Thursday, January 27, 2011

Me'a Kai : The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific book review

Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific
By Robert Oliver with Dr Tracy Berno and photos by Shiri Ram

As Australia Day rolls around every year, I always pause to deliberate on the issues that inevitably crop up during this time of year. What it means to be Australian, how Australian-ness is celebrated and what is deemed to be un-Australian. There are quite a few perspectives floating around. It is often not a unanimous celebratory day for all, depending on which side of the fence you sit. Most call it Australia Day, others Invasion Day and some, even Survival Day. All are legitimate perspectives in my opinion and should be acknowledged. Neighbours of mine cooked up a fantastic barbecue lamb feast that would have put a huge smile of Sam Kekovich’s face! I thought I might celebrate a bit of reflective post-Australia Day with a book review on a cuisine that is not part of our vocabulary. Many groups of Islander peoples have contributed significantly to the building of the Australian nation up in northern Queensland and Northern Territory. So why don’t we celebrate Australia Day with some islander food? Australia is an island nation surrounded by water. The Pacific is also made up of island nations and is surrounded by a bounty of beautiful produce from the sea.

Recently, I found a comprehensive and beautiful book on Pacific Islander cooking. This publication comes from Random House New Zealand. And what a fantastic job they’ve done. This book will prove an invaluable resource for those craving diverse South Pacific recipes and stories from Samoa, Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tahiti and Tonga. The author, Robert Oliver has mapped out the book with care. In it you’ll find cultural and social narratives about land, lost heritage and how locals are regaining cultural pride through keeping alive traditional recipes. This is a big project – all these stories and recipes are captured within its 493 pages. This book will no doubt inspire you to plan a holiday to the South Pacific with its photographs of toddlers sipping from young coconuts, landscapes full of swaying, coconut-laden trees, perfect idyllic beaches, hyper-colourful markets and smiling friendly locals.

(preparing lap lap over hot rocks)

Readers are introduced to cooking with coconut in all its various uses. You can drink it, milk it, turn it into oil, grate it for food and ferment it for an extra taste sensation. Banana leaves get a big look-in. Surely it’s nature’s original, environmentally-friendly food wrapper. Lovos (earth ovens) or hangis to you Kiwis out there are lovingly described; let’s not forget the Samoan umu (or above-ground spit) and we learn all sorts of interesting ways of cooking with seawater and bamboo. There is a useful market guide to ingredients too. Oliver writes of South Pacific markets brimmingwith amaranth (also a Chinese favourite leafy veg), Fijian river ferns, sweet potato leaves, taro leaves, bananas and plantains, wild lemons called molikana, mangoes, Tahitian apples. Seasonal seafood harvests like balolo (or coral worm tails – apparently they taste like caviar according to the author), sea cucumbers, glassweed (a seaweed gelling agent), and sea grapes. Exotic ingredients like duruka (Fiji asparagus) or heart of sugarcane, hearts of palm, and Polynesian chestnuts. All these things I have yet to try!

(that's not a spread - THIS is a spread!)

From Samoa, we have umu-baked pawpaw bread (wrapped in banana leaves) with coconut caramel sauce. Plantain soup with ginger, balsamic vinegar and curry powder being predominant bedmates, and reef clams with tomato, chilli and vodka salsa.

Rarotongans love their pawpaw breakfast jams, starfruit chutneys, uto pancakes (uto is fruit that develops inside a sprouting coconut!), raw tuna salad with pawpaw seeds and coconut rolls. Those who want to try these coconut-rich rolls can buy them at selected Islander bakeries in Brisbane.

Fijian delicacies are featured, such as taro-leaf wrapped river shrimps, octopus baked in banana leaf, roasted chicken with Polynesian chestnuts and Tamarind gravy, Kokoda (a kind of South Pacific ceviche marinated in coconut milk and limes.

Oliver also gives the Indo-Fijian communities a look-in. We don’t find a lot of Fijian-Indian food much in Brisbane. Cowpeas with aubergines, mangrove mud crab curry, goat and green pawpaw curry. Oliver also sweeps the Fijian-Euro communities for fusion gems. Try chilled rourou soup (taro leaf) with coconut milk, coconut cream pies and mango puddings.

In Tahiti, the locals love raw fish. Fish tartares abound – these are made with super fresh cuts of mahi mahi, tuna and snapper. The French influence can be seen in pawpaw ratatouille, La Bouillabaise Tahitienne with fresh seafood and coconut milks – these dishes always have an Islander twist. It may be fish steaks with a blue cheese sauce but served with breadfruit chips.

Tonga serves up watermelon smoothies (complete with fresh grated coconut and coconut milk!), warm young coconut drink with lemongrass and cassava flour and the delicious Ota Ika (Tongan ceviche). Those interested in trying some of these Islander delicacies head to Matauaina’s Takeaway at 268 Kingston Road, Slacks Creek.

(Ota Ika - tuna loin marinated in lime juice & coconut milk)

Me’a Kai celebrates the diversity that exists in the Pacific and although they share a lot of common ingredients, each island nation imbues its food with different and daring twists. I have learnt so much from reading this book and thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful photographs taken by Fijian photographer, Shiri Ram. Now if only Brisbane has more Islander food places! This is a must-read for all foodies.