May I present to you the Polynesian legend of ‘The Octopus and The Rat’.. Some legends tell of intrepid heroes and dastardly villains, and their epic duels across space and time. Some tell of deceitful deities, and their tricks and schemes to bewitch humankind. Some tingle the spines of wide-eyed children, and some devour the hearts of brave but stupid men. Some make you laugh. Some make you weep. Some inspire nostalgia. And some make you glad to be alive.
But this one doesn’t.
A rat and hermit crab are stranded at sea after a devastating shipwreck. They go their separate ways. The rat then comes across an octopus. ‘Hullo,’ greets the octopus. They strike a bargain, which sees the octopus carry the rat to a far-away island. But as the rat disembarks, he disingenuously craps on the octopus’s head. And that is why octopuses have tubercles on their heads, and that is why rats are their sworn enemies.
Do not say you were not forewarned. It contains no otherworldly beings or mythical beasts. There is no overarching theme or cautionary tale. It begins with a character utterly superfluous to the plot and climaxes in a quite random and meaningless act. And the hostility between the two protagonists is biologically inaccurate; they inhabit completely different ecosystems. As
legends go, it is, frankly, not a particularly good one. It doesn’t even make sense.
But at least it’s a good introduction to my time in Tonga, a land that similarly confounded a young naive medical student at the turn of the Millennium. A faraway land replete with legend, a culture so different to my own.
Replete with legend Tonga may be, but replete with fine cuisine, erm perhaps less so. Still, food remains integral to Tongan society. And none more so than its traditional feasts, a centuries-old cultural adhesive that binds together families and communities, the young and the old.
Keen to experience at least one feast, I discovered that the capital’s Tongan National Centre serve up a renown one especially for tourists. Since I was only passing through town, I made sure to book some weeks ahead, mindful of its reputed popularity.
When the day eventually came, I arrived there in eager anticipation. But as I entered the building, all seemed strangely subdued. I stepped into the cavernous hall, its silence brutally disturbed by my own echoing footsteps. The room stretched vast before me, empty in all respects save for a small table sitting incongruously in its centre, like a lost island amid a lonely sea. I looked around confused. This can’t be right.
“Hellooo?..” I called out tentatively, my voice carrying across the room like an exploratory pulse of radar. From the shadows, a woman appeared and slowly but purposefully approached.
“Welcome,” she said.
“Erm…I think I might be in the wrong place. I’m looking for the feast?”
“Are you Mr. Aaron?”
“Well, yes, this is the feast..” She then gestured towards that lonesome table in the centre of the room.
I glanced around. There really was no-one else. Now feeling quite self-conscious, I sat down awkwardly. Four women then appeared, all clad in traditional dress, each one carrying plates piled precipitously with food. Fried fish. Raw fish. Fish balls. Coleslaw. Sweet potato. Pumpkin. Papaya. Watermelon.
Despite being the only recipient, more and more dishes kept coming through, brought out by a steady rotation of waitresses, each one pausing a while to accompany me whilst I tucked in. I was genuine humbled by the sheer effort made on my behalf, even it disconcertingly felt like the sort of treatment more specifically reserved for the mafia.
Eventually, now full to bursting, it was time to bid farewell. But just as I was levering myself up, a gentle South Sea melody began wafting down from the stage in front and, from seemingly nowhere, a rotund bald-headed man suddenly appeared with a guitar. He was soon followed by a steady stream of gargantuan-sized men, all clad in skimpy sarongs, who proceeded to align themselves in a curiously-specific arrow-head formation.
The guitarist then ceased his strumming and the room became unnervingly silent, save for the sound of my own breath. I sat myself back down and stared up at the imposing line of men, their faces impassive, waiting for who knows what.
“Wooooaaaaaaah!!!” they shrieked in unison. I almost fell off my chair in genuine shock. Their heads then began vibrating wildly, their tongues thrashing about like spasmodic snakes, and their bodies jolting into a series of menacing stances. “Huh huh huh wooooaaaaaah!!” hollered their staccato grunts and primal shrieks.
