5/7/2012 Cooking Lessons and Chief Kaati's Family Feast
Imagine answering a knock on your front door and finding two or four or ten foreigners standing on your front porch. They are barely able to speak your language but ask to come look at the paintings you do, the bookcase you're making, the jewelry you create or the sweater your knitting. You'd be gracious and friendly while they traipsed around your yard and garage asking questions and taking pictures of your pets and once they exclaimed over your apple tree you would fill their arms with fruit. Then offer to throw them a party and cook up oh, eight or ten of your best down home American dishes -for a small fee. What would you cook? Apple pie? Pizza? Hot dogs? Maybe an entire Thanksgiving meal? Well, that's one of the few way the Marquesans have to earn your tourist dollars and somehow we hit the jackpot when we met Chief Kaati.
We had already been to a pig roast in Hiva Oa with a swarm of cruisers and the family who cooked for us didn't share our meal and a another here in Fatu Hiva with another family who also didn't sit down to eat or interact with us really at all so when Chief Kaati "not a big chief just a little chief" made her offer none of our group of ten was terribly interested. Then Ann on Charisma had a brilliant idea: would Kaati teach us how to cook a few of the local dishes? That sounded much more interesting and we all really liked Kaati and her family. Conversation, negotiation, logistics and menu ensued but then we discovered that the only day all of us would be able to attend would be the next night and that was her 8 year old grand daughters birthday. No problem she said, Ok....sounds fun.
The next day at two o'clock myself, Anne, Ann, John, Lisa and Pat arrived at the carving shed (the others would join us later for the eating) ready to learn how to cook breadfruit, bananas, Poisson cru, banana leaf baked fish, coconut chicken, roasted chicken and green papaya salad. But first a walk across town to Kaati's new house while her husband, brother and son drive on ahead with a the pickup loaded down with wood for fires, pots, pans and buckets full of the half prepared dishes. The house at the carving shed turned out to be Kaati's old house her new house befitting the village Chief was across town. We had noticed it a previous day and it stood out looking very prosperous and official. It was very new construction with wood siding and tile floors, a flat screen TV, large kitchen and a big cement floored covered outdoor gathering area.
We arrived with a flurry of activity. The tables were set up, benches brought in, pots and pans unloaded and carted to tables or kitchen and fires started in both a pit and a grill. The kids were running around and through and everyone was chatting and talking and taking pictures. A few of the cruisers had brought small things along with them for the birthday and it wasn't long before the kids were the center of attention- the cooking was going to have to take a back seat. Pat on The Rose had a pocketful of balloons and the kids swarmed like bees. Each of the kids got a balloon or two and soon the walls were decorated for the celebration.
Then of course the cameras came out to take the requisite vacation photos but every child wanted to learn how to work a digital camera and soon the yard and house were filled with directors for the day. Literally hundreds of photos were taken by the kids -every battery eventually went dead- as the children posed and grouped, giggled and gawked taking picture after picture after picture. Out the window went the vacation pictures of chicks and pigs, breadfruit fires and coconut making. The kids loved taking pictures of each other and us. One little girl using my point and shoot came running back to me intent on taking my photo with her sister -upside down!
As guests, several of us had brought gifts for the birthday girl. I brought along a giant bubble wand we had picked up in Mexico so while the cooking began in earnest the gaggle of little girls whirled around us blowing bubbles, taking pictures and batting balloons back and forth.
The next few hours flew by in a blur of food and children and the scents and sounds of a happy family. It was the Marquesan version of pre-holiday preparations at Grandmas house and we had been invited in like family. The brother and son brought out a guitar and a ukulele which then was picked up every time there was a lull in the cooking business. The yard was filled with crowing roosters and chickens with chicks and there was a big pink pig snuffling and snorting and hoping to get a bite of what we were preparing.
Finally everything was ready and the guests had straggled in: Bill, Mark, Bob, John and Craig walked up from the anchorage to join us and handful of neighborhood kids appeared for the birthday party. The end of the main table quickly filled with kids as the rest of us sat down to eat. Surprisingly Kaati and the rest of the grown ups left us there at the table to eat alone -turns out it was voting day and they had to cast their vote by 6:00pm.-leaving us there to mind the kids and the food.
