A taste of Tahiti: On the islands, I discover a surprising fusion of flavors and an unexpected Chinese influence
Sitting proudly, almost boastfully, Franken’s mysterious creation beams from its window. I’m captivated, I wonder how it happened. But above all, is it delicious?
This is my first encounter with the chow mein snack, which fills an airy split baguette with a cafeteria staple, soy sauce-stained noodles. It’s also my first time to French Polynesia, where the high carb sandwich is from.
Ma’a Tahiti (“Tahitian cuisine”) is typically fresh and light, with many recipes using fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood. In addition to the traditionally slow-cooked dishes steamed for hours in an earthen oven, I expected a simply seasoned cuisine that might contain vanilla or coconut milk, taro, fe’i (banana ) and uru (breadfruit), as well as lagoon fish.
What I didn’t expect was a local version of Chinese food.
Tahiti’s national dish is raw fish, which consists of raw fish and vegetables like cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes, marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, and I lap up every iteration I come across: a curry version from the Lani’s BBQ food truck at Vaipoopoo Roulottes; a stylish poolside number at the five-star Le Taha’a resort; and the landmark rendition of Te Va’a Tere, enjoyed while overlooking the Papeete ferry terminal. Although the presentations differ, the recipes are similar.
Then I taste the Chinese-style raw fish at Café Polyself, a cafeteria-style restaurant in Papeete’s Chinatown. Made from white vinegar instead of lime juice and coconut milk, this sweet and sour version incorporates pickled cucumbers and ginger. It is also served with rice – an ingredient whose popularity here is a testament to the culinary influence of the Chinese community.
Since being introduced to French Polynesia by Hakka Chinese from the Canton region, rice has become a staple of the Tahitian diet, according to Marania Teuru, itinerary specialist at Tahiti Tourisme.
From our perch on the mezzanine above colorful produce stalls and kiosks peddling a vast treasure trove of prepared foods at the 155-year-old Papeete Market, Teuru explains that on the islands of Tahiti, the Chinese are now the third most large population — 5-10%.
Chinese settlers include descendants of migrants who came to work on the cotton, sugar cane, and coffee plantations in the 1860s, as well as a larger wave of immigrants who arrived between 1920 and 1942 as laborers. Since then, these settlers have become active members of the community, contributing to the territory’s economy by investing in land and developing the many businesses on the islands.
They cook dishes from their ancestral land, using what is available around them, creating ma’a tinito (Tahitian for Chinese food). The latter is also the name of a popular Tahitian-Chinese dish: an adaptation of the traditional Sichuan bicuit pork, consisting of pork seasoned with soy sauce and oyster sauce, red beans, macaroni and Chinese cabbage.
Cross-influences can be found everywhere. Every Tahitian household has soy sauce and oyster sauce in their pantry, Teuru tells me. The local cuisine includes the stereotypical sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter flavors of Asian cuisine. Traditional Chinese dishes have also evolved to suit the Polynesian palate. Lemon chicken appeals to Polynesian foodies, while local ingredients including parrot fish are steamed with ginger and green onions.
In Moorea, 45 minutes by ferry from Tahiti, Heimata Hall, training leader and founder of Tahiti Food Tourstakes me to Golden Lake, the locals’ favorite Chinese restaurant.
“It’s not that the natives (Tahitians) don’t want to eat out; it’s that they can’t really afford it,” says Hall, who was born in Moorea. “Most of the restaurants are French; many cater to the younger generation or tourists. They come to Chinese restaurants because it’s cheap and the portions are big. On a Friday night you will see that there are only natives here.
Unique to the Tahitian islands, the chow mein snack becomes for me a lesson in history and a reflection of the distinct populations of the destination. The national specialty involves all three cultures – combining, as Hall describes it, “the French baguette, the Chinese noodles and the Tahitian genius who put it together, probably drunk or stoned.”
The importance of foods like the snack bar, which can be filled with everything from steak fries to sauces, sautéed meats or fried chicken, is tied at least in part to the accessibility of the baguette.
“There are so many interesting creations with chopsticks because many Tahitian families don’t have a lot of money,” says Hall. “The baguette is such a part of our culture. It’s a subsidized item that’s price controlled to make sure people have something to eat. You can still earn 57 cents against $20.
Taking visitors away from manicured hotel dining rooms, Hall introduces them to street food as he visits mom-and-pop venues and stalls. Each bite is an opportunity to engage in a conversation about the three cultures that make up French Polynesia. “It’s our story that is finally being told through food,” says Hall.
Despite all the delicious new-to-me snacks and ingredients, I’m mostly fascinated by items that look like things I already know.
I relish the sweet and tangy Chinese li hing mui (prune) powder, which is usually sprinkled over fruit, and here is sprinkled over crunchy mango. At a standing table at Snack Rotui, at the foot of Cook’s Bay, I try the eina’a fritters, which trap tiny fish in a crispy, steep fried bun. The local haunt is run by three generations of a Tahitian-Chinese family that serves cuisine that reminds me of rustic dim sum, including siu mai chicken dumpling with tangy mustard.
As for the chow mein snack that first piqued my interest in Tahitian culinary fusion, it reminds me of a chow mein sandwich but also a Sloppy Joe, although it is one of a kind. Despite tasting it so far from home, I find it surprisingly brings a sense of place — the flavors of an unexpected comfort food.
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