PAPEETE, Tahiti — "Tahitian feasts are traditionally affairs for family and friends," said Robin Temaiana, a one-time resident of these islands of French Polynesia.
"And any excuse for a party will do. They have feasts to celebrate the opening of a road, the purchase of a refrigerator, anything."
We were sitting around an imaa tahiti or himara, an oven that had been dug in the earth in preparation for a traditional Tahitian feast on the island of Moorea. Many hotels in the islands host such feasts, usually once a week, for about 3,500 French Polynesian francs per person--about $35 U.S.
We were waiting for the unearthing of the food that had been baking underground for three hours. Just then, two men and two women in colorful pareus (sarongs) came out and began to shovel out the sand over the imaa.
Hotter Than a Luau
"The pit is dug about four feet deep and lined with river stones," explained dining expert Frank Ehlinger. "It is very different from a Hawaiian luau in that the fire is much hotter, and the effect is more roasting than steaming.
"Four hours before the dinner, the lava rocks on the bottom of the pit are heated with burning palm fronds. An hour later the food is all placed in a large basket of arcania wood, a wood that never burns, and is lowered into the pit. Then the basket is covered with banana leaves, and finally, the sand."
Also, unlike the Hawaiian luau, in which only the kalua pig is cooked in an underground oven, at a Tahitian feast all the hot dishes on the menu are cooked in the imaa.
This night those included roast pig; uru or breadfruit; sweet potatoes; chicken fafa-- chicken with Tahitian spinach cooked in coconut milk; a dish of pork, cabbage and string beans; steamed taro; mahi-mahi wrapped in banana leaves, and fei , a kind of banana that can only be eaten when cooked.
Even the desserts were cooked in the imaa-- sweet bananas, poe taro--taro root cooked with sugar and coconut milk, and poe banana--bananas mashed with coconut milk.
Fermented With Shrimp Juice
The four workers pulled the large basket out of the pit with long rods. The foods were arrayed on a long buffet table and served with poisson uru , marinated raw fish with coconut milk and lime, and miti hue , coconut milk that has been fermented with the juice of tiny river shrimp.
"At a traditional feast you would be given a bowl for the miti hue ," Temaiana said, "and you would soak your food in the fermented coconut milk. Then you would pull off bits to eat, using only the fingers of one hand."
Customs have been modified at this feast, and regular plates and silverware were offered to guests. Most diners preserved a bit of tradition, however, by dipping the blander items--the breadfruit, the taro and the banana--in a small bowl of miti hue.
Dinner was followed by a Tahitian floor show, but instead of the usual glitzy gala, many hotels here present authentic native songs and dances. This evening's show was performed by a family group called the Moorea Dancers. Before the performance, a priest of the traditional religion bowed his head in several minutes of silent prayer.
It's difficult to find traditional Tahitian food in the islands. "The dishes are so elaborate, and take so long to prepare," Ehlinger said, "that most restaurants don't offer them as a matter of course."
Fortunately, however, because this part of Polynesia is French, Tahiti and the neighboring islands abound in restaurants offering good Gallic cuisine. High on Pamatai mountain above the twinkling lights of Papeete, the Maribaude offers classic French cuisine with Tahitian overtones.
Michel Menager is a chef who came to Tahiti from France two years ago. "Here only the food matters, and I am happy," he said. "It is hard to get good ingredients, but by ordering by air freight we can get almost anything the world has to offer."
Dinner included a salad of escarole, cold lobster and thinly sliced smoked swordfish in an oil and vinegar dressing; a fillet of merou--a tender whitefish with mussels, clams and shrimp, in a butter sauce with a fish reduction, and a dessert of gateau a l'ananas, a velvety soft creme genoise with meringue and bananas.
Prices run from $30 to $50 per person, including a selection of French wines. The restaurant will send a van to pick you up at your hotel.
Acajou, an informal French bistro in the center of Papeete, is a favorite among residents. It's on the corner of Boulevard Pomare and Rue LaGarde, a perfect place to sit and watch the busy foot traffic along the harbor.
The onion soup at 550 francs (about $5 U.S.) is a house specialty and came with thick melted cheese and croutons. The salad Nicoise (680 francs) also was good, and the mahi mahi au gratin (1,290 francs) was delicious.