A Tongan haka was certainly not your usual after-dinner pick-me-up. And it didn’t stop there – for now in glided a group of dancers, gleaming in coconut oil, sprouting forth feathers and plumage from their hair bands and bikini straps, swaying their hips rhythmically to a Polynesian beat.They launched into a series of traditional Tongan dances – the lakalaka line dance, the graceful tau’olunga, the kailao war dance, the intricate ma’ulu’ulu… And after the dancing and singing, a full-on fashion show – of course! – featuring a medley of models resplendent in traditional costume.
Eventually, when the spectacle came to an end, all the performers returned to the stage to accept my ardent, if conspicuously solitary, applause. I left buoyed by this stirring introduction to Polynesian culture, not to mention the incredible endeavour made for an audience of one. And, if nothing else, at least I was now pretty au fait with the latest bridal designs coming out of Tonga that season.
Of course, when the opportunity arose to attend an authentic feast, I jumped right at it. And this one wasn’t any old feast – Tonga’s Minister for Health, no less, was hosting a 21st birthday party for his daughter. A convoy from the Prince Wellington Ngu Hospital – my training base in Tonga – were preparing to attend, and Lesieli, the island’s midwife, kindly invited me along.
So early one morning, we set out on the docks, catching a fishing boat to the western island of Hunga. When we arrived, the feast already appeared in full swing. A brass band played some Tongan classics. Four rows of tables, bedecked in balloons and wrapped in ribbons, stretched under canvas awning.
We sat cross-legged on pandanus mats whilst mountains of freshly-caught fish rose up from the tables, accompanied by the standard Tongan fare and gallons of gaudy Royal Islands orange soda.
Halfway through the proceedings, the crowd came to a sudden hush, and four men stood up. They were preachers, and each one addressed the audience with a long sermon – certainly a far cry from my own 21st birthday night out, that’s for sure. In fact, for a celebratory gig, they spoke strangely furiously, each one climaxing in a frenzy of hellfire and brimstone, literally brandishing bibles to embellish their points.
Then, in stark contrast to what had just come before, a troupe of scantily-clad dancers began strutting out onto the village green. But before I could get too perplexed ruminating over Tonga’s seemingly paradoxical anthropological dualism of church and tribe, the performers manoeuvred themselves into the sensuous tau’olunga dance. The crowd cheered in joyous approval. Some older women stood up and donated their own version, trilling a gleeful “Weeee-haaaa!” to rapturous applause.
Quite unexpectedly, the guests then began descending on the birthday girl, adorning her oiled body with dollar-bills. Not wanting to miss out on any a Tongan custom – and especially not this most fascinating ritual of fakapale – it was a real shame I’d not brought along any notes. Coins I had, but what use would they be?
But just then Lesieli shoved a note into my hand and urged me forwards. Well, when in Rome.. But as I approached, the locals suddenly noticed the palangi in their midst, and found my attempts to join in uniquely hilarious. I was now the source of much mirth and attention, and I promptly blushed with self-consciousness.
They relentlessly urged me through the crowd towards the birthday girl, clamouring as I struggled to find a patch of exposed oiled skin. A glisten appeared on her shoulder, guiding my hand as I coyly stuck on the dollar bill, before retreating red-faced back to Lesieli.
But when I sat down, the sturdy midwife again thrusted another note into my hand, and shoved me with some force back into the spotlight. I stumbled about clumsily, but now the birthday girl’s skin was literally covered in dollar-bills, and there was no obvious modest place to aim for.
Suddenly, a quite excitable elderly woman leapt up and, evidently having lost patience with my own dithering, grabbed my note-clenched hand and slapped it unashamedly across the birthday girl’s chest. The crowd went wild. Well, all except her father, the esteemed Minister for Health: he didn’t seem so amused. Gulp! I ran back to my place, praying to God that Lesieli had run out of cash.
