After weeks of South American fare and endless versions of fish dishes, here comes the moment I have been waiting for months: Tahiti and its food market! My recollection from 6 years ago was of a vibrant place with stalls brimming with local fruits and vegetables, as well as all kinds of fish on offer. It had been a real treat for us, fans of raw fish, presented with an overwhelming choice: sashimis, carpaccio, poisson cru, tartare, with or without coconut milk, in vanilla sauce, marinated in ginger,…Chinese food features strongly in Tahiti and we enjoyed tasting dishes like Peking duck, maa tinito (pork and red beans), Chinese omelette, chow mein, all served with copious amounts of rice. The kids fell in love with the local snack: “hachis frites” or hamburger patty and French fries in a baguette! At 200f (A$2.50), it was the cheapest meal on the run (if not the healthiest).
This year, Anne and I went one Saturday morning expecting a beehive of activity, and were so disappointed to find that half the market was empty, some stands it seems having fallen victim to high rents: while the tourist shops are still there, half of the food stalls are gone, the remaining ones all displaying the same choice of tomatoes, cucumbers, grapefruits, bananas and papayas…Already well supplied with these exotic ingredients (it says a lot for the quality of the Marquesan products) I walked away with bags of fresh ginger, turmeric and herbs. Not a bad result, but not a great one either, for someone expecting more variety. On the ride home, our cab driver told us that we should have come on weekdays when the town is busy. Well, it was the weekend, and besides food, our crew wanted to shop for clothes, electronics and books. The place to go was to the Puunauia shopping center, conveniently located 5 mn walk from the marina and home to the largest supermarket in French Polynesia. Who would have thought we’d be so glad to find Carrefour?
A quick trip there made us realize why so many of the locals live on a diet of baguettes, fish, pork, root vegetables and tropical fruits. Any imported products would cost you double the price of local items, and for the items with no local equivalent, then the sky’s the limit: American strawberries 800f, NZ steaks 1500f/kg, French champagne 12000f, latest DVD 3500f…We thought that if we’d stick to local products we would not spend so much, but that was counting without the taxes that are levied on nearly everything. You see, there is no income tax in French Polynesia, so while the Territory (as it is known locally) receives substantial subsidies from mainland France, it supplements its finances by imposing fairly hefty taxes on most products (the Polynesian GST!) After a few days, we caught on with the fact that staples (milk, flour, sugar…) were taxed much lower than “non-essential” items, and our grocery excursions then turned into a hunt for “PPN” (Products of primary necessity). Much to Terry’s despair, beer didn’t come under that classification and would still cost 250f (A$3.00) a can.
We resigned ourselves to the high cost of living, on the basis that we were only here for 3 months, and were fortunate to be able to move on. This issue now resolved, I focused on looking for items I knew would be impossible to find anywhere else: duck foie gras, saucissons, French cheese, cote de boeuf, brick pastry (a cross between filo and puff pastry), preserved duck legs… My breadmaker went on shore leave while we indulged on baguettes, croissants and pains au chocoIat. And that is for the French fare. I refilled the pantry with vietnamese and chinese staples unseen since France (dried lily flowers, cloud mushrooms, nems, black bean garlic sauce,…) and quizzed the locals about the use of local concoctions like Taioro, sashimi sauce and the different tuna species. I spent the best part of a week in this supermarket, is that weird?
Terry certainly thought I had lost my mind when he saw me buy a big tub of chicken livers, wondering what my plan was. They are a delicacy in France, and while they were available in the US and Mexico, I never liked the look of the packaging so stayed away from them. Here in Papeete, surrounded by all things French, I had more confidence in the local butcher and decided to try my hand at cooking a chicken liver mousse from scratch. While browsing thru terrines and pates recipes, I stumbled upon a fish terrine (turban de poisson in French) which looked so yummy, I also had to make it. So stocked up with a fridge full of chicken livers, minced fish, eggs and cream, we left Papeete for the island of Moorea, 20nm away, where I busied myself cooking mousse and terrine while the others swam around the boat.
