Thursday, October 6, 2011

Recipes from American Samoa

Recipes from American Samoa
The night I cooked a meal from American Samoa, my kids ate everything on their plates. That's because I gave them mac and cheese and put them to bed early.

It's not that there aren't any recipes from American Samoa that are American-kid-friendly, it's just that there was one in particular I wanted to make, and there was no way I was going to ask my poor kids to eat it.

American Samoa is located in the South Pacific. It is an unincorporated territory of the United States, not to be confused with Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa), which is a sovereign nation. Both American Samoa and its sovereign counterpart are located in the Samoan Island chains, west of the Cook Islands and north of Tonga. In case that doesn't ring a bell, here it is on a map:

Yes, it's tiny. In fact as of 2000 the number of people living in American Samoa was just over 57,000 people, which means that the entire population could settle in quite comfortably to watch a football game at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. American Samoa encompasses just 76.1 square miles, and the customs and traditions are pretty much the same as they are elsewhere in the Samoan Islands. The climate is tropical and the food reflects this, with staples including bananas, coconut, mangoes, papayas, taro and breadfruit. Meats include seafood, pork, canned corned beef and some chicken.

Now when researching this week's meal, I unfortunately had to exclude a rather large number of potential meals, just based on the unfortunate shortage of taro, breadfruit and banana leaves in my local supermarket (Safeway had better get on that). I did, however hit on one recipe that was both doable and way too intriguing to pass up: 'Oka popo. Or as I like to call it, Samoan sushi. Yes, this is the dish that made me decide to put my kids to bed early.

'Oka popo. I did not dare try to give this to my kids.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay area for 10 years so I've eaten a lot of great sushi, and have even prepared it at home a few times. So raw fish doesn't scare me, although I did find the idea of very large quantities of 1-inch chunks of raw fish a little off-putting. So I did alter the recipe a little, and I served it as a small appetizer instead of a main meal. I can't really vouch for the authenticity of this approach.

Anyway, here is the recipe:

'Oka popo
(from Associated Content) 
  • 1 pound raw fish, cut into bite-sized pieces (This recipe calls for marlin or swordfish, others call for red snapper. I used tuna, which was the only sushi-grade fish I could find.)
  • 1/2 cup cubed cucumber, seeds removed
  • 1 tomato, chopped
  • 1/2 one onion, finely diced
  • 1 cup canned coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of one lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste

My next two recipes came from the Samoan blog Panipopo's Kitchen. I don't know if I've spent much time on the subject of how I find most of my recipes, but when the information is available I prefer to source websites written by and for nationals, rather than big recipe sites that repost recipes from many different countries. A lot of the recipes on those sites probably are authentic, but there's no real way of knowing which ones have been altered and which ones are traditional. I figure the best way to make sure I get close to an authentic experience is to find a recipe posted by someone who comes from that country. So Panipopo's Kitchen was like a small goldmine.

Here is the second recipe:

Keke pua’a

For the filling:
  • 2 small pork chops, minced
  • 1/2 one onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce

For the dough:

  • 1 tbsp yeast
  • 2 tbsp warm water
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 tbsp melted butter
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

And for dessert: 

Paifala (Half-Moon Pies)

For the filling:
  • 2 cups drained crushed pineapple
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup reserved juice from crushed pineapple

For the piecrust:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • pinch salt

The 'oka popo is easy, so let's start there. First I want to clarify something important, though. If you are going to make this dish, it is very important for you to use a sushi-grade fish. If you are in a metropolitan area the best place to go for this is a Japanese market. You could also go to a fishmonger, but make sure whatever you buy is "sushi-grade." you can't use anything previously frozen or even a little less than fresh. If you can't find sushi-grade fish, don't make 'oka popo.

As you can see, the original recipe called for a firm, white-flesh fish like marlin or swordfish. We do have a fishmonger here but for inexplicable reasons, they are closed on Mondays (just like everything else in this town) and this fish really needed to be bought same-day. So I had to go down to our co-op instead, where they do carry a sushi-grade tuna. Not exactly on-recipe, but safe to eat.

Since there is no cooking involved in this recipe, it's pretty simple to prepare. The first thing you need to do is make a brine with salt and pepper. Brines are typically made with one part salt to 16 parts water (because it was only me and Martin eating this dish I used just eight ounces of fish, so I did a brine with one tbsp salt and one cup of water, with a few twists from my pepper mill). I cut the fish into very small pieces (probably half an inch instead of the called-for 1-inch cubes) and soaked them in the brine for 30 minutes. You could do as much as 45 but go over that and your fish may be too salty.

Put your fish in a simple salt and pepper brine for 30 minutes.

While the fish is in the brine, chop the vegetables.

Vegetables, ready to go.

At the end of the brining, drain the fish and add the coconut milk and the chopped vegetables. You could also add half a finely chopped jalapeño, if you like it spicy. Add the cilantro and the lime juice. Now put it back in the fridge--it's traditionally served cold.

Yes, that's right. You put the lime in the coconut.

I can't really say this with authority but Samoan food seems to have some measure of Chinese influence, at least that's what I'm getting from this next recipe (as well as a few others I saw during my research). Keke pua'a is a Samoan style bao, which I have eaten a few times in one of our local Chinese places. It's made with a yeast dough and baked in a steamer.

