Tastes of the Cook Islands on full display

Thursday June 28, 2018 Written by Published in Culture
Cultural icon Ngarima George welcomes guests on to the historic marae at Highland Paradise on Tuesday evening. 18062722 Cultural icon Ngarima George welcomes guests on to the historic marae at Highland Paradise on Tuesday evening. 18062722

A Cook Islands-style degustation meal was on the menu on Tuesday evening when about 50 guests, sponsors, stakeholders, food writers and visiting and local chefs gathered at Highland Paradise to launch the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation’s search for a Cook Islands cuisine strategy.

The evening featured the usual turou accorded all visitors to the ancient marae of Tinomana Ariki, followed by a tour and explanation of the historic site - albeit with some comical and maybe not “exactly” historically correct asides.

But it was the food, traditional but often with a little modern flavour twist, that was the star attraction.

Local chefs Rangi Mitaera-Johnson and Sam Timoko orchestrated the gastronomic delights which were delivered to the long table by a band of willing helpers.

The degustation began with one of the dishes these islands are best known for – the ubiquitous ika mata (marinated raw fish). As in all degustations the serving was tantalizingly small but delicious, and one needed to bear in mind that there several more “tastes” to follow.

Next up was an uto pancake with pickled cucumber and a dash of pawpaw – beautiful flavours blending together.

That was followed by utu – plantain with coconut cream, and by now I was grateful that the portions were small, knowing that there was more to come.

Korori – pearl oyster meat with a light lemon and brown sugar sauce followed, and then mitiore.

Just in case the meatlovers amongst us were feeling a little left out, the last two dishes were aimed at us, and were a little larger too.

Umeme’e featured goat meat from Mauke, slow roasted in tumeric and coconut. Once again it was delicious and brought home the fact that goat is such an under-utilised food in places like New Zealand and Australia where the bulk of our visitors come from.

To finish off there were three dishes that are well known and much-loved in these islands, served together: Atiu pork, pumpkin poke and rukau. What can I say other than a main-sized plate with these foods alone on would more than satisfy my dinner needs – maybe with a nice chilled nu.

These were just tastings, but together they were a feast – a “Takurua”, the brand that the Cook Isalnds Tourism Corporation is seeking to develop and market. There is probably not a restaurant in the world that has such medley of food on its menu; and if there was it would probably cost you a very pretty penny.

After our “takurua”, Professor Jon Jonnasen gave a fulsome explanation of the term takurua and why it would be an appropriate brand name for a Cook Islands cuisine.

In ancient times the term was often reserved to describe more sacred, religious and chiefly occasions. But they still usually involved those three major ingredients. The main part of the feast was either fish or pork. Then there was kinaki with all of the support starchy vegetables and fruits, and then the unu the nu or vai to wash it down. And all these elements are just as applicable today.

Having set the scene on Tuesday night, the entourage headed out into the fields yesterday to see where and how the produce is grown and to hear from the growers. In the afternoon they held a culinary workshop.

This morning, providing Tangaroa is agreeable, they are heading out onto the water to see how our fishermen help fill that very important part of our diet – fish.

We will see how it turns out.

            - Derek Fox

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