Saturday, September 28, 2019

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Tonga

It is hard to believe that it has been nearly a year since I last undertook one of the challenges that is part of my Around the World in 80 Dishes.  That last challenge was to cook a main course from the country of Ghana.  The dish was Jollof Rice with Goat, one of two dishes that I have made with goat (the other was a Guyanese Goat Curry).  As I return to this challenge, I wanted to do something completely different, something completely new. 

As I perused my previous challenges, I noticed that I have not made a dish from any of the nations in what could be referred to as Polynesia, Melanesia or Micronesia.  These three names refer to the regions of islands in the Pacific Ocean.  Polynesia consists of a variety of islands, including the countries of Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.  Melanesia includes Papua New Guinea, the Soloman Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.  Micronesia includes the Marshall Islands and Kiribati. After giving it some thought, as well as a review of recipes, I decided that my next challenge would be to make a main dish from the Kingdom of Tonga.

As with most islands in the Pacific Ocean, Tonga had a rich history long before the arrival of the colonizing powers such as the Dutch, British, French or even the Americans. The earliest evidence of settlement among Tonga's 169 islands dates back to between 1,500 to 1,000 B.C.  This settlement is believed to have been part of the Lupita, who were the predecessors to the Polynesian peoples that eventually settled on the island.  That latter settlement was dated to around 888 B.C.  Tonga grew in power and influence, led by a line of succession of rulers known as the Tu'i Tonga.  The "Tu'i Tongan" empire reached its height in the 12th century, and began to decline thereafter.

Speeding up the history lesson, the Tongans eventually came into contact with Europeans, first Dutch explorers in 1616 and later the British, the Spanish and the Americans in 1840.  Fast forward a few hundred years and Tonga became a protected territory of the United Kingdom in 1900, which lasted until 1970. During this time period, as was true throughout its history, Tonga retained its sovereignty and was the only island nation to retain its monarchy. This independence sets Tonga apart from other Pacific nations.  


While I love to discuss history, the challenge is to cook a main course based upon the cuisine of a country.  The cuisine of Tonga, like any country, is defined by where it is located and what one could find there.  As a collection of islands in the Pacific Ocean, one would expect that seafood plays a key role in the cuisine.  To be sure, there are a wide range of seafood dishes, but, one dish that I kept coming across is 'Ota 'Ika, which I decided would be centerpiece of this challenge.

Put simply, 'Ota 'Ika is a Pacific Islander version of ceviche. It consists of fish marinated in citrus (usually lime juice) for a period of time, usually an hour or so.  What sets aside this dish from the Latin American versions of ceviche is that 'Ota 'Ika is served in coconut milk.  The sweetness of the milk balances the citrus of the lemon juice.

'Ota 'Ika is traditionally prepared in Tonga with the moki or blue cod, which is a species of trumpeter fish.  However, that particular species of trumpeter fish is found in the waters around Australia, New Zealand and, of course, Tonga.  In other words, it was not available where I live.  I tried to find alternatives, such as Trevally, but I still had the same problem.  Eventually, I decided to use a fish that is used for ceviche, such as snapper.

One last note, check to see if the fish is "cooked through."  If the pieces are still raw in the inside, let it rest in the citrus for longer, up to 24 hours.

Recipe from the Otango Daily Times
Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds of fresh fish (such as moki or blue cod)
Juice of 4 to 5 lemons
3-4 spring onions, chopped
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into pieces
2-3 tomatoes, chopped
2 bell peppers, sliced
1 2/3 cup of coconut milk
Salt and pepper to taste

1.  Prepare the fish.  Wash the fish, cut into small bite-sized pieces and put into a bowl.  Squeeze the lemons and pour the juice over the fish.  Mix well, cover and place in the refrigerate to marinate for at least a half an hour to an hour or overnight.  

2. Prepare the vegetables.  Chop the spring onions and tomatoes.  Slice the peppers.  Peel the cucumber, slice in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon.  Cut the cucumber into bite sized pieces.  

3.  Finish the dish. Take the fish from the refrigerator, add the cucumber, tomatoes, peppers and spring onions.  Pour over the coconut cream over and mix well. Taste, adding salt and pepper as needed.  Serve chilled with taro, cassava and kumara.

*     *     *

It's been a long time since I did a ceviche.  The last time may have been when I did my challenge to prepare a main dish from Ecuador, which was Black Bass ceviche.  My effort to produce 'Ota 'Ika was not much of a success.  I followed the directions, but the fish was not "cooked" all the way through. It turns out my "small bite size pieces" were not small enough and/or it needed more time or citrus juice to complete the process.  While I am a big fan of sushi, I was not going to take a risk.   Not every dish can be a success, but I learned a lesson (which is just as important) ... make sure small bite sized pieces are indeed small, bit sized pieces.  

Until next time ... 


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