The year was 1773; Captain Cook, the esteemed explorer of yore, stepped ashore the fabled island of Lifuka in Tonga. So enamoured was he with the locals and their exuberant entertainments, copious feasting and general revelry – the like of which he’d ne’er seen before back in Blighty – that he graciously bestowed on them the title ‘Friendly Islanders’.
Somewhat ironic – for his hosts were actually planning to chop him into bite-sized portions and serve him up as pre-dinner canapés. Luckily for Cook, the scheme foundered when they couldn’t agree on the finer details, such as whether Englishmen go well with ketchup, or whether they’re best served as a small-plates sharing concept.
Nevertheless, the term ‘Friendly Islanders’ has stuck forevermore. And indeed, it’s been gratuitously appropriated by the most unlikely local services (like Friendly Islander Vasectomies – ‘we snip with a smile..’) But despite their panache for canny marketing slogans, underneath lies an irrefutable generosity, something I increasingly discovered during my med-student placement on these fair isles.
On one occasion, whilst exploring the highways and byways of the remote island of Vava’u, I happened upon an unexpected gathering. A wedding feast. They immediately beckoned me to join the celebration.
“Are you sure?” I asked, touched by their hospitality.
“Of course! Take this..” urged the groom, thrusting a plate into my hand, onto which a succession of guests enthusiastically heaped up ever-expanding piles of assorted Tongan treats. They then plonked me into a chair, and left me to it.
Few words were spoken until I eventually decided it was time to get going. This was met with a sudden chorus of excitement; the wedding party decided it’d be totally remiss of them to allow me to leave without a customary wedding favour. Awaiting the South Pacific equivalent of sugared almonds, you can imagine my surprise when they presented me not with a small packet of sweets, but a pig. That’s right – a whole suckling pig. (Of course!)
I tried to politely decline, but they were having none of it. Before I could say “hold the bacon”, the wedding party descended on my rental moped, scratching their heads, trying to discern the best way to strap a suckling pig onto its rear frame. Eventually, with porcine going-home present safely secured, off I rode into the sunset, moved by their generosity, and only slightly wondering what the friggin’ hell does one do with an enormous dead pig? Especially when you’re Jewish..
Besides Captain Cook, probably the most influential foreigners to visit these far-flung isles were the early-19th Century missionaries, with their heady mix of proselytizing fervour and inadvertent lethal Western diseases.
The locals that survived must’ve been suitably impressed since Tonga’s now one of the most ardent Christian countries in the world. And if national anthems are a unique window on a country’s psyche, Tonga’s is most certainly stained-glass..
“Oh Almighty God above
In our goodness we do trust Thee
And our Tonga Thou dost love
We know Thou hast blessed our land..”
Contrast this national supplication to the Almighty to the anthem from Azerbaijan..
“We are ready to be martyred for you
We are ready to shed blood for you
Thousands of lives have been sacrificed
Your bosom has become a battlefield..”
Hmm, not exactly One Direction. And then there’s Afghanistan’s, which starts with big-picture aspirations and then descends into an increasingly-precise shopping list from the United Nations..
“We want peace and brotherhood
We demand more freedom
For all who toil
We want bread for them
We want houses and clothes..”
Okay, so Tonga’s not without issues, but as its anthem points out, it’s pretty damn blessed: a near-idyllic climate, sumptuous tropical scenery and an orange-soda drink that could actually double-up as emergency lighting, should the need arise.
Although Methodism’s the most popular denomination, the Mormons intrigued me the most. With 18% of Tongans signed-up devotees, theories abound as to its popularity.
Some relate it to a vague theological semblance to some aspects of indigenous Polynesian mythology. Others argue that its missionaries preached – with some admirable degree of canniness – that Tongans were indeed the Lost Tribe of Israel. Although for the Israelites to have got so lost in the Canaan desert so as to end up in the South Pacific takes some doing.
But there’s a theory even better than that – and it relates to Tonga’s unique position right beside the International Date Line, that arbitrary meridian where days are lost or gained depending on which direction you cross it. Now, since Tonga lies just east of the 180° line of longitude, it should be one of the last countries to see in the new day.
But, by quirk of fate, or at least the 1884 Convention of Maritime Nations, the line momentarily veers off its normal trajectory and kinks round the other side of Tonga, making it actually one of the first places to see in the new day. And this, I heard, made it of particular interest to Mormons, who saw Tonga as the first place not just to see in any ol’ day, but the day. Yes, the Day of Judgment itself.
In other words, they nailed Tonga as the very starting-line from which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would commence their cataclysmic canter across the globe. And hence the target for missionaries – concerned as they were that the official meet-and-greeters to the Angels of the Armageddon would at least be good God-fearing folk.
