Let’s cut to the chase. Ceviche. Raw fish dish. From Peru. At a renown London venue, also called Ceviche. Ah ceviche! My dish for the road. Cue tangential preambles to travels in Peru. Such a beautiful country! Such amazing adventures!
Like the time when I inadvertently became a marauding alpaca herder on the High Andes. That was so fun! And of course the time when I went to the airport with a consignment of coca-leaf tea for grandma – she loved a nice cuppa, bless her – only to discover that it’s apparently highly illegal, and two burly Customs officers and one cavity search later, suddenly found myself in a dank Peruvian jail for a period of several months, rescued only after I grassed up a fellow inmate, a notorious gangster by the name of El Diablo, whose fierce henchmen still continue to track me down, which is why I now live incognito as a food-blogger. Well, what a lark that was!
And then the time when.. oh, you know what, just screw it. I’ve never been to Peru, okay? I can’t keep this pretence up any longer. So here’s the thing – instead of Peru, I’m gonna write about somewhere else, a country that also does ceviche, a place I’ve actually been to..
The year was 1999. I was but a dewy-eyed medical student, seeking somewhere exciting for a clinical placement abroad. Flicking through student reports, I came across this country called Tonga. Sounded very exotic and African. Perhaps somewhere between Togo and Congo, with a national dance called The Conga. [Conga /n. = what people did at weddings after consuming two Snowballs and a pineapple cheese-stick; some say an early harbinger of Brexit]. So I sent off an application.
Then someone told me Tonga wasn’t actually in Africa at all. So I looked it up in an atlas. [atlas /n. = wot people used before Googlemaps to find out where things were in the world, you know it’s like a book. A book? A collection of paper bound together with words on, wot people used before the Kindle? No? Oh, nevermind..]
And there it was, a smattering of little yellow speckles strewn over South Pacific blue, almost as if someone had accidentally knocked over a sugar bowl. Hanging above them lay big black letters, T-O-N-G-A, as if they too represented their own archipelago.
It says a lot when a country’s name is larger than the actual country. Particularly when the name is already pretty compact. For some countries, that means being under the throes of a totalitarian regime who’d paradoxically lump the epithet ‘DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF’ into the name in some sort of ironic gesture. Or, to borrow an example from the near future, THE TRUMP CONGLOMERATE OF STATES FORMERLY KNOWN AS AMERICA™. Tonga however just happened to be very small.
It was also very far. Very very far. In fact, it’s about as far as you can physically get from London. And just to push to boat out even further – almost literally – my eventual placement was on Tonga’s remote island of Vava’u. To get there, you needed to fly 11 hours to Los Angeles, 12 hours on to Auckland, 6 hours to Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa, and then another 2 hours beyond that. Yes, even longer than a journey on Southern rail..
So there I was on the airport tarmac, boarding an old Otter T’prop to take the internal flight to Vava’u. I climbed the stairs to the plane, presented my boarding card, and was ushered to the left. To some, that’d mean First Class (yay!). But not for me (boo!). Instead, I was led right through the front end of the cabin, and on past the door into.. the cockpit.
You see, Finau, my guesthouse owner, also happened to be the local manager for Royal Tongan Airlines. After discussing our mutual love for planes, he generously arranged for me to sit in the cockpit on the way out. (ah, those days pre-Sept 2001..)
Before the cockpit’s array of dials and urgent flashing lights, Captain Bob warmly shook my hand and beckoned me towards the navigator’s seat. (Yes, it crossed my mind too – shouldn’t there by an actual navigator sitting there? Yikes..)
It was when Captain Bob handed me control of a lever that a very disconcerting thought arose: had there been some awful misunderstanding. Did they actually think I could fly a plane? Luckily, before I could dwell on that too long, Captain Bob was demonstrating how the lever operated.. the headphones. Phew!
Suddenly a noise came over the earpiece: traffic control was issuing its instructions. This was so beyond cool. I even began actually muttering to myself, “This is so beyond cool! It’s fucking awesome!”. Only then did I notice the mic attached to my headphones, and the real possibility my words were being broadcast down the plane to the passengers, who’d no doubt be somewhat disconcerted to hear such utterances emanating from the cockpit.