Once the festivities were over, our convoy then paid visits to various houses, inside which families had prepared their birthday gifts of tapa. This traditional cloth – crafted from the inner bark of the mulberry tree and decorated with geometric designs or recurring motifs – is more than just a textile or fancy decoration. In Tonga, it’s an important status symbol.
Indeed, the Minister’s noble lineage merited that the scrolls need be particularly expansive and exceptional – each gift would’ve taken literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to make. Many were the size of whole carpets, and once on show for a while, were then carefully rolled up and carried off to the birthday girl’s home. The bizarre procession wound its way through the village like a curious parade of carpet salesman. The guests, on offering their wares to the Minister, supplicated him with apologies and other self-deprecating comments, as per Tongan custom.
Before too long, our convoy headed off back home, Lesieli still chuckling merrily at the thought of the befuddled palangi, dollar-bill clutched despairingly in hand.
There aren’t many places in the UK where you can see tapa cloth up close. But The Providores and Tapa Room is one such place, a London landmark of global/fusion cuisine. With a wonderful ream of tapa bedecking the back wall – a nod to head-chef Peter Gordon’s New Zealand roots – it’s a space in the metropolis where my heart’s immediately transported back to Tongan rural island villages.
So it goes without saying that the Tapa Room’s standout dish is none other than.. Turkish Eggs. Of course it is. I mean Turkey and Tonga are so closely bound up with each other, like in.. erm.. the arbitrarily alphabetical way they line up alongside each other in the Olympics’ opening parade. And perhaps their ambassadors sit together in the United Nations? Maybe they scribble little notes to each other and, if the speeches get really dull, entertain themselves with a surreptitious game of finger-football with a leftover Ferrero Rocher.
Anyway, despite the incongruous juxtaposition of the two cultures in this one London eaterie, I’m still glad they’re Turkish Eggs and not Tongan Eggs, since its cuisine is arguably not one of Tonga’s most enticing features. But Turkish cuisine.. ah, well that’s a different story altogether.
In this dish, two poached eggs come cradled in whipped yoghurt, the creamy whiteness of both quite possibly a mystical glance into heaven. Actual heaven. In the meantime, floating on top sits an oily orange pane of liquid chilli butter, like a homage to the River Styx, portal to the fiery underworld.
I love how food generously allows us to project onto it whatever ideas, images and narratives we desire. So, as well as this culinary depiction of the afterlife, this dish could also resemble a Turkish spa, with its assortment of brightly-coloured anointing oils and luscious white creams. Or, perhaps returning to the South Pacific: a tropical island of snowcapped peaks shrouded in white billowing clouds, surrounded by seas of hallucinatory colour – the oil also redolent of the coconut-oil gleam from those traditional Tongan dancers.
And even if the classic eggs-and-chilli combo can be found the world over – from Mexican huevos rancheros to Malaysian nasi lemak – no other version beats this one, at least not in “the closest a vegetarian is ever gonna get to a coronary episode” stakes. Meanwhile a side of crunchy charred sourdough toast delightfully cuts through all that creamy unctuousness. As does a cup of coffee – dark, deep and complex – from Volcano’s small-batch roastery in South London.
These Turkish Eggs are now arguably an iconic London dish. And justly so. Just next time you come, do take a moment to enjoy the tapa, and reflect on the joy of living in a city where two such contrasting cultures can be so seamlessly brought together. And that’s why I love London so much.
And so concludes my Tonga Trilogy, at least for now.. If you haven’t yet read Part 1 (“Ceviche”), where I inadvertently find myself at the controls of a commercial aircraft, or Part 2 (“108 Garage”), where a wedding party strap a whole suckling pig onto the back of my moped, please do feel free to click and take a look!
Tongan feast for one
Tongan fashion-show for one
Tongan dance-show, er, still for one
Yep, still for one..
21st birthday feast
21st birthday preachers
Fakapale ritual – adorning with dollar-bills
21st birthday dancing
Minister for Health gives his daughter ‘key of independence’
Minister for Health, at work
Tapa decoration in guesthouse, Felemea
My bit of tapa at home
The Providores and Tapa Room