Thursday, June 20, 2013

Recipes from French Polynesia

I am not a chef. Sometimes, I mangle some nation's beloved favorite dish. Actually it probably happens more than I know.

Of course if you're a regular reader you know about my struggle to find recipes. Sometimes there just isn't much out there, so I have to rely on dubious sources. But I use recipes that appear to be authentic whenever possible, and I always stick to the recipe as much as I can. Sometimes it's actually the recipe that's wrong and not my interpretation of it.

If I get something wrong I want to be called on it. So if you're from French Polynesia or The Falkland Islands or the Czech Republic and you can't read that entry without cringing, I would dearly, dearly love it if you would send me the correct version of the recipe I got wrong, or at least tell me where and why my technique failed.

Not because I think I got French Polynesia wrong or anything. But I'm pretty sure something went wrong with that lettuce soup from the Falklands.

French Polynesia Meal
Anyway, this week we're in Tahiti, baby! Which, along with a bunch of other islands in the region makes French Polynesia. Remember Clipperton Island? It was administered by French Polynesia until 2007. Though I'm not sure what exactly there is to administer on Clipperton Island. All those nasty little man-eating crabs I guess.

French Polynesia Scene
Bora Bora, Tahiti. Photo Credit: Pierre Lesage.

Like so many other territories of [insert European Colonial Power], Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia have a long history of other people coming along and telling them that their religion and lifestyle are all wrong and now they have to do things the European way. To make a long story short, the French moved in, kicked out the king of Tahiti and converted all his followers to Protestantism. And made a few bucks off the subsequent tourism industry. The end.

Tahitian food as you might imagine is heavily seafood-based. Exotic fruits and vegetables are often featured and the cooking style is distinctly Polynesian with a French twist.

One of Tahiti's signature dishes is poisson cru, which is basically just raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk—the Polynesian answer to sushi. I felt like I ought to make poisson cru but I didn't, because it was too similar to the oka popo I made back in American Samoa. (I did like the oka popo, but I don't like to repeat myself because that seems too much like cheating). Anyway here's what I did choose:

For an appetizer:

Papeete Tahitian Prawns
(from The Polynesian Kitchen)
  • 1 lb prawns
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2-3 tbsp oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground red pepper (more to taste)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsp parsley, finely chopped
The main course:

Mahi Mahi with Passion Fruit, Ginger and Vanilla Coulis
(from Hawaii Travel at, which did promise this was a Tahitian recipe)
  • 8 oz passion fruit juice
  • 1 one-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1/2 vanilla pod, split open
  • 4 tbsp of unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp of peanut or olive oil
  • 4 six- to eight-ounce mahi mahi fillets
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
On the side:

Green Papaya Salad
(from Tahitian Dreams)
  • 1lb green papaya
  • 2 chili peppers, deseeded and finely sliced
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
And for dessert:

Guava Cake
(from SOS Children's Villages, which does work in French Polynesia and has local recipes on their site)

For the cake and frosting:
  • 1 package yellow cake mix
  • 1 1/3 cup guava juice
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 8 oz package of cream cheese, softened
  • 1/3 cup of sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 small package of whipped topping, thawed
For the guava gel:
  • 2 cups guava juice
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
Now how about that, in that early paragraph I said I almost always use authentic sources, and this week I got a recipe from the always questionable Dang.

Anyway, I like to start with the dessert, so here goes:

Mix up the cake batter, but substitute guava juice for the water. Bake according to the package instructions.

In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until fluffy, then beat in the sugar and vanilla. Fold the whipped topping into the mixture and refrigerate until the cake is ready to be frosted.

To make the gel, bring the guava juice and sugar to a boil. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with enough water to make a paste. Remove the juice from the heat and whisk in the cornstarch paste. Now bring back to a boil for one minute, then cool in the refrigerator.

When the cake is finished, ice it completely with the whipped cream frosting, setting aside a little bit of the frosting.

This is why I always buy my kids' birthday cakes at Safeway.

Spread the guava gel over the top of the cake, then using a piping bag (I just cut the corner out of a ziplock) make a little ridge out of the remaining frosting so the gel doesn't run down the sides. Return to the refrigerator and serve cold.

Now for the prawns:

Wash and devein your prawns. Set aside.

Saute the onion in the oil until it starts to turn golden, then add the prawns. Cook until just pink. Season with salt and pepper, then add the white wine, garlic and paprika.

Cover and let simmer for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

And the main course:

Preheat your oven to 475 degrees. In a medium pan, bring the passion fruit juice, ginger and split vanilla pod to a boil. Add 3 tbsp of the butter and and reduce heat. Simmer gently for two minutes or until syrupy.

Now heat the oil over a medium-high flame and add the rest of the butter. When the butter has melted, add the mahi mahi, season with salt and pepper and cook for about a minute.

Transfer the fish to your oven and cook until a meat thermometer registers 145 degrees.  Serve topped with the vanilla coulis.

And finally, the salad:

Peel the papayas and cut them in half. Remove the seeds and grate into a large bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients and toss. Serve at once.

This was another me-and-Martin-only meal, since I don't like to waste expensive fish on my seafood-hating children. Those poor kids have no idea what they're missing. I can't think of anything I didn't like about this food. OK maybe just that one thing, which I'll get to.

The shrimp was mildly spicy and quite yummy, and was even enjoyed by Martin, who usually thinks shrimp is pretty ho-hum. The fish was also delicious; the vanilla sauce gave it a very light sweetness. I was really afraid it would be overwhelmingly sweet, but it was perfect.

The salad went great with the fish. My papaya probably wasn't as green as it was supposed to be (it's hard to find them green so far from the source) but I really didn't mind. I like papaya in all forms.

And the cake, it was yummy too. Except for that weird guava gel. Now, I know I am not normal in thinking this but I have a problem with foods that have that texture. (Remember the spotted dick back in England? Custard, blech.) I know this makes me a freak of nature, but I felt the same way about the guava gel. Gel is not supposed to be eaten. It's supposed to be put in your hair. Some people's hair, anyway. But it's not supposed to be eaten. I scraped mine off.

I thought the meal was missing a nice cocktail, though, because what's a Tahitian vacation without a cocktail? Oh yeah, it wasn't a Tahitian vacation. It was my dining room. Sigh.

Next week: French St. Pierre and Miquelon

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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