Location: Oceania, about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii
Geography: A collection of two large volcanic islands and eight islets
Language: Samoan, English
Signature flavours: Coconut, tropical fruits (pineapple, mango, papaya, etc.), seafood
I found a website in my first five minutes of researching Samoan food that I considered my Samoan cuisine bible thereafter. SamoaFood, a food blog that sadly seems to be no longer updated, was created by an expat Samoan to share her favourite recipes. Her passion for the cuisine is infectious. I ventured beyond the blog a couple of times to see what other material was out there, but kept coming back to her recipes. So all three that I chose are hers.
I could have made fifteen different Samoan dishes that all feature coconut in a starring role. The coconut is an integral character in Samoan kitchens, and it’s not surprising given that the islands support a vast number of coconut trees and that coconut has been a huge part of the economy there. In any case, while I wanted to serve traditional Samoan foods, I also wanted to showcase a range of flavours. It also must be said that Samoans are great at desserts. I could have just as easily created a menu comprising fifteen desserts, but opted to have just one and a couple of savouries.
Oka I’a: A salad of raw fish in a citrus marinade, with coconut milk, cucumber, tomato, and scallion.
Prep and cooking time: 45 min (including marinating time)
Fa’alifu with Root Vegetables: A savoury coconut and onion sauce served over boiled root veggies (I went with taro, potato, and sweet potato).
Prep and cooking time: 40 minutes
Panikeke Lapotopoto: I’ll be honest — I totally chose these because they remind me of the Sri Lankan vaipan (banana fritters) from one of my favourite restaurants. But I also really wanted to include something dessert-y that was a departure from the many coconut-centric options on offer, since I chose two coconut savouries already. Panikeke lapotopoto are fried dough balls — basically, round pancakes.
Prep and cooking time: 50 minutes
The Shopping List
I figured my biggest challenge was going to be finding the freshest fish possible for the oka i’a. SamoaFood’s blogger stresses the need for fish that is as fresh and fresh can be. Ideally, she writes, the fish should have been swimming in the ocean earlier that day. Well, that wasn’t going to happen in Toronto, unless I used freshwater fish, which I felt wouldn’t be authentic enough (the recipe called for tuna or snapper), so I ventured to local fishmonger Hooked. The staff there were very knowledgeable, and when I described what I would be making, they pointed me toward ahi tuna. Ahi, they explained, was great raw, and since it is less fatty than other varieties, it absorbs flavour well.
My kitchen still smells amazing, and it’s been several hours since I made everything. It was all completely delicious. My favourite was the panikeke, especially dipped into the fa’alifu sauce, but Eric raved about the oka i’a. With chunks of fresh tuna swimming in coconut milk and crunchy veggies, it’s hard to argue. The salad was very quick to make, and the fa’alifu was easy too, except I did overcook the root vegetables a little (which I don’t mind a bit, but others might). I was intimidated by the deep-frying step of the panikeke recipe, but using a thermometer, I was able to keep the oil at a steady temperature, and once that was taken care of, the panikeke pretty much fried themselves, even turning themselves over in the oil as they cooked inside. The three menu items went together very nicely. I can’t imagine it will be too long before Eric is craving oka i’a and I am craving panikeke.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.