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.