While researching typical food from different cultures, I saw that Polynesia holds varied types of raw fish, some with marinades of soy sauce or coconut milk. I’m nuts for South American ceviche, so Polynesia rose to the top of my list so that I could try these mythical substances. The name “Polynesia” stems from Greek meaning “many islands” and indeed consists of thousands of tiny islands, including perhaps most famously Hawaii, as well as the countries of Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and New Zealand, literally in the middle of nowhere (and the middle of the Pacific Ocean). There is a lot of influence of the indigenous peoples on the cuisine of the islands, as well as from waves of immigration and colonial rule, including from French, Indian, Japanese and Chinese cuisine. Being pacific islands, a lot of the recipes are based around seafood, root vegetables, exotic fruits and coconut. So. Much. Coconut. I really like coconut, but I have to say, after this week, I was looking forward to coconut and me agreeing to see other people for a while.
Poke (pronounced po-kay) literally means “to slice” and describes a Hawaiian dish of raw cubes of fish, most commonly tuna, although also sometimes octopus, marinated in a mix of soy sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds and green onions. This mixture can be eaten by itself, with a side of short-grained rice, or with assorted vegetables, seaweed, wasabi, chilli flakes, fish eggs or roasted crushed candlenut. Poke has become hugely fashionable in the last few years, for its highly instagrammable presentation as well as providing a fresh and healthy fast food alternative to the mainstream populace. The traditional poke eaten in Hawaii is purportedly much more simply presented than the version I made, and usually doesn’t include extravagances like avocado, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create a a rainbow of colours at the expense of authenticity. Please forgive me, I was ensnared by the trends! The dish is thought to have originated from native Polynesians, who seasoned freshly caught raw fish with salt, seaweed and crushed candlenut to provide a sensational taste as well as to help to preserve the flesh. If you’ve been feeling like the flavours and aesthetics of poke are reminiscent of Japanese cuisine, you’re right, the heavy influx of Japanese migrants since the 1800s, at one point comprising more than 40% of the Hawaiian population, heavily influenced the culinary scene. Therefore the already-established traditions of raw fish and seaweed were combined with imported flavours such as soy sauce and sesame oil to create a unique and novel fusion.
Chicken curry is popular throughout Polynesia, for example in Samoa where it takes the name “kale moa”, as well as the other parts of the Pacific ocean, possibly influenced by immigration of Indian slaves and labourers to various islands in the region since the 1800s. For my chicken curry, I took a little more influence from Fiji in neighbouring Melanesia than most Samoan chicken curries do, as Fiji contains a larger Indian population and therefore has a stronger flavoured curry that is a little more liberal with the spices. I can only apologise: I was desperately craving spices this week! I first fried said spices such as mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, chillies, cumin seeds and curry powder along with ginger, onion and garlic. I then added diced tomatoes, coconut milk, lots of curry leaves, chicken thighs and some vegetables (such as eggplant and plantain), and simmered until the flavours had melded and the chicken was tender. I served my curry with rice, and found the mix of flavours a wonderful example of everything a curry should be: aromatic, balanced, spicy and hearty.
Hawaiian plate lunch
In Hawaii, the plate lunch is often compared to the “meat and three veg” beloved by the mainland USA or UK. It describes, a standard format of meal that has many possible variations depending on the chef, season and diner’s preference. Like poke, the plate lunch also has roots in influences from Japanese cuisine, borrowing from the idea of the bento box, which offers an assortment of many dishes on a single plate. On my plate lunch, I’ve included common dishes such as rice, kalua pork, cabbage, grilled pineapple, baked purple sweet potato and lomi-lomi salmon, all served on a banana leaf. The “kalua” part of kalua pork literally means “to cook underground” and refers to a cooking style common across Polynesia where food is buried with hot stones and the coals of a large fire. Lacking my own personal oven pit, I cooked a facsimile of kalua pork using a slow cooker, salt and liquid smoke. Purple sweet potato has been eaten for centuries by the native Polynesians as it was thought to have been traded by the native peoples through contact with South America where the root vegetable is endemic. The purple colouring of these sweet potatoes is imparted by anthocyanins, which have recently been heralded as something of a “superfood”, purportedly helping with health problems from obesity, cholesterol, cognitive decline, viral infection and even cancer. Lomi-lomi salmon is a popular Hawaiian side dish, comprised of roughly chopped fresh tomato, uncooked salmon cured with salt and onions or green onions. These ingredients are then massaged together by hand, giving rise to the name “lomi-lomi”, which means “to massage”. All of these common plate lunch ingredients are also frequently served at a “luau”, which is a generic name for a Hawaiian feast/party that often involves lots of food, traditional Hawaiian music and dancing, and may be held for birthdays, weddings, graduations or just for the sake of a party. Legend has it that the luau tradition began in the early 1800s, when King Kamehameha II decreed that it was no longer religious law that men and women must eat separately, resulting in large mixed celebrations of the whole community subsequently. The word “luau” actually refers to the taro plant, the leaves of which traditionally wrapped meat that was cooked in the ground during these gatherings. The root of the taro plant is typically cooked and mashed into a thick purple goop called poi, which is an important Hawaiian staple that I was unable to replicate, but is worth a mention. The names of different varieties of poi gives some insight into the dining etiquette of a luau, as they are graded based on the number of fingers needed to eat them (the thickest being “one-finger poi”, while the thinnest necessitates three fingers). I can see why the experience of feasting on all of this delicious food with one’s bare hands, seated on a beach near a fire, beautiful floral centrepieces dotting the clearing, mountains and ocean providing the backdrop to the sweet sounds of traditional music has captured the imagination of Westerners for generations – I get the feeling that a luau is a much greater experience than just its food!
Oka ita, most common in Tonga and Samoa, is the other source of my Polynesian raw-fish excitement; made with raw mahi mahi, lots of lime juice, cucumber, some chilli, capsicum, tomatoes and coconut milk. I served it with lettuce and baked sweet potato slices. The idea of eating fish this way is that the acid component (in this case lime, but could also be vinegar or lemon) “cooks” the fish without heat. The fish actually does go a white colour as if it’s being cooked, because its proteins denature in high acidity, just like in heat. You therefore need to buy very fresh, good quality fish, because the middle can still be a little raw (although not too much). This was delicious, but I think the Peruvians are still the undisputed champions of ceviche, so if you’re gearing up to try this sort of preparation for the first time, I would start there.