Tahiti, part 1

avellanes beach panorama crop

Why do you love food? I can only assume that if you are reading this, you have a special interest beyond the mechanics of just staying alive. I’m guessing that like me, you’ve had some specific experiences that sparked a passion in you. Like me, your best memories are inseparable from your best meals.

When I was 19, I spent a summer in Tahiti. I was too self-absorbed at the time to fully appreciate how unlikely a statement that would one day be, but however it happened, the stars aligned just so and when the opportunity came up I was fortunate enough to have a mother who said ‘YES! You should do that!’ Thanks, Mom.

During this amazing summer I island-hopped, worked on a pearl farm, stayed with local families, and shook palm trees to dislodge my afternoon snacks. I had some pretty incredible food experiences there. In the city there were French influences everywhere, bakeries and patisseries where coffee-skinned ladies in bright tropical-print frocks would load up their bags with fresh baguettes for the day. On the more remote islands we looked no further than the environment for each meal, pulling up dinners from the sea.

I would say that up to this point I loved eating and was interested in food and cooking, but I had never had a real life-changing moment over the contents of a meal. I was in Tahiti the first time I looked at the plate in front of me and knew, deep in my core, that I was alive in the world.

One of the families my companions and I stayed with consisted of an American man who had married his Tahitian wife when they were just 17, and their teenage son. They built their own house on stilts in the lagoon around Huahine, which you approached from the main part of the island by boat, parking in the watery ‘garage’ on the side of the house. In addition to the pearl farming which was their bread and butter (and likewise the main industry of every household on the island), they were potters, they dabbled in selling the Tahitian noni plant to American health food stores, and they kept bees.

I don’t know why I took the rest of this in stride but the bee thing really fascinated me. I was overjoyed when the father pulled two bottles of homemade Meade from his bag during a barbecue with some of the neighbours. Back in Georgia, I had already attempted to make my own Meade once upon a time using yeast from the atmosphere in our damp Dixie basement. Some bottles went moldy and some carbonated, but the most successful batch was a sugary soda, nothing like wine.

This Tahitian version was the real deal. It was surprisingly light and crisp, with just a touch of sweetness. We drank it with a raw fish salad called poisson cru, something like a ceviche where the fish is ‘cooked’ in citrus. The salad was full of freshly grated coconut, generous amounts of lime juice, and a delicate white-fleshed fish which had been caught off the side of someone’s front porch that morning.

Our main course was a whole pig roasted on a spit. It had been turning all day while the party drank, ran around, played guitars and sang, and children chased each other back and forth along the beach. After drinking and stuffing ourselves fully, my friends and I took a night time swim in the lagoon,  to discover it was full of phosphorescence that lit up like stars wherever the water was agitated.

I swear to you, this is not a dream or a fantasy. It actually happened to me. Nearly fifteen years later I can still taste the home grown honey wine, I can see the bowl of poisson cru in front of me and smell the smoke of the roasting pig. I feel just as excited now about living in a world where these things exist as I did on that day.

This party was just a warm-up though for the ultimate feast which was to come a few weeks later, at another family’s house. You’ll have to wait until next time to hear about that one. In the meantime....try this at home!

Poisson Cru

1 lb boneless, skinless fillets of sashimi-grade fish*
Zest of one lime
1 cup fresh lime juice
1 cup freshly grated coconut flesh with its milk**
½ red onion, very finely sliced
1 cup tomato
1 cup cucumber, peeled, deseeded, and diced
Handful fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Start by cutting your fish into inch-square pieces, toss it around in a bowl with the lime juice and a little salt, and let it sit for 30 minutes or so until the flesh starts to go opaque. Then add the rest of the ingredients and season to taste. Let the whole salad marinate for a further 30 minutes before eating.

*I would look for a white-fleshed fish like yellowtail just because that’s what I remember eating in Tahiti, but if you see some other type of fish that you’d like to try, go for it. Just be sure it’s sashimi-grade, and if you’re not sure, ask at the fish counter and tell them you’re planning to eat it raw.

**ok, so I realise that grating your own fresh coconut flesh is not that practical. This is how the salad was made in Tahiti, but if like me you have no interest in spending an evening wrestling a coconut, just substitute 1/2 cup canned coconut milk instead.

***A confession: the photo at the start of this post is not actually of Tahiti…all of my pictures from that time are in storage, so for the moment I have pinched one of my husband’s pictures of Costa Rica. To see Tahiti, you’ll just have to use your imaginations. Or, you know, Google images.