Let's be clear at the outset - this is more culture than cooking. The odds that anyone with access to a computer is actually going to try these techniques are microscopic. Yet they are practical, in the right environment. I have done all of these things many times over the decades I spent in Polynesia. Because it's fun. And I hope I can amuse as well as educate you as I share a part of a culture that is rapidly being lost.
There is a critical factor one must keep in mind when contemplating attempting traditional Polynesian recipes. In their great diaspora across the oceans, during which the Polynesians populated every uninhabited speck of land in the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans (with the possible exception of Pitcairn Island), the technologies to create vessels of metal and clay were lost. Doubtless this was primarily due to the fact that the vast majority of the islands they settled had no deposits of metal or workable clay. Certainly they were aware of the existence and utility of such materials. Lapita pottery shards (likely from Fiji) have been found on several islands, and Captain Cook famously lost his life trying to recover a small boat stolen by Hawaiians, and dismantled for its nails. How did the Hawaiians, a hundred generations and thousands of miles removed from any source of metal, recognize the treasure hidden in the boards? That is a mystery that continues to puzzle anthropologists and historians, but it is a fact that they knew what iron was.
But that knowledge aside, Polynesians had none of the typical implements used in virtually every other culture for cooking – they had no way to heat water over a fire. So, how did they cook?
There are, of course, the obvious methods. Food can be placed directly on coals, either scraping off the burnt portion or utilizing the natural protection of skins, such as on taro, or the shells of shellfish or turtles. A fish or other food can be placed on an angled flat rock by the side of the fire, where one side is cooked by the radiant heat and the other by the heat absorbed previously by the rock. In Hawai'i, food has been (and still is!) cooked by placing it on a hot lava flow. However, for amusing reasons explained in an earlier diary, I do not recommend cooking shellfish this way!
For a more sophisticated variant, food could be placed on a spit, supported by two forked sticks, and rotated over the fire to cook all sides evenly. Hawai’i’s famous hulihuli (turned and turned) chicken and pig are classic examples of this. While labor intensive, as someone must continuously turn the spit for many hours, the crisp skin and juicy flesh of an animal cooked in this fashion is hard to beat. However, no one enjoys eating the same thing all of the time, so Polynesians developed innovative ways to substitute for the pots they lacked.
One of the earlier methods, no doubt, was to simply wrap the food in layers of large leaves before placing it on the coals. The moisture from the leaves would steam the food inside, and the outer layers of burnt leaves could be simply removed and discarded, leaving the perfectly cooked food inside the undamaged layers of leaves. This works quite well; in fact, even in Westernized Hawai’i many people still use this technique as their preferred method of cooking fish. The key is large, sturdy leaves with either little taste or that impart a pleasant flavor. The two most commonly used are banana leaves, and lau ki or ti leaf, Cordyline terminalis.
However, a more sophisticated technique, which closely approximates cooking with a pot over the fire, was developed. In this method fist sized, porous volcanic stones are heated in a fire until they glow red. After brushing off the ash, a red hot stone is placed directly in the liquid one wants to heat, which is contained in a wooden bowl, gourd, or even a bowl of leaves. A single stone can boil a bowl of water. More can be added to prolong the cooking time.
In some ways, using a hot rock can be more versatile than a pot. And it is high time for a recipe, so let me illustrate with a delicious crème brulee-like dessert first prepared for me in front of a traditional fale in Samoa over thirty years ago.
First, we prepared coconut cream. In Samoa, coconut cream goes into everything they eat. The only thing I can recall having been served in Samoa that didn’t have coconut in it was hot cocoa, which was made with just ground cacao, sugar, and water. I put coconut cream in mine, and my hosts loved it! Considering that every four coconuts in their plantation had five cacao trees growing between them, and that they put coconut in literally everything else, I’m not sure why they never put the two together. But once introduced, it spread like wildfire. Within days, the entire village was doing it. But I digress…
Making the coconut cream is nearly the entire recipe, and is at the heart of most Polynesian cooking. Virtually every traditional Polynesian recipe would begin "Prepare coconut cream..."
