The South Pacific Dream-Maupiti, French Polynesia
Posted in Tahiti on December 04, 2011 by Victoria Allman
“Iorana, Victoria. Mahi today?” Nunu, a dark Tahitian man with tribal tattoos of tikis, turtles, and rays wrapped around his bicep and stretched down his muscular calves, dropped a blunt-nosed fish on the back deck. The iridescent greens and blues still flashed on its silver skin indicating it had just been caught.
“Thanks, Nunu. Will you stay for lunch?” Nunu had been bringing me mahi each time we anchored in the South Pacific lagoon of Maupiti. With guests on board, I rarely had time for more than a quick hello and to ask about his family, but today it was just the crew.
His face lit up like our navigational spotlights. “Me? On here?” He looked up at the towering levels of teak decks and polished stainless rails. Pangaea was quite different from the fishing boats he was used to seeing come through the pass in Maupiti.
Maupiti, the smallest and most isolated of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, is a minuscule version of Bora Bora, with a sharp ridgeline summit that dominates the middle of the tiny island. The calm sapphire water of the lagoon and sleepy swaying palm trees of the surrounding motus are what South Pacific dreams are made of.
But we had to fight for that peaceful feeling of paradise inside the lagoon. A storm had hit the area earlier that morning, creating rough waters.
Most French Polynesian islands are ringed by submerged reefs, part of their volcanic evolution, having erupted from the ocean floor and cooled to create fertile mountain islands. Breaks in these reefs allow boats to enter and exit the lagoons. Many are wide enough to pass through without incident, but some, like Maupiti, are narrow and dangerous. The tides rush out daily, carrying extreme volumes of water through the small gap and create a monstrous standing wave with enough force to push even large boats like Pangaea up onto the reef. On top of that, a south swell from the storm ran against the outgoing tide, creating another challenge to get through.
Michael, our captain, and Patrick, the first mate, surveyed the scene with binoculars, checking for wave breaks and currents before deciding to enter the lagoon. This was not a place to be shipwrecked.
“Come to starboard to line up the range,” Patrick called to Michael. He read the water for the slightest change that would send Pangaea off course. Churning white water lay before us, paving the way.
“How far to the reef on starboard?” Michael asked, without taking his eyes off the bow of the boat. Without rearview mirrors, he relied solely on distances called to him by Patrick.
“You’ve got a good line. You’ll clear by fifteen feet.”
We entered the pass at eight knots and heeled to the right. I ran down stairs to the galley and lunged for the bowl of noodles I was preparing as it slid off the counter. But just as quickly, we righted and sharply turned to port. I slammed against the counter. The movement of the boat settled down. I went to the aft deck to look at the cut we had just passed through.
The thunderous waves roared high. Water rushed through the break with the speed of white water rapids.
But, inside the lagoon we were sheltered. The water was blue and sparkling, like a mermaid’s bath. I stood baking in the menacingly bright sun. While lost in a daydream, a sleek yellow and white fishing boat with Tahitian designs stenciled on the side approached. I smiled and waved.
Nunu pulled up alongside the back of Pangaea and threw me the line to tie off. His boat was specially designed to drive from the bow with one hand while holding a spear with the other. He was a professional, adept at catching fish as they raced the same waves we had just sailed through. One of Nunu’s victories lay in the bottom of the boat. My smile widened. Forget the noodles, we were having mahi for lunch that day.
Nunu followed me to the galley, his eyes wide with wonder. He laid the mahi on the counter like a delicate flower and picked up my filleting knife. He tested the sharpness by running the blade across his thumb. With a nod of approval, he inserted it behind the fish’s gill and ran it down the backbone in one fluid movement. He flipped the large and cumbersome fish over like it was no more than a paperback and repeated the procedure. Nunu lifted the flesh from the backbone leaving a bare skeleton as if it had picked clean by vultures. He peeled the skin from the fillet and with the speed of a samurai warrior he sliced his catch into sixteen equal portions.
Now it was my turn to have wide eyes. “Nunu, you’re a star. I’ve never seen a fish butchered so quickly.” It would have taken me half an hour to perform that task and it wouldn’t have looked anywhere near as perfect. “Or, so cleanly.” The portions were smooth and exact.
Nunu winked. “I do this everyday. Fish is the only food on the island.”
I looked out the window at the beauty surrounding us. I could get used to this. Sunshine, blue water, and a diet of mahi everyday. Maupiti was quickly becoming my South Pacific dream.
2 slices thick-cut bacon
4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 cup onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
½ red pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup potatoes, diced
½ serrano pepper, minced
1 tablespoon sea salt
12 grinds black pepper
1 can (400 ml) coconut milk
4 ears of corn, shucked
2 pounds mahi-mahi, sliced into 1” squares
3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1 lime, juiced
Chop all the vegetables no bigger than a kernel of corn. Slice bacon to similar size. Sauté bacon in a heavy-bottomed soup pot, over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes until crisp and golden. Add onion and garlic and sauté another 3 minutes until soft. Add celery and sauté 2 minutes. Add red pepper and sauté 2 minutes more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add thyme, chicken stock, potatoes, serrano pepper, sea salt and black pepper. Bring back to a boil and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for 20 minutes. Add coconut milk and fresh corn from the cob. Simmer 5 more minutes. Slice mahi-mahi into 1” squares and add to the pot. Simmer 5 minutes until fish is cooked through. Add chopped cilantro and juice of a lime.
Taste for seasoning and serve.
I made this today for lunch (actually its more like brunch time right now) with the fllwooing changes and it came out pretty tasty:* I used olive oil instead of coconut oil. * I used about half of the recommended cumin, but added a dash of coriander (I'm a big fan of the two spices together). * I juiced in one small lime for some acidity when I put the tomatoes in. * I only added 1lb. of seafood, TJ's frozen Seafood Blend with scallops, calamari and shrimp.I'd guess that this easily serves 4 with maybe a side dish.
Hi Sarah, I am a Englishman, living in Slovenia but I also lived for a few years in the ercaibran, I have developed over the years a version of this dish, Starting with a little oil and 4 chopped onions and 2 cloves of garlic, fried untill soft, add black pepper and salt then one large tin of tomatoes( I use plum tomatoes) simmer for 30 mins then I add one tin of cayenne pepper beans, and a good measure of rum, Mount Gay if available and continue to simmer, I also add a good measure of white wine , Next a good handfull of raisins, they absorb a lot of the liquid and really swell up. A few drops of tobasco sauce after a good hour simmering on a low heat stirring occassionaly, I add Mussels, prawns, Calamari and any other bits of fish to hand, Normally I take the prawns and a bag of mixed seafood, mix this in and simmer for around 10 minutes not to overcook the seafood. I like to let this stand overnight it really makes a difference, following day simply warm up and serve on a bed of long grain rice. Delicious and spicy I often make in large quantity and freeze in containers for later use, my colleagues and family love it!!