Thursday, November 8, 2012

Recipes from the Cook Islands

Yes, this week we are on another group of islands. And next week we will be on still more islands. This brings the sum total of island nations that begin with the letter "C" to 11, counting of course Cuba, Curacao and Cyprus (which we will be visiting in the weeks to come). That means about 46% of all countries beginning with the letter C are islands. Now there's a bit of trivia you probably won't find anywhere else.

The Cook Islands are in a different part of the ocean than most of the other "C's;" this group of 15 small islands is located in the South Pacific Ocean—way, way out there, about 1,800 miles from New Zealand, with which it has a "free association." This "free association" means that Cook Islanders are citizens of New Zealand, which takes primary responsibility for the islands' defense and foreign affairs.

The Cook Islands are even tinier than Comoros, our last island destination. In fact at just 91 square miles they are only about 1/10th the size of Comoros, which makes them roughly equal in size to the Cincinnati Public School District. (How's that for an out-of-left-field comparison?) The Cook Islands' Exclusive Economic Zone, however, is a whopping 690,000 square miles, which means that they have special rights over the exploration and use of the marine resources in an area of ocean that is about 7,582 times as large as their total land mass. Economically, I don't know how much good this really does for them, though, since most of the Cook Islands' economy is tourism-based.

Resources for Cook Island recipes were as limited as you might imagine, but I had enough to choose from that I felt pretty satisfied with my menu. Sadly, Martin's pass on eating seafood had to come to an end, because its really not realistic to keep skirting seafood recipes when they are so ubiquitous on island nations. So here's the main course, which comes from Mereana Hutchinson at the Blue Note Café on Rarotonga:

Moana-Roa Mahi Mahi
  • 7 ounces mahi mahi
  • 2 cups coconut cream
  • 1 cup cooked taro leaves*
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 onion, diced
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger slivers
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Two green bananas
  • Two taro roots, diced
  • Vegetable oil
* No, you cannot get taro leaves at Safeway in Grass Valley, CA. But Gourmet Sleuth told me to substitute spinach, so that's what I did. I know it's not authentic, but really, I just have to let it go.


Cook Islands Potato Salad

Famous for its pink color, this is actually one of the signature dishes of the cook islands. This particular recipe comes from Polynesian World Magazine.

  • 12 peeled potatoes, boiled
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 14-oz can pickled beets, drained
  • 1 cup of frozen peas
  • 1 lb frozen mixed vegetables (I just used more peas, as indicated in other versions of this recipe)
  • 3-4 tbsp chow chow pickle*
  • 3 hard boiled eggs
  • Best Foods mayonnaise
* Chow chow pickle is American soul food. What it's doing in a Cook Islands recipe, I have no idea. But you can either buy it ( has some ) or you can make it, which is what I did. Though I really don't know what I'm going to do with three jars of chow chow pickle.

And finally I chose a dessert. It was really a toss up whether I was going to do this dessert recipe or Ika mata, which is a raw fish dish that was just a little too similar to the Oka Popo recipe I did back in American Samoa. So I went for the dessert instead. Here's the recipe, which came from The Cook Islands News:

Poke (pronounced "Poh-kay")

  • 1 cup starch (arrowroot is traditional, but cornstarch can also be used)
  • 2 cups mashed or pureed banana
  • Sugar (optional)
  • 3/4 cup coconut cream
Now if you shop in the US, you've probably seen arrowroot in the spice section, in tiny little bottles. You won't be able to cheaply buy enough arrowroot to use in this recipe at the grocery store, but if you are determined to do it the traditional way, you can get it in 1 pound bags from I personally just used cornstarch.

And now for the instructions, starting with the salad, which has to be chilled:

First cut the potatoes up into bite sized pieces, then boil until they are just tender enough to pierce with a fork (they should be firm but not undercooked). For me this usually takes about five minutes at a rolling boil.

Drain the beets and dice. Meanwhile, cook and drain the mixed vegetables. Add the beets, vegetables and potatoes to a large bowl with the onion and chow chow.

I actually didn't bother to cook my peas; these are still frozen.

Fold 2 tbsp mayonnaise into the salad, then smooth out the top of the mixture and spread a thin layer of mayonnaise over it. Sprinkle peas over the mayo and then grate the boiled eggs on top of that. Chill until ready to serve.

Now on to the fish.

Saute half of the onion with one garlic clove in a small amount of oil. When the onion is translucent, add the taro leaves (or spinach, which is what I used) and 1 cup of the coconut cream.

Season with salt and pepper and simmer until the leaves are tender. (Taro leaves take some time to cook, while spinach will be ready pretty quickly). Add a squeeze of lemon and set aside, keeping warm.

Now saute the other half of the onion and the other garlic clove in a medium-sized pot. Meanwhile, rub the fish fillets with salt and pepper and add to the onion and garlic. Pour another cup of coconut cream into the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the fish is done (12 to 15 minutes).

Now heat a little more oil in a small pan and fry one tablespoon of slivered ginger with the lemon zest. Keep stirring to avoid burning the zest. When the ginger is crispy, remove from heat.

Meanwhile, bring two large pots of water to a boil. Add the diced taro root to one pot and the green bananas to the other (leave the peels on the bananas).

These are taro roots. They look like hairy potatoes.

Boil the taro root until it is fork-tender, and the bananas until the skins start to split (they should also be tender). Let cool, then peel the bananas and slice.

