Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The South Pacific: Cheating a little?

When I was in high school, we all had to draw a developing country out of a hat at the end of junior year and write our senior paper on it. Apparently my teachers hadn't done their research, because the first one I drew was Nauru. I'd never heard of Nauru, but I gamely went to the CIA Factbook and checked it out. It turned out Nauru was approximately the size of a postage stamp in the middle of the Pacific. It had no written language (problematic since part of the paper was to be literary analysis), and its economy was based on bird crap (ok, phosphates) that was supposed to run out within ten years. After I brought these findings to my teachers, they let me pick again and I ended up with Algeria.

But Nauru stayed with me. I later learned that the South Pacific has a number of inhabited postage stamps that are members of the United Nations. I looked for recipes from each, but Samoa was the only one for which I had any luck. Consequently, for this post I've combined Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The islands are relatively diverse ethnically, but as their climates are much the same, so too is their cuisine (as far as I can tell - if you have different information, please share it in the comments!). They're very tropical, and fruit and vegetables are common, particularly yams, breadfruit, cassava, taro, bananas, coconut, mango, papaya, and greens. Pork and fish seem to be the most common proteins, although I've also seen some chicken recipes. I found a great resource in The Pacific Islands Cookbook, available online here.

I decided to make banana rice, yam fritters, and a coconut tuna ceviche called poisson cru, or oka i'a in Samoa. The oka'i was only supposed to marinate in the lime juice for 10-20 minutes, so I thought it was important to use sushi-grade tuna. Kenny was my hero with regard to the tuna. After questing all day Saturday, I finally gave up and bought some tilapia on Sunday morning (the nice lady at Harris Teeter promised me I was unlikely to die from eating it raw), only to get a call from Kenny saying that he had found sushi grade tuna at Eastern Market and would bring it over for me. The oka i'a was delicious, so I'm pretty sure he saved the meal!

I was joined for dinner by James of Jimbaux's Journal, who wanted a cooking lesson. I put him to work chopping and grating and mixing, explaining everything I was doing and why. It was a great time, and he seemed to think everything was delicious! All photos are courtesy of him.

Banana Rice

2 cups rice uncooked
12 ripe eating bananas
1/2 cup coconut cream
1/4 teaspoon salt 
Clean rice. Peel and slice bananas. Put rice and bananas in a pot. Add water to 5 cm (2 inches) above the rice and boil gently until cooked. Grate coconut, add a little water, and squeeze out the cream. Add salt to taste. When rice is cooked mix in the coconut cream. Serve hot or cold with greens or other vegetables.
Yam Fritters
2 lbs. yams, grated to about 4 cups
2/3 cup sugar
11/2 cups sifted flour
Peel yam and grate it. Place grated yam in a medium bowl. Add sugar and mix with hands. Gradually add flour while mixing. Mix well. Heat oil in a cast iron skillet (oil should be about 1/2 inch deep). Use about 1/4 cup of grated yams and make patties, slipping them gently into the oil. Flip using tongs and cook until golden brown and delicious on both sides. The original recipe says to serve with syrup, but I salted them and they were delicious.
Poisson Cru, or Oka i'a
Highest-quality ahi tuna, cut into 1/2-inch cubes -- 1 1/2 pounds
Lime juice -- 1/2 cup
Coconut milk -- 1/4 cup
Cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2-inch cubes -- 1 small
Tomato, seeded and diced -- 1
1 medium shallot, minced
Kosher or sea salt -- big pinch
Fresh ground pepper -- pinch

Mix all the ingredients together in a large, non-reactive bowl and set aside to marinate for 10 or20 minutes.
Drain excess liquid and adjust seasoning. Garnish with some freshly chopped scallions and serve in a decorate bowl or large clam shell. 


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