We sat around a bonfire of burning coconut husks, passing a jar of vodka amongst us until the moon rose and the tide reached its lowest point. I was warm and comfortable in the sand and couldn’t resist the urge to close my eyes and doze as my friends talked and laughed over the sound of the waves crashing. I had almost forgot our purpose for being out on the beach after midnight, when our host announced: It’s time.
We left our fire and went out into the darkness. I had grown accustomed to the tropical heat of the daytime so the cool night made for a rude awakening. Wading slowly out onto the coral reef, we swung our flashlights back and forth across the surface of the water, looking for sparks of green in the distance. I was unsure on my feet, as usual, finding it difficult to keep my balance in the calf-deep water without tripping over rocks or being pushed off balance by incoming waves.
I couldn’t see anything, but our host was succeeding. He was walking quickly and confidently through the water, darting forward until he found his prey and scooped it into the bag tied to his waist. I watched him calmly collect a dozen before I saw what we were after: a brief flash of two lobster eyes reflecting back at me.
Working as quickly as I could I splashed over to find that my lobster was long gone. On a second attempt I just reached it when it zipped instantly away from me. After two hours, I couldn’t even lay a hand on one.
The next day, I discovered spear fishing. We picked our way back through the reef, which looked distinctly more like paradise in the morning sun. Each rock that had tripped me up the night before now sheltered dozens of fish. All we had to do was stick our heads under the water, point the spear gun, and pull the trigger. We collected a couple of big ones, and spent the rest of the morning admiring the sea life rather than killing it.
Back at the house, the cooking began. We dug a pit in the ground and filled it with coconut husks, which we lit on fire and built to a strong blaze. More husks went on until the fire had burned down and fallen apart into red hot embers. We covered the embers with large, flat stones from the beach to form a cooking surface. Our hostess had made a moist bread dough from coconut flesh, which we patted into discs and sandwiched between two broad leaves before laying them on the stones. Once the leaf burned off on one side, the bread was flipped and cooked on the other.
The fish was grilled on a grate over another fire which had been built in a metal barrel. A bed of palm leaves sat on top of the grate and the whole fish, seasoned with salt and pepper, was laid on top. Another layer of leaves covered the fish, and as they gave off their steam, the fish cooked perfectly without charring at all in the fire.
The abalone were also cooked over the barrel, then removed from their shells and incorporated into a coconut salad similar to poisson cru. We also made a salad of grated green papaya. The lobsters were grilled and the tails extracted. We ate them as they were, dipped in freshly made garlic mayonnaise.
To date, this is the most foraged meal I’ve ever eaten. At the time, I was only just learning that food doesn’t come from a box. In retrospect, I can look back on the Tahitian meal as one of the best, most memorable and authentic meals of my life.
Of course, not everyone can have the pleasure of plucking their meals out of the environment every time they sit down to eat. Sadly, I have not been able to keep up my spear fishing skills from London, or from the back of my car as I drive around the US. However, I can buy banana leaves in the Asian market, and pretend to have cooked my fish over a barrel….
Whole Fish in Banana Leaves
1 whole fish, any kind you like
salt and pepper
Rinse the fish inside and out and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Rub a little olive oil on all sides and season with ground pepper and sea salt. Banana leaves are available in Asian grocery stores (in the freezer, though sometimes fresh as well); lay out several leaves on a baking tray, overlapping the ends like fish scales to make one large leafy surface. Lay the fish on top, and then wrap each leaf over the fish to make a giant envelope. You can either pin the opening together with toothpicks, or flip the whole package over so that the open ends of the leaves are secured under the weight of the fish.
Bake at 375 F/ 190 C. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of your fish, but I’d give it 20 minutes to begin with and then check doneness by opening one side of the leaves and sticking a knife in the fish. It is done when the flesh is just barely opaque in the center of the thickest part. Let the whole package rest on the counter for a few minutes while you get everything to the table.
This is a great method for presentation. Bring the whole wrapped fish to the table and then cut a slit down the top center of the banana leaves with scissors, and fold back the leaves to reveal the cooked fish. People are always impressed with this. You can make any sauce you like to be served separately, or just eat the fish plain with a squeeze of lemon or lime juice.