So, gather a mature, brown coconut for each person you will be serving. When you shake the coconut, you should hear the water sloshing inside. Husk the coconut – easier said than done. In Samoa, they use a sharp stick wedged into the ground, stabbing the sharp end of the stick into the husk by hitting it with the coconut and prying off strips of husk. A cruder, more energetic, but faster method we use in Hawai’i is to balance the coconut on end on a flat rock, then lift the largest rock you can possibly lift over your head and slam it down on the point of the coconut, being careful not to get hit by the rock on the rebound. Standing on a high boulder over the coconut helps. Done properly, the husk easily peels right off while the shell is uncracked.
The husked coconuts are then given a sharp blow on the equator against a hard edge of rock. Again, done properly, you now have two perfect wooden bowls lined with coconut meat. The coconut water is generally allowed to spill on the ground, but you can capture and drink it if you like. Polynesians drink the sweet, slightly carbonated water of green coconuts of just the proper age, not the soapy tasting water of mature coconuts.
In the modern world, coconut is grated on steel. The preferred tool in the islands is a broken leaf spring from a car. The end is rounded and sharpened (no easy task!) and teeth are cut in it with a XX slim triangle file. Two holes are drilled through the leaf, and it is attached to something sturdy and comfortable to sit on – or just a board if it is meant to be portable. With practice, you can turn a coconut into a finely grated pile of white flakes in about a minute with this tool.
However, we are going traditional, so we have to go down to a rocky shore at the ocean and wait for low tide. Find a thin, flat rock that fits comfortably in your hand. Sticking to the rocks you will notice a thin, flat shellfish, like a little abalone, called ‘opihi (a limpet). Look for ones between a quarter and a half dollar in size – not only are the bigger ones the breeders, but they are tough, and the shell isn’t as sharp for a grater. The problem is getting them off their rock. Strike the shell a glancing blow with the edge of your flat rock, sufficient to dislodge it without crushing the shell. Alternatively, and more amusingly, look for a largish bumpy white snail, the pupu (periwinkle), and place the snail in front of the ‘opihi (the front is the side that slopes more steeply) without actually touching it. The ‘opihi, afraid it is about to get eaten by this predator, will stand up, turn around, and try to “run” away (if a few inches a minute can be called running), at which time you can pluck it off the rock.
You only need a couple of shells to make the coconut cream, but Polynesians consider ‘opihi to be a delicacy, so you might as well gather a few pounds and have some shells for later. The animal can be scraped out of the shell using another ‘opihi and eaten raw, or you can gently roast them on some coals until they pop loose from the shell. Be aware that a few will have a worm coiled up in their stomach; this is not harmful but has a disturbing, gritty texture. Some discard the stomach, but most like the “sauce” from the algae the ‘opihi eat.
So, now that you have some ‘opihi shells, find one that your thumb fits comfortably in. A fresh shell is better; an overcooked shell will crumble if you try to grate with it. Note the edge of the shell is serrated. Dragging the edge of the shell across the coconut meat will grate it very finely surprisingly quickly. Dump the grated coconut into a large, waterproof container such as a wooden bowl or a gourd, and continue grating until your thumb is too tired to continue. Note that when using this method it is best if each person grates their own coconut…
Naturally, you want to sample the coconut before you grate it, to make sure it is sweet and rich. Be sure to grate right down to the shell - the oil content increases as you get closer to the shell, and as it will be strained out later in the process, you don't have to worry about getting some of the brown rind, where the meat attaches to the shell, in your beautiful white snowdrift of coconut flakes.
Be sure to save the half of the coconut shell that doesn’t have “eyes” – this will be your bowl. The other half, and most of the husk, will be used as firewood, although you will need a little wood, too. Build a nice little fire, and put some porous lava rocks about the size of your fist on top to heat. If you are inexperienced, you may choose a rock that will explode in the fire, so don’t put it close! Coconut shell burns fiercely, so don't be bothered by the sound of hissing gas jets. It just means your rocks are heating quickly.