A night in the fridge later, I had the perfect finger food for sundowners on the boat. Served with slices of fresh baguettes, the family loved it, so did our guests.
Chicken liver pate
This pate has a very soft and smooth texture, perfect for spreading on toast or French baguette.
Serves 15-20, in 2 terrines
700g chicken livers, fresh
200 ml milk
200 ml water
4 pinches pf salt
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsp butter
15g maizena (corn flour)
50ml Grand Marnier (or cognac, port, Armagnac, all ok)
100ml chicken stock
150g duck fat (or melted butter)
200ml pouring cream
1. Trim the livers off any sinewy parts. Place in a large bowl, add milk, water and salt. Leave to soak for 3 hours. Drain well
2. In a small saucepan, melt butter on low heat without letting it colour. Add chopped garlic and onion, cook over low heat for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat.
3. In a blender, puree the chicken livers for 30 seconds, add the cooked garlic and onion, eggs, salt, thyme, maizena, pepper and Grand Marnier. Blend for a further 3-4 minutes until silky smooth. With the machine still running, gradually pour in the lukewarm chicken stock, duck fat and cream (i.e not hot nor cold).
4. Pour the mixture in a terrine mould (I have a perfect Le Creuset lidded terrine at home, unfortunately too heavy and cumbersome for the boat, so I use a silicon bread pan onboard). Wrap the terrine (or bread pan) in 2 layers of clingfilm, then 2 layers of aluminium foil.
5. Pre-heat the oven to 150 C. Place the terrine in a deep roasting dish. Pour boiling water in the dish, until it reaches 2/3 of the way up the sides of the terrine. Cook for 1 hour.
6. Remove from the oven and let cool. For a fancy presentation, you can pour 150g melted butter over the top, but I don’t bother with it.
7. Place in the fridge for at least 1 day (the flavour deepens with time) and eat within 10 days.
8. Serve for lunch with fresh bread, and gherkins. Also excellent finger food, spread on crackers with a dab of chutney. Enjoy!
French Polynesian supermarket shelves are full of already prepared farce de poisson, minced fish (typically reef fish) seasoned with garlic, shallots and salt. The locals use it for fritters or as vegetable stuffing. I found it perfect for fish terrine, mixing it with pate a choux, choux pastry, which gives the whole dish incredible lightness.
700g minced fish (cod, parrot fish, grouper….)
2 pinch white pepper
2 pinch nutmeg
150g choux pastry
300ml sour cream (very cold)
1 cup of fresh herbs (parsley, green shallots, chives,…)
Butter for the mould
1. For the choux pastry: place 1 cup of water and ½ cup of butter in a large saucepan, bring to the boil. Add 1 cup plain flour all at once and stir over medium heat until the mixture leaves the side of the pan and forms a ball. Remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes. Add 4 medium eggs unbeaten one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reserve 150g for the fish terrine, keep the rest in the fridge for another use.
2. In a large bowl, mix thoroughly minced fish, salt, pepper and nutmeg with la wooden spoon, incorporating a 1/3 of the choux pastry and 100ml of sour cream. Let rest in the fridge for 20 minutes. Repeat twice.
3. Test the terrine by cooking a small dumpling in simmering water. Adjust seasoning if necessary, add 1 or 2 tbsp sour cream if too firm. Finally, add the chopped fresh herbs.
4. Transfer the fish mixture into a terrine mould. Wrap the terrine in 2 layers of clingfilm, then 2 layers of aluminium foil.
5. Pre-heat the oven to 160 C. Place the terrine in a deep roasting dish. Pour boiling water in the dish, until it reaches 2/3 of the way up the sides of the terrine. Cook for 1 hour 15, or until the inserted tip of knife comes out hot and dry.
6. Remove from the oven and let cool for several hours or overnight in the fridge.
7. Serve as a starter, in slices with vegetables and a well-seasoned mayonnaise. Also great finger food, cut in small cubes. Enjoy!