Yes, these were once green.

Spoon the taro leaves (or spinach) onto each serving plate. Place a piece of fish onto the leaves and then garnish with the fried ginger and lemon zest and some freshly-ground pepper. Now surround the fish with the taro root and banana (called "kinaki" on the Cook Islands). Serve!

And finally, the poke. Now, I confess the reason I decided to make this isn't because it sounded particularly good to me (it didn't). The main reason is because my kids used to watch this movie that had a line in for which they had a strange misinterpretation (for some reason, they thought "Oh, it's hopeless!" was "Oh, it's poke!"). They used to go around the house declaring "Oh, it's poke!" and then falling down in hysterics. I really don't know why this was so funny to them, but it was pretty funny to us that it was so funny to them. Anyway, when I saw this recipe I imagined myself presenting it to Martin with the words "Oh, it's poke!" And that's why I chose it. Yes, motherhood does strange things to a person.

Anyway, here's how to make poke:

Blend the bananas with the starch and 1/4 cup of the coconut cream and mix until well-incorporated.

Now pour the mixture into a greased baking dish (I actually used little mini tart pans since there wasn't really a whole lot of the mixture).

Bake for 30 minutes, or until beginning to brown on top.

Meanwhile, boil the rest of the coconut cream until it thickens a little. Pour the thickened cream over the banana puddings and serve.

So here's the verdict, starting with the fish.

We both thought the mahi mahi was a little bland. As it turns out, this was because I completely forgot to add the garnish. I didn't even fry the ginger slivers, and I didn't even realize I hadn't done that until I sat down to write this entry. Damn. So I am actually going to make this again, if only to update my photos and to be able to accurately say that I made this dish. Because without that garnish, I don't think it was complete.

I will add that it was the first time I'd ever eaten taro, and I felt about the same way about it that I usually feel about plantains (though I've been told that I haven't been using ripe enough plantains). Anyway, the taro was like a potato, only without all the things I like about potatoes. I was surprisingly fond of the boiled green banana, though. It tasted like a mildly sweet vegetable, and not a whole lot like a banana.

The potato salad was really good and different. I hate peas, of course, but I used them pretty sparingly so they didn't put me off of the recipe. I loved the pink color, and I do like beets so it was overall a nice little side dish. Martin, on the other hand, was as blah about it as he was about the fish.

As for the poke, well, I liked it about as much as I expected to, which was not at all. The texture did surprise me—I expected it to be kind of gelatinous and it wasn't, it was firm and had an almost bread like texture. But the flavor was just kind of absent. Perhaps if I'd used that "optional" sugar (my bananas weren't as ripe as many versions of this recipe said they ought to be).

Martin described the poke as tasting "like if you put a piece of bread in a plastic bag with a banana and then left it there for a few days, and then you ate the bread." Which was really a very strange comparison but actually pretty accurate. My advice: sweeten and top with plenty of that reduced coconut cream.

So that's the Cook Islands. Now on to the next set of islands.

Next week: The Coral Sea Islands, another non-country.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. This is not what banana poke is spose to look like at all or taste you have made it totally wrong.Your giving our traditional food a bad name.You also dont add chow chow to our potato salad either an u make the mayonaise from scratch. Maybe you should visit the cook islands an taste what these dishes really taste like.Beautiful and delicious!!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for posting! You know, I do the best with the recipes I can find, and sometimes I can't find a whole lot. And although I would dearly love to visit every single nation I write about I'm afraid that's not technically possible on my husband's salary. :)

    Sadly, I am only as good as the recipes I find, and I never change them. Someone, somewhere in the Cook Islands puts chow-chow in their potato salad and posted their recipe online for me to find, and I have no way of knowing if that's the traditional method or just that particular cook's little quirk.

    I do make mistakes and I do choose poor recipes sometimes but there's nothing I can really do to correct that unless someone lets me know and then sends me the correct version of the recipe I got wrong. If you have one I would love to see it and would be happy to post a do-over. Thanks again!

    1. Hey hun for sure that isnt poke but hey atleast you tried, right? :) poke can be done with also taro and pumpkin and they are all so nice :) the poke recipe i do is simple and i only use 5 ingredients i dont add sugar as my bananas are already ripe but as you said the one you made wasnt sweet so you may add sugar.. ok i might as well leave the recipe? This is a huge batch or a big tin soo here goes
      12-14 medium to large ripe bananas
      250ml milk
      1 can coconut cream
      500ml water
      And 200g arrowroot , i use tapioca flour as its easier to find.. (this makes it solid and more jelly like when ready)
      Mash bananas roughly in a pot with the 500ml water bring to the boil and allow bananas assume to a purplish colour take off heat and allow naturally you can then mix milk sugar (if you are using it) and the tapioca or arrow root (use a strong wooden or steel spoon as the mixture gets real tough to mix) once mixed and mixture is too hard to mix butter baking dish pour into dish and bake at 190° for abit 35 mins or until it is set and golden brown (i place foil on top 10-15mins before it is ready brushed with a bit of oil which will stop from browning too much on top and cooking all the way through this is only optional as my oven is too hot) then pour coconut milk over and cut into cubes or how ever and enjoy :) alot of coconut is good.. very long message i know lol but let me know IF you do try it out :)

    2. Sorry a few muck ups when you take the bananas off the heat allow to cool naturally :)


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