Next, you need some fiber. Coconut fiber is the obvious choice. You want the longer, stronger fibers close to the skin of the husk. Peel out about a quarter of a husk worth – a good handful. Work the fibers a bit so most of the corky pith comes off the fibers. Don’t be anal about it because you will strain it out later anyway.
The problem with coconut fiber is that it is very rough and hard on your hands. If you are going to be squeezing a lot of coconuts, you will want a softer fiber. If it is late summer or fall, ‘awapuhi (shampoo ginger) is a good choice. (Awapuhi goes dormant in the winter, and in the spring and early summer the fibers are weak.) Take a few stems and wring them out, and they turn into a mat of fiber. ‘Awapuhi gives the cream a pleasant, subtle flavor. Other times of year you might choose hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) – strip a handful of bark, about eighteen inches long, and shred the inner bark fine.
Once you have your fiber, rinse it, then spread it out into a mat and lay it on the grated coconut. The idea is to wrap the fiber around a handful of coconut, then wring it out like wet laundry over the unsqueezed coconut in the bowl. The flakes of coconut should stay trapped inside the fiber, while a thick white cream oozes out onto the remaining coconut. Untwist the fiber, not over the bowl. The coconut flakes inside should be dry and virtually tasteless, not something you want to eat. If they still taste good, you didn’t squeeze hard enough. These flakes are shaken out of the fiber and eventually fed to the pigs. Repeat, gathering up the grated coconut from the bowl with the fiber, wringing it out, and discarding, until you have processed all the grated coconut. Use the fiber mat to carefully capture any remaining particles of coconut or fiber and wring it one last time. The fiber can be rinsed, saved and reused.
Finally, you have your coconut cream! The yield should be about ¾ cup per coconut, although it varies depending on the size and quality of the coconut and your skill in extracting it. In addition to Polynesian and Southeast Asian recipes, coconut cream can be used any way regular cream is – whipped, made into butter, added to coffee, etc.
At my place in Hawai’i, this whole process takes me about half an hour, not only because I am experienced but also because I have the coconuts, ‘awapuhi, hau, husking rocks, and ‘opihi all within a fifty foot radius of my “kitchen”. But, since it no doubt sounds a bit daunting if you haven’t seen it done, here’s a couple of ways to cheat:
1. Cut the fresh coconut into one inch chunks and run it through a Champion juicer. The yield is quite a bit higher this way, too, particularly for the inexperienced.
2. Buy the coconut cream. The canned stuff is crap, not fit for desserts, but some brands of the fresh frozen stuff are pretty good. Generally the commercial product is diluted with water, then thickeners and preservatives are added. This is usually referred to as coconut milk. Coconut water, also sold canned, is a totally different product.
(Warning! Coconut cream is very rich. As good as it is, DO NOT eat more than one coconut worth of cream, or you will be sorry! Everyone ignores this warning, to their regret, but I put it out there anyway…)
The point of all this was to illustrate that I really get fanatically traditional when cooking in the backwoods. No, wait! The point was to illustrate that there are things you can do cooking with a hot rock that you can’t do in a modern kitchen. Yes, crème brulee comes close, and you can caramelize the sugar with a torch, but it isn’t the same.
Another traditional method that you cannot replicate in a modern kitchen is the imu, or earth oven, and to a lesser extent the closely related Samoan umu. An imu, properly done, steams, bakes, and smokes your food simultaneously. Not that it is often properly done any more, even in Hawai’i. Too much banana trunk and not enough ti leaf, combined with a habit of wrapping everything in tin foil, prevents the smoke from the ti leaf from imparting its delicious flavor and a purple color to the food in a modern imu. I could go on for some more pages and describe the traditional imu, but hey! I already did that! You can find it about half way down the second section of “A Back Country Hawaiian Lu'au”, or, if you have enough time on your hands that you’ve read this far, you might want to just read the whole story – it’s different and fun!