Besides coconuts, the main item on the Paumotus diet is seafood. Fish, lobsters, octopus and crabs are all available inside and outside the lagoons, and every local we met is a practised fisherman (or woman). Each visit at Laiza’s kitchen in Hirifa, would bring a surprise: freshly caught lagoon fish turned into carpaccio or an octopus silly enough to swim in front of the house speared and thrown into a coconut curry sauce… This latter one had a twin suffering the same fate, and Laiza offered it to me with the advice to beat it well first, boil until tender THEN cut into pieces and add to the sauce. The expression on Terry’s face when I returned to the boat with my booty was priceless, so was Marc’s when I allocated him the task of tenderising the beast.
Unable to fish outside the reef, due to unkind weather, we decided we would try our luck with a simple hand line from the back of the boat. With great hesitation I handed terry and the kids cheese and salami bits (you have no idea how precious snacks they are on our boat!), and amazingly all sort of lagoon fish were caught: parrot fish, emperors, groupers, amberjacks…Thus became our ritual: the fish would be caught, cleaned and scaled in the evening, I would take a photo and would ask Laiza’s advice in the morning as to its eating suitability. Ciguatera poisoning is a major concern in the islands. It is caused by consumption of tropical fish that have fed on a special algae and affects human’s nervous system. Symptoms include nausea, numbness and other unpleasantness, and it can be fatal. Not all atolls are affected by ciguatera, and why one is plagued and not another 10 miles further, is a mystery. In doubt, it is best to ask the locals, who always know if an otherwise perfectly edible fish is safe to eat or no. Luckily for us, the southern end of Fakarava was free of the disease, so we happily consumed all our fish! Grilled, poached, tartare, and my absolute favourite, carpaccio!
Here are 2 of my favourite seafood dishes, perfect examples of “lagoon to table” cuisine.
This dish reminds me of the first time I tasted octopus marinated in olive oil, it was while cruising in Portugal 10 years ago. A little taste of the Med in the Pacific…
Serves 4-6 as a starter
1 kg octopus, cleaned
1 red (Spanish) onion, thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 red capsicum, chopped
1/3 cup (90 ml)extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup ( 60 ml) lemon juice
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ tsp dried oregano
¼ tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper
- Place octopus in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer 30 minutes or until tender. Drain and cool.
- Transfer octopus in a large bowl with onion, celery, and red capsicum. Pour in oil, juice, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper and mix well. Marinate salad for at least 30 minutes in the fridge before serving.
Carpaccio of fish lagoon fish
Laiza in Hirifa, makes a deliciously simple fish carpaccio with fresh fillets of parrot fish thinly sliced and laced with olive oil, rock salt, wafer-thin slices of tomatoes and cucumber. This is my version with the daily catch of emperor, and a Med-inspired dressing. I could eat this all day, everyday!
Serves 4 as a starter
500g fresh fish fillet (parrot, emperor, grouper, …)
2 tsp capers, chopped finely
2 small gherkins, chopped finely
2 pickled onions (from the gherkins mix, is OK), chopped finely
1 tbsp parsley, chopped finely
1 clove garlic, crushed
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
- Place the fish fillets in the freezer for 30mn. It will firm them up and make it easier to slice. Slice the fillets with a very sharp knife, as thinly as possible. Arrange on a large platter.
- Combine capers, gherkins, picled onions, parlset, garlic and olive oil in a bowl. Mix well. Pour over the fish. Chill in the fridge 30mn before serving.
Lying between the Society and Marquesas groups, the Tuamotu Archipelago is a huge arc of exclusively coral atolls. Atolls are formed by a ring of motus, small islets covered by coconut groves, some cultivated some left unattended. Depending on the sources, the archilepago comprises between 73 and 78 islands, out of which 30 are permanently inhabited, the rest supporting small populations limited by food, water and space. Unlike the Marquesas with their fertile volcanic soil, the Tuamotus endure a salty environment with poor sandy soil. Nothing much grows here apart from the coconut palm which is the key to life for the islanders. I found out how crucially so, while “stranded” off a motu in the atoll of Fakarava. Stranded is actually a strong word, let’s say that our wandering thru our Tuamotus led us to this remote anchorage called Hirifa at the bottom of the Fakarava atoll. Picture this: at the end of a sandy spit, protection from the swell and wind, long white beach backed by hundreds of coconut trees, crystal clear shallow waters to swim in…and a Paumotu couple welcoming us ashore in their newly opened snack-restaurant.