When they returned and their meals were through it was time for music. The kids all sang along with guitar and ukulele and boy do they like to sing. The grown ups took turns on the instruments and more and more kids joined in from around the neighborhood. The singing was loud and happy and all in Marquesan save for one round of Cumbiya' thrown in for the Americans. Then a pause in the music and out came the birthday cake lit with candles just like home. Everyone sang a round of what must have been Happy Birthday before the birthday girl blew out the candles and glowed in the attention.
Once the cake was passed around the birthday girl stepped into the limelight. She began to dance and was clearly having a wonderful time. Several of the smaller girls danced off behind her in the shadows but the spotlight was all hers. At eight she was already an accomplished dancer and her family glowed with pride while she danced. Her fluttery skirt had definitely been chosen for just this moment and she loved the spotlight. Grandma sat quietly off in a corner with a beaming smile on her face enjoying the moment and obviously filled with pride for the Birthday Girl and her whole family.
The evening began to wind down as the neighborhood kids headed home with their balloons and cake. We had been there for nearly six hours and it was time to get back to our boats. All of us were totally blown away by the experience and couldn't stop smiling as Kaati and her son loaded us up with leftovers -just like Grandma's house back home! As we walked through the village back to our boats we couldn't stop talking about how much fun we had and how we had felt pulled right up into the middle of this wonderful family. We couldn't have asked for a better last night on Fatu Hiva and for the record I really did learn how to prepare a Marquesan feast.
Breadfruit: This volley ball sized bumpy green fruit has a significant stickiness when picked. The whole breadfruit is first soaked in water for a day then cooked in coals in an open pit. Once they are burned black on the outside you grab one with a wet leaf and using a knife cut the thick outer skin off leaving the white starchy meat inside steaming hot and tasting like mashed potatoes. (This is the starch staple of French Polynesia and the plant that sent Captain Cook though the islands for his second expedition and ultimately his death. )
Backed Chicken: Kaati used legs and thighs plopped into a large pan. She poured oyster sauce then soy sauce and fresh lemon before baking in the oven for about an hour.
Green Papaya Salad: Peel the green papaya and then finely grate. Serve with a simple vinaigrette -oil, vinegar, sugar, mustard and a bit of lemon.
Coconut Milk: For this we were off to the back yard with the boys. They made the first step easy by using their handy dandy Popeal coconut shredder which marvelously made confetti out of ten coconuts. Then for the milk we poured plain hot water over the shredded coconut and let it sit for a bit. Then we pulled big heaping hands full out of the mush then splooshing it down in the middle of a tangle of coconut husk fibers. The fibers where then wrung out like a dishtowel into a large pot. The wrung out nut meat was set aside to take back to the new mama pig at the carving shed and the pot of milk was poured a cup or two at a time through the husks to strain out any bits and pieces of shell.
Banana Leaf Grilled Fish: First send someone out to catch you some fresh fish. Wrap the pieces in banana leaves that have been soaked in water and then wrap in tin foil before setting on the grill.
Poisson Cru: Cut fresh caught tuna into bite sized pieces. Pick twenty limes off the tree in your back yard. Slice them and then juice them into a bowl removing the seeds. Just before serving!!!! put about 6 cups of fish into a serving bowl and spoon three tablespoons of the fresh lime juice over the top followed by about a cup of your coconut milk. This dish is similar to ceviche but the fish is left in the lime juice for a very short period of time. Kaati's Poisson Cru was simply fish, lime juice and coconut milk but many people add cucumber, tomatoes, green onion, celery or what have you to the mix. (This dish is a staple and signature dish of French Polynesia and is usually made out of tuna. It is quite similar to ceviche.)
Chicken with Coconut and Papaya: First steam big pieces of thinly sliced green papaya for about 3 minutes. Then lay the steamed papaya over already cooked chicken pieces. Pour coconut milk over the top and simmer over the stove for 30 or 40 minutes. Pour a fresh bit of coconut milk over the top just before serving.
Baked Bananas: Cook the bananas in their peel along the edges of your breadfruit cooking pit. Peel and serve alone or in a bowl with a wash of fresh coconut milk.
Finally: For the whole effect finish your meal with Birthday Cake for the whole neighborhood!
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