Well, that’s the theory anyhow. And indeed it was soon to be tested – in 1999, it was widely deemed the impending Millennium New Year could herald the End of Days. Wowsers. And guess when I was visiting?..
Millennium New Year came and went, and the Earth continued to spin; apocalyptic equine emissaries appeared thin on the ground. Still, that didn’t stop missionaries from some of the world’s more esoteric sects from descending on Tonga.
One time, whilst chomping down a fish-burger at a local hangout, a middle-aged mustachioed guy approached me and asked if he could join.
“Sure,” I replied.
We continued our business, until the stranger interrupted the silence.
“Do you know Jesus?” he asked in a distinctive mid-West American drawl; a common enough ice-breaker in this part of the world. But then the conversation took a rather unexpected course
“And did you know Jesus was a biker?” he said.
“Yup, he was a biker – sure as Texas!” The man winked and proceeded to conjure up numerous pamphlets, spreading them across the table like a card trick. Each one had the blurb ‘Jump for Jesus’ strewn over the front. His mission was to spread the word. And the word was that Jesus wants you to get on a motorbike, zoom up a ramp, and project yourself through hoops of fire. As depicted on the leaflets.
“Erm, that seems a tad dangerous?” I winced.
“Heck yeah! I’ve broken my leg twice. But what’s a little pain compared to what Jesus faced on the cross!” he implored earnestly.
Now I like to think I’m an open person. And I can consider most things. But I really don’t think Jesus would’ve wanted his followers to straddle a Suzuki and fling themselves through hoops of flaming inferno on his account. And particularly not Tongans, whose frames are large and moped engines are small – an equation that didn’t equate to favourable Health & Safety outcomes.
We’re all missionaries in a way – restaurant critics, food-bloggers, or just keen foodies – spreading the good news of an exciting find or a hidden gem. In recent weeks, missionaries from various London-based sects have been getting especially exercised. Jay’s raving, Fay’s praising, Giles is smiling. You see, word is, a new star’s been spotted in the West, or more specifically, Notting Hill. Its name is 108 Garage, named after, erm, a former garage. And its food is alleged to be stellar.
Like a devout pilgrim, I ventured my way westwards, along revered route of District green, to see for myself. Once there, I was led to the counter, shining like a copper shrine, behind which the chefs were all a buzz and a whir.
They stole a moment to greet me with a chipper smile and a basket of sourdough, accompanied by the most divine chicken liver parfait, a dish which immediately transported me back to my childhood, of helping my mum feed chicken-liver through a hand-wound mincer. Not only did the parfait taste intense, it went down velvety-smooth, creamy and luscious. A little tear rolled down my cheek.
But my dish for the road’s even more hearty. Or should say heart-y. Lamb heart agnotelli was an enticing picture of pasta parcels steeped in a crystal-clear broth, topped with a liquid pane of mustard-yellow oil, the stained-glass effect enhanced by the green frond frames of dill. The broth was deeply savoury with a hint of sweet, the pasta slippery thin, the meat inside packed an umami punch, and the mustardy oil a genius peppery foil. The combined flavours evoked images of lambs merrily frolickin’ o’er fields of watercress and meadowsweet. Inside, my heart was also a leaping. This dish – so clean, so clever, so well crafted. Just stunning.
But what I loved about 108 Garage wasn’t just the food, immaculate as it was, but the energy, spirit and industry of the chefs at work. The counter seat afforded a ring-side view, and although not the gregarious performers as at The Palomar, they were still every bit as fascinating to watch as they relished in their craft, lovingly attending to the details, as if every dish was a celebration to be treasured.
Whether just a consequence of such inordinate enthusiasm, or whether I’d caught them in particularly buoyant mood, but for every dish I’d ordered, I’d swear that one more unannounced dish also came my way (and to the others perched at the counter) on-the-house: bel paese cheese melting over salt-baked celeriac; a pretty dish of cured mackerel with rhubarb, preserved green strawberries and wild lime leaves; a palate-cleansing Pink Lady apple and shiso sorbet; and a beautiful and surprising pair of chocolate cremaux and artichoke ice-creams atop a bed of toasted wild rice.
And just when I couldn’t imagine how much more generous they could possibly be, head-chef Chris served up the joint of Jacob’s Ladder and cheerily announced “you know what, I’m gonna top that with truffle, if that’s ok with you?.. ” erm… let me just think about that a minute – heck yes! And he proceeded to shave off copious slices onto this already dazzling dish of food. Such was the generosity, I did start looking round nervously for signs of a suckling pig, just in case.
Luckily, 108 Garage makes it very easy to be a missionary. The food is innovative, delicious and seducing. The chefs passionate and committed. And now I can’t wait to spread the good news..
(Millennium New Year – feasting menu)
(Millennium New Year – sunset)
(The World’s First Photo of the Millennium.. and the First Sparkler & the First Cigar!)