Cooking in the Tuamotus Part 1: Poe and Coconut Candy
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!