to London as a young woman in the ‘swinging sixties’ to work and ultimately take off to the world.
“I went to a business college. It was a great time to be in London. I worked evenings in a Knightsbridge restaurant, the ‘Borsche and Tears’, which belonged to a mad Hungarian. It was here that I realised this is what I really enjoyed doing.”
“From London I travelled to Europe, India and South East Asia. I lived in Johannesburg and I met my first husband Bill in Katmandu. We got married in Australia and settled in Cape Town.
“I borrowed money from my dad and we set up a pizza place called the Pizza Den, and finished up with four!”
But the travel bug was still there! Despite neither being experienced ‘yachties’, Sue and Bill bought an old sailboat, a Nicholson 32. “We called it Rafiki (means ‘friend’ in Swahili)”.
“Bill learned how to navigate from a retired British sea captain who taught celestial navigation, and I went on a sailing course.
“We left Cape Town in 1979; our daughter was seven, so she came with us and loved every minute of it. Now she’s a climate change expert who travels the world. We spent the next few years on Rafiki. We would stop and work”.
They sailed to the Atlantic coast off South America, then up to the Caribbean and Florida, where they stayed a while.
“Finally, we sailed through the Panama Canal spending time in French Polynesia, then on to Rarotonga in 1984. We liked it here and decided to start a restaurant, so we sold the boat in New Zealand and flew back to Rarotonga”.
They bought the Jade Garden in 1984, changing the name to Portifino, an Italian-style restaurant: “We had that restaurant for nearly thirty years. Today, under new ownership, the restaurant has been renamed Bamboo Jacks”.
“In 1988, I opened the Flame Tree with Robert Brown. Robbie and I have been together since then. We sold Flame Tree in 2000 and the new owners turned it into accommodation.
“We missed the restaurant business but said if we are going to do it again, it’s got to be an old colonial house, and it’s got to be on the seafront”.
That’s when they bought the old Union Steamship Company House in Tupapa.
“I called it Tamarind House because the Tamarind tree means a lot to me, as it is a Kenyan tree as well a local tree here. It was like a touch of home.
“Robbie is the chef. When we started Tamarind House in 2004 I really didn’t want to be in the kitchen anymore. I wanted to be out front and involved in the designing of the food. I’d had enough of working over the hot grills. Robbie is a wonderful chef – he is more of a gifted chef than I am – we sort off swapped roles!”
During her travels, Sue had picked up scores of recipes and food preparation techniques. She published her first cookbook The Tropical Garden Cook Book in 1994.
“I was born on the Equator. I grew up in the tropics. I travelled the tropics. Now I live in the tropics, so I wanted a book like this, as there was none! I did a huge amount of research, especially about the vegetables. The book has been reprinted a number of times now.
“Some of the recipes are actually influenced by places we ate in the Caribbean. The mama would kindly give me the recipe. Some have a touch of Africa, which has also been a huge influence on me”.
Inspired by her years living and working with food in the Cook Islands, Sue published another cookbook in 2010 called simply South Seas Cuisine. It features tropical recipes from Rarotonga and the Pacific Islands.
Sue said South Seas Cuisine was really a tribute to the wealth of tropical fruit, vegetables, fresh fish and other foods, found in the Pacific islands.
“I love the name South Seas Cuisine. My favourite recipe is the Fabulous Fish Curry, which has evolved over years of travelling. Like many of the recipes, it is a combination of the best ideas,” said Sue.
In addition to Tamarind House, Sue and Robert also own The Rickshaw Cafe and La Casita Cafe in Muri.
“The Rickshaw Cafe offers Asian cuisine. The Ginger Fish is my recommendation. At La Casita Mexican Cafe, the Fish Tacos are delicious, as are the Fish Chimichangas”.
Looking to the future Sue said: “I’d like to not work such long hours. And, I would love to get into food travel writing”.
“More travelling, more writing, and probably some sort of a cooking school. Having said that, we would like to downsize our lives a little bit!”