Meet Laiza and Toria. Toria He is a retired legionnaire. After serving in the French Military for nearly 20 years, he returned to his ancestral land to enjoy a quiet life, away from the horrors of war. Then he met Laiza. She comes from another atoll (Toau) where she ran a guest house for years. She moved to Fakarava, having left her guest house to her kids to run, and bored after a few months on the point, she decided to open a snack/restaurant catering for the passing boats (there is no road access). Between that, the production of copra, the tending of fishing traps and pig pens, she tells me they’re both busy enough to keep boredom away! They lack for nothing: solar panels and a generator service all their electrical needs, they shop weekly in Rotovoa ( an hour dinghy ride away), catch their own fish, brew their own beer (made out of sugar, yeast and coconut water) and watch TV via satellite. What more could you want?
We spent a whole week moored in front of their house, with the anchorage all to ourselves. Not only is it beautiful surrounding, but Laiza and Toria are terrific company. Her cooking is simple but delicious ( “made with lots of love”, she says). Depending on her customers tastes, she offers conventional plates of BBQ chicken and frites, steak and frites, fish and frites…or more traditional Paumotu fares like fish carpaccio, octopus curry or grilled lobsters. All for 2000CFP per person, except for the lobsters which cost between 3000 and 3500CFP. This also includes “amuses-bouches” (snacks) such as fish beignets (fritters), poisson cru or fougasse ( some kind of pizza base topped with cream, cheese, herbs and fish. Very yummy!) With Toria making sure there is plenty of cold beer in the fridge, we enjoyed wonderful hours of eating, drinking, whiling away the hours discussing world affairs, lobster hunting techniques, palm leaves weaving or even plain gossiping!
But the most memorable moments for me were spent following Laiza in the coconuteraie (coconut grove), picking up coconuts and learning all there is to know about them. Polynesians don’t climb up the trees. They poke a stick up to snatch the green nuts, and wait for the ripe ones to fall down. Green coconuts are good for drinking, providing around a litre of sweet, nourishing coconut water. Not only is it a delicious drink, but Paumotus also use it for medicinal purposes to settle stomachs, headaches, pour over insect bites and cuts as a disinfectant ( I tried it and indeed it burns just as much as alcohol does!). I was told that, had I used coconut water on my jelly fish stings straight away, I would have no scars. I wish I’d known. Then again, I would have needed to break a nut open, which I had no clue about until now. Paumotus use a sharp stick stuck in the ground. They drive in the coconut really hard to crack the outershell. It is then a matter of tearing out the rest of it along with the husk and expose the inner shell. This is cracked with a sharp knife along the line you want the nut to open ( the same way you’d tap open a coddled egg, except harder, using a machete instead of a butter knife!). The trick is to open it neatly to make the grating of the inside meat easy. If the nut is still young, the pulp inside can be soft and wet (like the white of a soft-boiled egg) and easy to scoop with a spoon. If the nut has turned brown already, the meat will be drier and requires some engineering to remove. Toria uses an electric coconut grater: it looks like a giant citrus juicer, affixed vertically to a wall, upon which they apply the half coconut. 30 seconds is all it takes to fill a large bowl with coconut meat that tastes like fairy floss! Laiza prefers to work manually, using an ana, some sort of small round serrated plate (in the old days, it used to a piece of coral or a half-shell) attached to a wooden board. She would sit on the board, the ana protruding between her legs, and she would grate away, turning the nut and collecting the meat in a recipient. Easy and just as fast! The grated pulp is then placed in a small cotton cloth, which Laiza twisted to extract the milk, one handful at a time. The pulp of 6 nuts yielded about 1 litre of milk, which I transferred into clean jars and promptly took back to the boat. I am storing the milk in the fridge, but was told to always let it come back to room temperature before use, since it hardens like wax when cold. Another trick is to never let it boil, as the oil then separates and you lose all the creaminess of the milk. When preparing warm dishes ( like stews or curries), better add it in the last minutes of cooking as you do with ordinary cream. I was fortunate to test all this theory for myself, tasting Laiza’s poisson cru and octopus curry. What can I say? It was amazing! And what about the grated pulp? After all the milk is extracted from it, Laiza’s doesn’t use it for cooking it any longer. She prefers to mix it with rice and fish and feed it to her pigs. Gives them a wonderful flavour she tells me. I bet!!! We did use some freshly grated coconut one day, to make coconut candy: sugar, butter, coconut. Can’t make it more simple than that, and it has become one of Anne’s favourite snacks!
