Food Discovered. Graeme Lay explores the food of Tahiti and Her Islands. In any contest to see which country produces the world’s finest cooking, France would surely come in at the top.
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After all, the very word cuisine is French. And wherever in the world French culture has gone, its cuisine has followed.
This includes French Polynesia, a vast ocean territory the size of Europe, extending from just south of the equator to the south of the Tropic of Capricorn, containing five archipelagos: the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, the Gambiers, the Society and the Austral Islands.
“Traditional French cuisine enhanced by new and exotic ingredients”
The indigenous people of this region, Polynesians who called themselves ‘Maohi’, lived traditionally on a healthy diet of fish, poultry, fruits and fresh vegetables, cooked in an underground oven, called an ‘ahima’a’.
After France annexed the 118 islands in this huge sphere of the South Pacific, during the second half of the nineteenth century, they introduced their language and customs, including their ardent love of good food.
Traditional French cuisine was enhanced by the fact that in the ocean and islands of what had become French Polynesia, lay new and exotic ingredients which they quickly added to menus.
These included tropical fruits such as breadfruit, coconut, plantains (bananas), root crops like taro and sweet potato, and most significantly, fish from the open sea and the lagoons which surround the islands of tropical Polynesia.
Later, tropical fruits from other parts of the world, such as mangoes, papayas and pineapples were successfully introduced.
Many Chinese workers imported during the 1860s as cotton plantation labourers stayed on in Tahiti, introducing their own cooking, featuring ingredients such as rice, vegetables, pork and chicken.
The result today throughout French Polynesia is a unique cuisine, a melange of French, Chinese and Polynesian food which provides unending pleasure for locals and visitors alike.
The people of Tahiti and her islands are dedicated to the preparation and presentation of fine food, and as the three races of French Polynesia – Tahitian, European and Chinese – have intermarried, producing a thoroughly mixed race of people, so too has their cuisine become an eclectic blend of cooking styles.
Fresh fish, vegetables and fruit are the staple ingredients, prepared with loving care and served in a diverse range of styles to suit every conceivable taste.
Meat – the beef is imported from New Zealand, the chicken from the United States, the pork is local – takes second place to fish. Spices are used minimally, the cuisine being relatively mild, flavoured with the aid of several key local ingredients, coconut, ginger, lime and vanilla. Tahitian vanilla pods – the fragrant ‘bean’ of an introduced South American orchid – are prized worldwide for their flavour and scent.
The ocean fish most commonly used in French Polynesian recipes are various species of tuna, mahi-mahi (dorado or dolphin fish), wahoo, moonfish and swordfish.
The smaller lagoon fish preferred are parrotfish, blue-spotted grouper, goatfish and red soldierfish, and are always eaten fried or grilled. Reef fish include rock lobster and clams, while delicious freshwater shrimps – in French ‘crevettes’ – are caught in Tahiti’s many mountain streams and rivers.
With the sea being always close by, fish is always fresh and usually unprocessed. Late every day, one of the most distinctive sights in Tahiti is that of rows of freshly-caught bonito (tuna), hanging on lines beside the main roads, on sale for about $16NZ each.
The market in Tahiti’s capital town, Papeete, the largest in the South Pacific, sells a huge variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as pareu and handicrafts.
There is also a large section of the market devoted to the sale of fish, delivered fresh every day and laid out in rows on beds of ice; great chunks of ‘thon’ (tuna), whole wahoo, along with fish fry and myriad reef fish species.
Eating in French Polynesia, as in France, is an almost sacred activity. Shops and businesses close from noon until two when the cafes and restaurants become filled with diners savouring their ‘dejeuner’.
There is a bewildering choice of cuisine: French provincial, traditional Tahitian, Chinese and, surprisingly popular, pizzerias serving some of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten.
There’s even a new and popular Brazilian restaurant in Papeete, specialising in ‘Churrascaria do Brazil’, meat cooked in a similar way to our barbeques.
Snack bars abound also, serving quick, delicious meals of fish or chicken starting at about $15. As well as ‘a la carte’ offerings, most restaurants offer a ‘plat de jour’, a special of the day, while accompanying all meals are sliced ‘rounds’ of baguettes, the deliciously addictive French bread, which is always served fresh.
In all eateries, the food is served with great care and attention, in accordance with the French belief that dining is not merely a necessity, but also a pleasure and in some cases, even an art form.
This belief reaches its zenith in the many deluxe restaurants and resorts which punctuate the coastlines of Tahiti and its neighbouring Society Islands, especially Moorea and Bora Bora.
For example, in Le Meridien Tahiti, a luxurious resort hotel twenty-five minutes’ drive from Papeete, I was proudly introduced to the menu of their new lagoonside restaurant, Le Carre (‘The Square’) by the hotel’s executive chef, Frenchman Stephane Herrada.
His menu features typically Pacific ‘fusion’ food, such as roasted shrimps with vanilla, a duet of risotto brouilly and saffron flavour; fillet of beef and foie gras with truffle sauce and Duchesse of sweet potatoes.
The Meridien’s desserts are drool-inducing, paw tart, hazelnut soufflé, savarin cake with rum and fine fruit mousse. But here, be prepared to pay.
At ‘Le Carre’ – a hot or cold entrée, a main course and a dessert – costs 8500 Pacific francs, in New Zealand money, $136. Ay-yay-yay! (as the French say).
“Crunchy French bread with generous fillings of ham, chicken, beef or cheese”
But by shopping around, you can eat wonderfully well for a fraction of that price. Delectable ‘sandwiches’ of crusty, crunchy French bread, with generous fillings of ham, chicken, beef or cheese, are on offer everywhere from snack bars and cost about $4 each. A couple of these can keep a person going until evening.
The best dining value of all is ‘less roulette, the little caravans that roll down to the waterfront in Papeete and the other towns as sunset approaches. Usually family-run, the roulettes offer a variety of chicken, steak, fish, pizza and other substantial meals, cooked over gas fires and costing about $20NZ.
They’re great places to eat, especially on Papeete’s paved dockside area, with a flaring, multi-coloured sunset over the peaks of Moorea providing a brilliant backdrop and with the locals strolling about ‘en Famille.
Accompanying the food in the restaurants is a wide selection from all the major regions of France.
Tropical cocktails are also something that must be tried. At Le Carre, Stephane Herrada offered me a speciality of his, consisting of blended white and dark rum, pineapple juice and grenadine, with slices of fresh pineapple adorning the rim of the large frosted glass.
It tasted gorgeous and made me feel as if my head had detached itself and was levitating somewhere several metres above my body. Limes, oranges, grapefruit, pineapples and coconut milk are all common ingredients in Tahitian cocktails.
The local beer, Hinano, is also excellent. And for those who don’t drink al–co–hol, fresh fruit juices – orange, pineapple and grapefruit – are available everywhere.
The cuisine of Tahiti is unique. Making the very best of fresh and nutritious local ingredients, the Tahitians, the French and the Chinese have produced a marvellous blend of Europe, Polynesia and the Orient.
Sampling this cuisine is one of the great joys of visiting French Polynesia. Bon appetite! as the locals entreat you, as they serve you your meal.