Now if you've been following this blog you know that I never make any bread by hand if I can use my bread machine instead. I have way too many kids for kneading. So I proofed the yeast with the water and first measure of sugar, as instructed, then I dumped it and the rest of the ingredients into my bread machine.

To proof the yeast, just add it to warm water with the first measure of sugar.

For entirely uneducated reasons I set the machine to "pizza," then let the dough rise a extra 30 minutes after the end of the cycle. It was huge and sank quite a bit when I took it out. It was also really, really sticky so when you are ready to handle it be sure and use a floured surface.

This dough stuck to my cutting board. Be sure to use a floured surface.
 Meanwhile, make the filling. According to Panipopo, a traditional Samoan filling is typically made with pork, onions and garlic, and seasoned with soy sauce. Without exact measurements I just had to wing it, but I do think what I did worked, though it may have been a little dry. If you trust me, do as I did:

Mince the pork and sauté in a little olive oil with the onions. Add the garlic and soy sauce towards the end of cooking. Set aside and let cool.

Mine seemed a little too dry, though I don't know what the traditional filling looks like.

Back to the dough: punch down, or if  you have my problem, just watch the dough fall as you take it out of the bread machine. Now divide the dough into eight pieces and press each one down with the palm of your hand.

They flatten easily with the palm of your hand.

Spoon a little bit of the filling into the center of each circle, then pull up the edges of the dough and twist to seal. Make sure the filling is completely contained by the dough. Repeat until you have eight little packets.

Aren't they pretty?

At this point, Panipopo says to let the dough rise for another 45 minutes, but it was almost 9pm and my husband was starving. So I only let them sit for another 15 or so.

You can bake these keke pau'a in the oven, but that's not the traditional way to do it. Traditionally, you put them in a three tiered bamboo steamer. Now I don't have one of those any more than I have a tagine (ala Armenia), but I do have my trusty, old-fashioned electric vegetable steamer, so I thought I'd give that a try. I guess I could have gone with the oven, but I was really intrigued by the idea that bread can be baked in a steamer.  So in they went, and 15 minutes later this is what they looked like:

I did not expect them to get this puffy.

They puffed up a tad more than I was expecting. In fact they were all so fused together that I ended up not taking any of the ubiquitous "finished meal on the plate" photos, because they looked pretty sorry by the time I pried them all apart.

Now on to the dessert. I was smart and did most of it while my kids were at school (and for some reason it still took ages to finish making the whole meal). The recipe is a lot like making a calzone, if you have ever done that.

First make the filling, so it will have plenty of time to cool. To do that, just empty the pineapple, sugar and milk into a saucepan and heat until simmering. Be careful not to boil or the milk will curdle.

Now mix the cornstarch with the reserved pineapple juice until it is smooth, and add to the pineapple. Stir until the mixture thickens, then remove from the heat.

Pineapple filling, made with milk, sugar and cornstarch.

Now put all of the dough ingredients into a bowl and blend until a dough forms. Divide the dough into five parts, then roll each part into an 8-inch circle.

Divide dough into five parts, then roll each ball out flat.

If the filling has cooled, spread some onto one half of each circle. Fold the other half over the top, stopping about a quarter inch from the edge. Fold the bottom quarter inch over the top edge, then crimp with a fork. Repeat until you've finished all of your pies. Prick a couple of holes in the top and put into a 375 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes. The recipe didn't call for an egg wash, but you could do that if you want a more golden color on your finished pies.

Spread the filling over one half of the circle ...

... then fold over, leaving an edge on the bottom.

Fold the edge over to make a tight seal.

 Now, I had a lot of filling left over. I don't know if this was because I rolled the dough too thick or if I was way too conservative with the filling, but the pies came out pretty close to perfect, at least I thought so.
Finished pies, yum!

Here's how dinner went:

As a mentioned earlier, I started this meal with the 'oka popo. I served it chilled in small bowls, and Martin and I each got about 4 oz of tuna. The first few bites were delicious, heavenly even. But I have to admit--and I am someone who has tried all manner of sushi, from octopus to head-on-shrimp to smelly mackerel--that even with the small pieces and the conservative portions it was a little too much raw fish. Sushi is easy to eat because it has a lot of filler in it (rice), in addition to the fish, but this was basically just raw fish and vegetables. Very flavorful, but overwhelming. I'm glad I served it as an appetizer, and if I had it to do again I might actually do even smaller portions. (Note: the leftovers were really good the next day heated up in the microwave).

The keke pua'a were our second course, and they were really good. The bread was amazingly fluffy--I did not expect those kinds of results from steamed bread. The filling could have been a little more flavorful--I wish I'd added another spice to it, or something to make it a little less dry, though I don't really know what. But the whole dish had a really wonderful texture that Martin and I both enjoyed.

We ate the half-moon pies for dessert. Martin complained that there wasn't enough coconut flavor, and thought maybe a little coconut extract would have helped. I pointed out that I was going for traditional Samoa, not traditional Samoa altered to please Martin's British palette. But this recipe was good enough that I will probably make it again off-blog, so I hope the Samoans will forgive me for adding a little extra coconut.

We had plenty of leftovers, too, which I decided to hide from the kids. Haha!

Next week: Andorra.


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