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On the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, friends and families eat Sunday lunch together. How do they ...
2021-11-18 09:00:00

Po’e and Sunday Lunch
A Tahitian Pudding Prepared with Volcanic Rocks

A view of Tahiti. © Rémi Jouan, CC-BY-SA, GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons
Po’e and Sunday Lunch
Po’e and Sunday Lunch

On weekends in Tahiti, families and friends come together to prepare po’e – a pudding-style dessert – so that it will be ready for the traditional Sunday lunch.

Read in 8 minutes

The fire blazes brightly on a balmy Saturday night in Tahiti. A closer look at the flames reveals a pile of shoebox-sized stones inside, some of them already turning bright red in the heat. Once the volcanic stones are all glowing red, the cooks know they’ll be ready to cook the po’e hi’o – a traditional dish on the islands. Close to the fire, a gigantic bowl filled with a mix of tapioca starch, sugar and coconut water has already been prepared.

Coconuts play a central role in Tahitian cuisine and particularly in po’e hi’o, where coconut water is the main ingredient. Coconut water is the juice obtained when first cracking open the coconut and is naturally sweet and delicious. Coconut milk, on the other hand, is made from grating the flesh of a ripe coconut and then squeezing out the rich milk by hand.

Once the lava rocks are red-hot it’s time to start cooking the po’e. Moving 30 burning rocks from the coals into the bowl is a three-person job. The rocks hiss as they enter the coconut water mixture, and the po’e begins to boil. As the rocks continue to be added, the texture of the po’e thickens from liquid to a dense brown gel. Stirring the po’e mixture along with 30 heavy stones is hard work, but the smell, like caramel, is mouth-watering. Once the po’e hi’o has thickened and caramelized, the stones are removed and the 12 kilograms of po’e are ready for the Sunday morning markets.

Mix and mash

The word po’e in Tahitian refers to the name of the traditional dish. However, po’e is a derivative of the word poke, which in other Polynesian languages means ‘to mix’ or ‘food prepared by mixing’. You might recognize the word from the popular Hawaiian poke, a dish comprised of raw fish cut into cubes and mixed with any variety of vegetables and sauce. Tahitian po’e has the same general premise – it’s a dish with a few key ingredients that are mixed, although po’e is cooked.

Po’e is a simple and versatile food that, in essence, requires only two ingredients: a starch and a base flavour, usually a fruit or tuber. In po’e hi’o, the base ingredient is coconut water. Other common bases include banana, papaya, taro and pumpkin. The recipe is equally simple: the base ingredient must be cut into small pieces, then mashed or cooked into mush. The mush is mixed with tapioca starch and then cooked. The result looks a bit like cake, albeit bright purple or orange, depending on the main ingredient. Texture-wise, po’e is similar to mochi, with the exception of po’e hi’o, which turns out like slime or jelly. Yes, it may sound strange, but it’s a delight to eat.

Po’e hi’o. Photo courtesy of Tiare Tuuhia
Po’e hi’o. Photo courtesy of Tiare Tuuhia

Once prepared, po’e is the loyalist of friends. It’s probably the most versatile dish to have in your arsenal. Po’e can be served hot or cold, or made days in advance. It can be eaten as a dessert on its own or as a side dish. It can be sweet or savoury, equally at home served next to fish as it is alongside firifiri (Tahitian-style doughnuts). The only rule? It must be eaten drowned in coconut milk – freshly-squeezed is best.

A communal effort

Although po’e is now often cooked with foreign ingredients such as sugar, vanilla and corn starch, the dish predates European arrival on the islands. While the dish is continually evolving, the best po’e is still made the old way – using time-honoured cooking techniques passed down for generations. For example, po’e is traditionally cooked in an ahima’a – an underground oven. These earth ovens are an ancient cooking technique, once used by native cultures around the world. Today they remain a popular way of cooking food throughout the Pacific islands. The volcanic rocks used in the islands can hold immense heat and distribute it evenly, making them perfect for cooking food.

The process of cooking in an ahima’a requires patience, stamina and good company. The first step in making an ahima’a is to dig a hole big enough to fit everything in. Then volcanic rocks are added, as well as wood and kindling to make the fire. The fire must continually be fed until the stones are hot enough. Once the rocks are ready, they are covered with banana leaves and then the food is ready to be added. Along with po’e, foods such as pork, chicken, taro and fe’i (a plantain banana) wrapped in leaves are cooked. Everything is then covered in layers of leaves, burlap sacks and sand until the heat is trapped inside. The oven is usually left overnight or for at least four hours before opening. It’s incredibly hard work – and that’s before including the hours it takes to prepare all the food.

