Friday, May 18, 2007

Cook Islands: Last Food Stop Before America

The name alone seemed promising: The Cook Islands? Yes, please! Hey, I love to cook!

Named, in fact, by-and-for Captain Cook, cooking on the Cooks is a rather meaty affair. My vegetarian take kept me away from their true delicacies (fish!) but here's my best take.

I landed in Rarotonga, the largest of the many scattered islands in the group. About five hours from New Zealand and a good 45 minute flight from its next neighbor island, Aiutiki, Raro can be circumnavigated in a day (an hour or so by scooter). The exterior is beautiful beach; the interior, an even more beautiful jungle. Farms of papaya, banana and taro dominate a quilted landscape. No buildings rise over two to three stories. Town is a few blocks long. Besides missing my brassicas (broccoli, kale, and companions), it really was paradise.

In an echo of my Maori Hangi meal in New Zealand, I went to an Umo, or traditional pit roast. Like a Hangi, the meal was prepared a day in advance, and cooked over hot stones underground. Unlike a Hangi, with its separate layers, the Umo combined its veggies and meats: pumpkin and arrowroot, kumera (sweet potato) and taro. Chicken was tied in a string and cooked relatively whole; pork and beef were also included.

Many islanders I spoke with at Saturday market also laughed about their propensity to cook everything (literally, everything) in coconut cream. Poking around market at what I thought was a loaf of bread, the "baker" was amused to inform me it was, in fact, pounded taro root baked with...suprise! the rich cream. Tearing into the heavy, taffy-like snack later, my stomach quickly growing leaden, I realized maybe a tropical (read: humid! hot!) climate combined with so much coconut might not be so idyllic after all.

It was somewhat to my relief that I discovered Noni Juice...or so I thought. Touted as an excellent antioxident (perfect for battling all those high-calorie-diet free radicals!), Noni Juice comes from the fermented noni fruits. I can't think of a better word for these lunar-pale, battered-soccer-ball looking tree-fruits than "weird." And "weird" is a great word for the gnarly taste of their juice, which brought to mind both soy sauce and alcohol (never a good combination, in any way). Good for me or not, I'll have to pass--even if it means giving up coconut milk.

The Many Face of Flax

The only thing you can't do with Flax is eat it, which may beg the question of why I'd bother including it on a site obsessed with edible local delights. I'll tell you. Flax, my friends, is a great plant. The Maori (indigenous New Zealanders) would beat it, dry it and weave it into clothes and baskets, including all the containers used to store fish and food. Look at the striking profile its flowers cut against the sky! See how boldly it beats back the sea, growing where it pleases! Doesn't it make you think of dinosaurs, of adventure, and of the awesomeness of plants?!

My First Meat

"Food is an agricultural act," Wendell Berry writes. With this in mind, I garden, putting as much of myself into my food as possible while living in New York City. What, then, of meat?

I've been a vegetarian all my life. I decided for myself long ago that the first time I could catch, kill and prepare meat would be the first time I'd try eating it.

Easter: on a fishing trip off the Coromandel Penninsula, New Zealand, about 16 miles out from the sundapple shore (cold morning cooking into hot afternoon, partial clouds--), I cast my first line with six friends on Ian's boat, the Avian. It's quiet and gorgeous. The water is calm; scattered with islands. Clear jellyfish babies swim in little curved parenthesis just under the surface of the sea.

I've never really been fishing, and I'm afraid of embarrassing myself. Thankfully, I catch four fish--including, quickly, the first of the early day. Snappers. They're about 25 cm long apiece, spotted green and pinky-gray, and in the plastic cooler where we toss them they take a long time to gasp to death. It's the biggest Christian holiday of the year. I'm torn between the lovely symbolism of our multiplying fish and my surfacing distaste at the mounting numbers of our killing. Gulp. Yum?

We take in many more fish, but after my first few, I stop fishing. It's enough for me to watch everyone else bring in more than I thought we need. We catch tarakihi, cod, trevally, parrot fish, and gurnard. Spectacularly, Pam catches a fish and snares a second fish above it in a loop of her line. In a climactic end to a dwindling day, we even land a small blue shark who bites his way off the line before he's in the boat.

The things I cannot bring myself to do: cut and prepare the bait. I also find myself unable to twist, in the assertive way Gary can, the fish's jaw from the barb of the hook. Nor can I toss it into the cooler. I have dropped a cat from my lap and watch it land itself untangled. This fish, as it hits the plastic with a smack, is too much for me.

In the end I prepare my fish simply, per Pam's recommendation. I'm surprised at how wetly muscular it feels. The bone prickles up like nettles under damp silk. I slice it out. There's less give than I anticipated: not tough, but bound. I dab the meat with Kleenex. There's a bit of blood on one side. I pat in in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of flour, lemon pepper, and black pepper. I fry it in (already warm) 2 tablespoons of butter. I put it on a plate and have a seat. The first bite comes up. It's delicious. But after three bites, all I can think of is pulling the barb of the hook through the fish's mouth. Of the minutes turning into a quarter-hour, the fish still alive and gasping on its side in the cooler. Oh my God, I realize, I'm eating fish.

So I stop. It's just not for me. I'm crying, and embarrassed for it, but that's the end of that.