By Marcia Pilgeram
I just returned from a quick scouting trip to the Islands of Tahiti. I grabbed a friend to tag along, spending sunny days on warm sandy beaches and dreamy nights in overwater bungalows, watching iridescent fish shimmering in the waters below our glass floor. We island hopped, meeting with promoters and hoteliers, and learned about new properties and attractions for those seeking respite from the harsh winters of North Idaho.
The food was fabulous, too. We savored every bite that met our lips — especially the poisson cru, a combination of just-caught tuna marinated in fresh coconut milk, cucumber, tomato and onion. It’s the signature dish of Tahiti, and every chef has a secret recipe for perfection. It’s always delicious and a favorite mainstay when I’m in French Polynesia.
You’ll also find many local dishes flavored with Tahitian vanilla. The aromatic spice is popular in Tahitian cooking not only for sweet confections but also savory dishes. We were fortunate to visit a small plantation on the island of Mo’orea with a native Polynesian friend, Heimata. He has a popular business that provides food tours of the island (and also in Tahiti) and explained the history of the famous vanilla in depth as we toured the plantation and gardens.
We learned that Tahitian vanilla is second only to saffron as the most costly spice in the world because the production is exceptionally labor-intensive. Nearly 80% of Tahitian vanilla beans are grown on Taha’a island, only 35 square miles, located in the Society Islands about 150 miles east of Tahiti. It needs a lot of water for growth and is grown primarily on the rainy, windward side of the island. It takes about three years for the plant to mature, and it flowers from July to September.
The bees used to pollinate the vanilla orchid are not native to Tahiti, so each vanilla flower is pollinated by hand. When the plants are flowering, the farmers rise early, hand-pollinating each blossom. In addition to the season being very short, each flower only blooms for about six hours, so the farmer must move quickly yet delicately, ensuring each flower closes and withers away. The pollinated flowers produce a vanilla bean.
The ripening process is also laborious, and Heimata said each plantation closely guards its perfect technique. Sadly, as the cost of Tahitian vanilla rises (worth hundreds of thousands of dollars), he reports that many plantations have seen a surge in the theft of the nearly ripe beans. As a result, most are under lock and key, with elaborate safeguards in place.
Tama’a means “to eat” in Tahitian, and we did just that as we toured the island. Heimata took us to several local snack shacks, including one from his childhood, where he stopped every day after school. We learned about local traditions as we tasted Polynesian snacks and bites influenced by the fusion of Tahitian, French and Chinese cultures. Polynesians love carbs, and a favorite snack is Chinese fried noodles and French baguette sandwiches (washed down with even more carbs — a Hinano beer, a local island favorite).
Baguettes are baked twice daily and delivered around the island each morning and afternoon. Because the government fixes the prices of baguettes, everyone can afford this staple in their diet.
Besides bread and fish, other plentiful staples on the islands include sweet potatoes, coconut milk, taro, ginger and chicken (though most of the islands are overrun by small feral chickens, they are left to roam, and chicken is purchased at the market).
Corn and lemons are not plentiful or even barely present, so I suffered mightily with lime twists in my vodka. Heimata was thrilled to receive a variety of corn tortillas I picked up during a stopover in Seattle. He reported having some lemon seeds and promised to plant them soon (I hope he hurries).
Meanwhile, this is a delicious and famous recipe on the islands, with plentiful ingredients in Tahiti, and you can pick them up locally in Sandpoint, too (visit Winter Ridge or Miller’s Country Store for vanilla beans): chevrettes à la vanille et coco, a.k.a. shrimp with Tahitian vanilla and coconut sauce. Tama’a and enjoy!
Shrimp with Tahitian vanilla and coconut sauce (chevrettes à la vanille et coco) • serves 4
• 2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil
• 2 pounds of peeled and deveined shrimp (16-20 count)
• 1 Tahitian vanilla pod
• ⅓ cup rum
• 1 cup coconut milk
• 1 heavy cream
• Salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a frying pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimp and cook until just pink and done. Remove and keep warm.
Split the vanilla bean in half and scrape the seeds. In a saucepan, add the rum, vanilla and seeds, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until the rum has mostly evaporated.
Pour in the coconut milk and cream and simmer gently until the sauce has thickened and its volume is reduced by about half.
Remove the vanilla bean, add the shrimp, tossing to coat well.
Simmer and season to taste.
Serve hot over rice. Garnish with scant chopped parsley or other mild green that will not spoil the delicate flavor of the sauce.
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