I distinctly remember my first holiday on the islands, watching my aunt, uncle and cousins prepare the food and traditional oven. The night sky was still dark at 3am on Sunday morning, when the whole family woke up to help cook. I was given an empty corned beef can to peel a basket of taro with. Others husked, cracked and grated coconuts to make coconut milk, or made the fire used to heat the lava stones. My family usually made several main dishes as well as vegetable sides for Sunday, although, sadly, no po’e. It was such a treat to come home from church knowing that the food would all be prepared and ready to go. Sunday lunch would sometimes be so big that it was the only meal of the day, and after eating everyone would sleep away the afternoon.

While cooking dishes like po’e the traditional way is hard and time-consuming, it’s also extremely gratifying. Nothing tastes better than a meal cooked in an underground oven; the food is cooked slowly and evenly, giving the flavours time to develop. It’s also a way of connecting us to our ancestors – by perpetuating their cooking traditions, we strengthen our ties to them and to our land. It connects us to our families and communities, and nurtures a sense of unity and belonging. That being said, there’s definitely a reason the ahima’a is now used only on Sundays or special occasions: it takes a lot of people and a lot of work.

Sunday in Tahiti

In Tahiti, Sunday is observed as the Sabbath day. The first European missionaries – English Protestants from the London Missionary Society – landed in French Polynesia in 1797 and began preaching the Gospel on the islands. Many missionaries from other denominations followed and the Tahitians as a population largely embraced the new religion.  There is even a public holiday held yearly on 5th March, named ‘missionary day’, commemorating the arrival of the first missionaries in Tahiti. Today, Tahiti is a Christian country and most people attend a religious service on Sunday.

A typical Sunday on the islands revolves around three things: church, family and the all important lunch. After attending church services in the morning, Tahitian families typically come home to a huge meal of traditional food – including po’e. The remainder of the day is dedicated to resting and usually spent at home. Some prepare their own ahima’a in advance so that it is ready to eat when they return home. Others wake up early to go to the Sunday markets in Papeete, the capital. It’s the biggest market day of the week – many vendors come from all around the island to sell their wares and customers rush in before church to stock up for the Sunday feast.

Papeete market. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Papeete market. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Sunday markets in Papeete start at around 4am in the morning when it’s still dark, and are done by 9am. Although it’s dark, it’s a cacophony of sound – there’s roosters crowing, vendors shouting their prices (1000 francs – or around €8 – for a piece of tuna!), the rhythmic chopping of roast pork being cut into pieces for sale. There are tourists wandering around taking in all the sights, and grannies on a mission to get the best produce for Sunday lunch. It’s a foodie paradise where one can find everything from roast chicken and fresh lagoon fish to soursop and French-style pastries. Ready-made dishes are extremely popular and plastic containers of po’e in every flavour are always available.

An enduring tradition

The first po’e I ever tried was banana po’e from the Papeete market. Let’s be honest, po’e is not a pretty dish and it doesn’t look too appealing. Banana po’e is actually purple in colour, as bananas turn purple when baked. So this po’e looks like pieces of purple goo swimming in white liquid. But after my first bite, I was hooked. Banana po’e has a pleasant banana flavour that marries perfectly with the richness of the coconut milk. However, my favourite po’e is po’e hi’o – also known as po’e miroir (‘mirror’) because it’s supposedly so clear that you can see your reflection in it. It’s also the only po’e that is cooked by adding hot volcanic rocks directly into the raw mixture, giving it a unique flavour.

My neighbours make 12 kilograms of po’e hi’o every Saturday night to sell at the markets early the next morning. As mentioned earlier, the process of cooking the po’e is traditionally long, labour intensive and requires many hands. Even the effort of collecting the coconuts, husking them, breaking them open, saving the water, grating the flesh and squeezing out the milk is like a workout. My neighbour learnt how to make po’e hi’o when he was younger, from a trusted friend who had the methods passed down through generations of his family. What a gift to be able to perpetuate Tahitian culture through food and share it with others every Sunday.

Po’e is an indispensable part of the traditional Tahitian Sunday lunch. Every weekend, I look forward to going to the market, buying some po’e and other traditional dishes to eat with my family. Sunday po’e is a tradition I’ll continue with my own children. I hope that when they grow up, eating po’e will remind them of a happy childhood and to take pride in their cultural heritage.


Banana po’e

Serves 2-3 people.

Ingredients:

3 very ripe bananas 
1 cup tapioca starch / corn starch
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
1 vanilla bean / 2 tsp vanilla essence
250ml coconut milk

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel and mash the bananas into a puree. In a saucepan over low heat, simmer the bananas with a little water for 30 minutes. Take the bananas off the heat and transfer to a bowl. Add the vanilla, sugar and starch; mix well. Grease a rectangular cake tin with butter or oil, before adding the po’e mixture. Bake at 180°C for 45 minutes. Cut into squares and serve with the coconut milk.

 

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