I like to think that with my newly acquired skills, I will now use fresh coconut in my cooking. But I am under no illusions that the easy road will prevail and I will revert to the convenience of canned milk ( I can already hear Laiza scoffing “I would never serve canned stuff to my customers!”) Still, everytime I cook a curry, bake coconut bread or prepare poe I will be transported back to this little sand spit in Fakarava…
Makes 50-60 balls
2 cups sugar
2 cups grated coconut
1 tbsp butter
1. In a large non-stick frypan, caramelise sugar and butter over medium heat (about 10 mn)
2. When mixture is brown and syrupy, turn the heat off, then add grated coconut. Stir until well combined, and let cool.
3. When cool enough to handle, roll into small balls, the size of a walnut. Laiza wraps them individually in candy paper, but I don’t bother, packing them in a container lined with parchment paper. They will keep in the fridge for 2-3 weks. The texture is quite soft and sticky, for a harder “caramelised” version, I am told to use less coconut ( I have not tried it yet, I can only eat so much sugar!)
A popular Polynesian treat, poe is a mixture of mashed fruits and tapioca starch (also known as cassava or amidon de manioc in French). This recipe from Laiza uses banana but any fruits will be just as good ( mango, papaya, pumpkin, …)
3 cups mashed bananas (use very ripe ones)
1 cup tapioca starch
1 tbsp sugar
2 cups coconut milk
Extra sugar to taste
1. Preheat oven to 150C
2. Stir together mashed bananas and tapioca starch until well combined
3. Transfer the mixture in an oiled baking pan (22x15cm) and bake for 45 mn.
4. Let the poe cool down, then cut into small squares.
5. Serve pieces in a small bowl, with lightly creamed coconut milk and sugar.
*I like it as a dessert, my kids prefer it for breakfast!
People get up early in the Marquesas. Especially when it comes to cooking.
I found that out when we first arrived in Fatu Hiva and was told to report at 7am with final numbers of participants to a dinner show that same night. The ladies needed time to prepare the feast and have it ready for 6.30pm!
Having organised to trade for fresh produce the next day, I showed up with a bagful of cosmetics and some rope at what I thought was a relatively early time for a Sunday, 9.30am, only to find that my island counterpart had been waiting on the wharf since 8am with a wheelbarrow of tropical fruits and vegetables. Read More
After 3 weeks at sea, we landed in the Marquesas last month. This archipelago of 12 mountainous islands is as remote a destination as you get: 6000 klm west of the Galapagos and south of Hawaii, the closest neighboring islands are the Tuamotus, 1000 klm to the west.
