The Tongan Experience
FROM SCRATCH IN POLYNESIA
Conjure up a white sandy beach in the South Pacific with swaying palms, and a hammock. Add a good book and a Piña Colata to the mix and you have “Paradise.” Right? That is precisely how I spent my Sundays on the island of Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga. However, during the week my mission was to find the freshest seafood, veggies, fruit and other goodies to serve in my capital restaurant. This required a mad dash to 6 or 7 stores, the farmer’s market and the fish wharf daily.
While fish and seafood are always in supply on island, some veggies, like tomatoes, do have a season, and of-course most fruit, other than papaya, have seasons. Spices and herbs are always available due to the influx of East Indians from Fiji and Chinese farmers from the Shanghai area. However, other staples such as rye flour, masa harina, quality cheeses, berries, quality chocolate, and organic meat are expensive, and more often than not, can only be acquired by overseas order. It’s interesting to note chicken from the USA was outlawed due to the high hormone levels, while lamb flaps (ribs, nearly 75% fat) were affordable and plentiful from New Zealand. Lamb flaps are coveted by Tongans who love their fat.
Very few items needed to run a continental restaurant are actually ready made and to that end there was constant baking of my signature chocolate cake with dark chocolate ganache or whipped cream, fresh coconut cake, fresh banana cake, English muffins, boiled Jewish bagels, rye and pumpernickel breads, pies and torts, fresh pasta, tortillas, and a variety of fruited breakfast muffins. All our cheesecakes were made of homemade yogurt or cream cheese.
All milk products started from powdered full-cream instant milk. Long-life whipping cream produced a lovely sour cream, and when drained, was turned into cream cheese for boursin, chocolate amaretto cheese cake and tiramisu.
Once a week the kitchen was strung with sheets of drying pasta for lasagna and a major production line rolled out and baked flour tortillas by the dozen. Masa Harina was so precious that we added only one cup to each batch of tortillas and a small amount was reserved for chili con carne. Mexican burritos grande was the lunch special every Wednesday and regularly drew a crowd of ex-pats and Peace Corp volunteers.
Spiny lobster (ocean crayfish) and slipper lobster was purchased directly from the divers and usually came in a coconut frond basket for the large spiny lobsters or on a string of 10 slipper lobsters. The water is much too warm for shrimp so lobster was used instead for Cioppino, seafood crepes, and pasta marinara. Octopus is more expensive than lobster but well worth it for a Greek style ceviche. Several types of tuna are available for sashimi and tartare. Yellow fin is the most popular and the most expensive at the government wharf but can be purchased from local independent fishermen at very reasonable prices. Marinated and grilled tuna turned a salad Nicoise into a handsome and tasty main-dish meal.
Every fruit in season was preserved in some form. The lemons and limes were juiced and frozen in ice-cube trays, made into sorbet, marmalade or preserved in salt (East Indian chutney), while the skins were dried and soaked in cheap vodka for triple-sec. Early-season green mangoes produced some of the best chutney, sweet pickled and fiery hot with a touch of tamarind. Ripe mangoes were used in smoothies, gateau, mango flambé, or compote, and produced lovely jams with a whiskey perfume. Proliferous papaya with just 2 tablespoons of its peppery seeds made a lovely jam and a Hawaiian variety of papaya (pawpaw) served with lime wedges was the perfect breakfast starter. Tomatoes of every variety were juiced, canned, frozen, sun-dried and packed in olive oil.
Scotch Bonnet (similar to habanero) chiles, were preserved in spices, lemon, and oil and provided a bit of sparkle and kick to many dishes. Cayenne peppers turned into Tabasco sauce at the end of their season.
During my second year on island, with the help of two native friends, I processed 4 bushels of guava for juice, sorbet, compote and jam. I was amazed that no one on island was manufacturing local preserves so I set out to develop my own line called Island Gourmet. The local supermarket and several tourist shops carried my line of jams and chutneys until I opened my restaurant in 2002. The local supermarket also carried my line of yogurt products. The ex-pats on island were very appreciative and though milk products are not part of the Tongan diet, it wasn’t long before the Tongans began buying Island Gourmet sour cream, boursin, yogurt and cottage cheese products as well.
As a kid, I spent most of my summers at my mother’s side, picking veggies and fruit, cleaning, packing jars and loading the canner or pressure cooker with jars. Just about everything we ate as kids was made from scratch. Whether it was egg noodles for chicken soup, bread, chocolate chip cookies, or fancy Christmas candy, mom made it and we helped.
We even bottled our own root beer from Hires Root Beer Extract each summer. And every fall, dad made sauerkraut in a 10-gallon stone crock. The whole family participated in picking cabbages, shredding, bruising, and salting. Dad checked the crock nearly everyday for mold and ate a little checking for quality, so by the end of 6 weeks there wasn’t much left to can, but those few jars ended up on the table with venison ribs or corned beef during the winter. I took those family traditions to the islands and corned the beef and pickled the sauerkraut for Ruben sandwiches, then pickled cucumbers and anything else pickle-able.
Among my blog recipes you’ll find several culinary tales from Tonga. Subscribe to my RSS so you don’t miss a single post. Remember, “If you can read, you can cook.”