Fortunately, we landed safely enough in Vava’u, my home for the next two months. And also the theme for these next three blog posts. So to kick-off this Tongan trilogy, I guess I’d better start talking food..
Now, I absolutely loved Tonga. Its people. Its culture. Its lush green landscapes, its powder-white beaches and its inky blue seas. And I wouldn’t want to say a bad word.. But the food, well it sucked.
That’s not to say you couldn’t eat delicious food. There was the freshest fish straight outta the ocean. And you can gorge on the juiciest tropical fruit. But in terms of creative cookery, well there just didn’t seem to be that much of a tradition. I never saw a sauce or stew, a pudding or a pastry, or even any herbs or spices. The only herbs I saw were used for healing, something I did some research on whilst out here.
Moreover, despite all the fresh produce, Tonga’s most popular dish seemed to be lu pulu. This may sound exotic, but was in fact a tinned melange of ambiguous cow anatomy steeped in a carefully-balanced assortment of E-numbers; in other words, corned beef. Tins of the stuff were so ubiquitous that you wonder how such small islands could accommodate so much cow. Except of course it was all imported, a Minnesotan meat executive’s fantasy to have such an obliging market.
And to wash it all down, Royal Islands Orange Soda. This tropical paradise bursts with the freshest fruit, yet the most popular drink was seemingly a totally synthetic product constituted from brominated vegetable oil. (yum!) The can’s marketing even celebrated this with an ambitious boast: “artificially flavoured – contains NO juice!” (I do recommend the 1997 vintage though, a breakthrough year for E101.)
Perhaps the joint collective of E-numbers when you simultaneously ingest Spam and soda somehow chemically react to simulate a sensory experience akin to a chateaubriand with a fine claret, or perhaps the moment of spiritual ecstasy experienced only by certain priests at the point of nirvana. But to me, it seemed a shame that such junk food had totally gripped the local diet. Indeed,
it was perhaps not surprising that diabetes and obesity were huge public health issues here.
One dish that did buck the trend however was ota ika, a Tongan version of ceviche. This combination of raw tuna or snapper with peppers, tomatoes, chilli, lime juice and coconut milk was a find, particularly if the fish was freshly caught.
Now London may have the world’s cuisines at its feet, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Tongan ota ika. Instead, the closest thing would probably be a classic Peruvian ceviche, and for that we’re pretty blessed. Even the laziest researcher sourcing ceviche in London could find, erm, Ceviche. It does what it says on the tin, and does it exceptionally well.
Take its ‘Don Ceviche’, for instance. Even in the dimly-lit cavernous space of the Old Street branch, bright orange chunks and crisps of sweet potato flare into the darkness like a sparkler on Bonfire night.
But the cleverness of the dish is the precise balance of flavours and textures. Sweet potato grounds the dish with its earthy sweetness: the soft chunks a comforting cradle of carb, the crisps a light crunch on the tongue. The sea bass yields a fresh lick of the sea, the raw chunks delightfully dense, the flavour bracingly clean. Small shards of red onion create a satisfying crunch and a savoury vegetal tang. Heat is introduced by the aji amarillo chilli, a slow-burning tingle which crescendos into a full-on samba-dance over your tongue.
And it all swims joyously in ‘tiger’s milk’, the coconut a smooth canvas for the other ingredients to shine. And then a final flurry of salt and sour lime, so the whole thing resembles a majestic Margarita cocktail. So clever. So delicious. So healthy.
And not a million miles from the Tongan version. It’s perhaps the closest you’ll get to Polynesian cuisine in London. Just via Peru.
Have you been anywhere where you didn’t quite take to the food? Were there any redeeming features, or any other great things about the place? And if you’re from Tonga, have I got it all wrong, you tell me!.. Anyway, read on for Part 2 of my Tonga Trilogy.
Ceviche Old Street