The Marquesas were originally settled around 340BC by tribes coming from western Polynesia (Tonga-Samoa). These are believed to be descendants of austronesians who started their eastward migration from South East Asia about 7000 years ago, against currents and winds, bringing with them all they needed, fantastic navigators, warriors, cannibals,… They developed their own culture and presumably lived very happily (occasionally fighting and munching on each other), until the Europeans reached the archipelago in the 16th century. First the Spaniards, who landed in Hiva Oa in 1595, followed by British, French, Russian and Americans, as well as various whalers and traders. France took possession of the islands in 1842, but apparently the Marquesans, nearly decimated by diseases and fights , remained fierce warriors, resisting the rules and orders imposed by the occupant. In 1849, the French physically left the archipelago for Tahiti deciding it could not offer anything positive to the colony. The French still own the islands though, probably more for geopolitical reasons than anything else, and pour a fortune in them.
Bar 3 gendarmeries, 2 hospitals ( and countless small dispensaries in every village), 4 airfields and a tourism office, there is barely any sign of any economic activity beside copra ( the dried section of the coconut meat, valued for the coconut oil extracted from it). Island life revolves around the fortnightly arrival of the Aranui 3, a mixed cargo ship that brings supplies and passengers. The locals grow their own fruits and vegetables, catch their own fish, hunt for pigs and goats (or keep a couple in their garden) and generally spend their money on tin food from the small supermarkets. Hanavave on Fatu Hiva has one very small shop which sells basic items ( I reckon I have more choice on the boat) while Taiohae in Nuku Hiva has 2 grocery shops and a hardware store, each no bigger than an IGA store in an Australian suburb and storing a mix of French, Australian, NZ goods. Shopping is expensive, how anyone can afford to buy anything there is beyond me, but in dire circumstances I’m learning to buy whatever I need regardless of the cost. Below are our findings during one of our shopping expeditions:
80F = A$1, 120F=1 Euro
Beer 300F for 1 can
Soft drinks 270F for 1 can
French butter 1000F
NZ butter (in a can) 400F
Vodka 6900F!! a bottle
Wine 2100F (cheap no name brand)
Diesel fuel 100F per litre Duty free, 165F incl tax! ($2! Twice the Mexican price)
The only cheap items we found were bread (66F) and fruits & vegetables sold at the market or on the side of the road in Nuku Hiva, traded for cosmetics and a length of rope in Fatu Hiva. Luckily fish is free, as we catch it ourselves. But we’ll learn very quickly to be frugal with our supplies, and make the most of the natural abundance of fresh produce.
Our very first Marquesan culinary experience was a dinner cooked for us in Fatu Hiva: no sooner had we set foot ashore that the villagers approached us and invited us to a dinner and show at their community house for the next day. It turned out to be an initiative from the Fatu Hiva Mayor’s and tourism office, to welcome cruisers to the island. About 25 of us showed up and were treated to a Polynesian feast of coconut chicken, poisson cru, green papaya salad, breadfruit chips and boiled bananas (the latter an acquired taste!). When we all had full bellies, the local ladies invited us to the dance floor for a hips swinging lesson for us girls, and a knee twisting session for the boys. It actually was hard work, and we all wished we didn’t eat so much before, but oh what fun it was…especially when all the yachties in the room had been confined to the inside of their cockpit for weeks during the ocan passage and could finally shake these legs!!!
The coconut chicken was a hit among the crews, with the unusual use of papaya in the sauce. I could not resist, I went to Angela (one of the organisers) and asked for the recipe which she was happy to share with me. I’ve cooked the dish onboard a couple of times and we’ve enjoyed it so much I thought I’d spread the magic of the Marquesas by sharing the recipe with you all.
Angela’s chicken in coconut sauce
1 kg chicken pieces
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 knob of ginger, peeld and grated
1 can (400ml) coconut milk
1 medium sized papaya, semi ripe (still firm, green on the outside, pink/yellow inside), peeled and cut in 2.5 cm chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Boil chicken in 4 cups of water (enough to cover) in a large pan. Simmer until just cooked. Remove from stock and set aside
2. Boil papaya in chicken stock.
3. Reduce chicken stock to 1/3, add onion, garlic, coconut milk, salt and pepper, and bring to the boil.
4. Add cooked chicken pieces and papaya, warm up for a few minutes, season to taste.
5. Serve with rice, sprinkled with green shallots.