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French Polynesia: Facing up to Fafaru in Tahiti

By Celeste Brash

"You’ve got to eat fafaru," advised Daniel, an American ex-pat who has lived in French Polynesia for the last 25 years. "I eat it all the time. It gives strength, force."

This was a surprising statement. In my five years in this country, Daniel was the first non-Tahitian I had met who had ventured to eat fafaru a second time. The locals on the other hand, eat it regularly and with gusto.
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Made with fish or shrimp, fafaru is "cooked" by being marinated in fermented seawater. This water, called mitifafaru, is made by soaking a piece of very fresh fish in the cleanest seawater available for a period of three days.

The decomposing fish is then strained out and the water is bottled and sold at local markets and supermarkets. To prepare fafaru one simply cuts fresh fish into thin slices and covers it with mitifafaru for about ten minutes. Pour off the excess mitifafaru and serve the finished dish with taro, plantains and coconut milk.

The hardest detail to transcend while eating fafaru is the smell. The fermentation process is used in numerous Tahitian dishes, but only fafaru smells like a five day-old carcass in its finished state.

When making it, the smell fills the kitchen. On the table the aroma overpowers the softer odors of other food. If one drip remains on the outside of the bottle, the fridge will tell of it for days.

My Western subconscious reacts to this by becoming slightly nauseous; I am not the least inspired to eat something that smells like death. But, taking Daniel’s advice, I decided to try fafaru again in order to immerse myself more in the Tahitian culture.

Like taking a bitter medicine, I stared at my fish for a few minutes before mustering up the courage to put it in my mouth. As the fork neared my nostrils I felt a powerful urge to turn back and give in to my Western instincts, yet somehow, I persevered, and the slippery slice of fish landed on the center of my tongue.

It was uncommonly tender, but the taste of that foul odor drowned out any other flavor. The second bite was OK, the third noticeably better. By the fourth bite I began to recognize the more complex tastes and they weren’t bad.

Slightly tangy and salty with a velvety texture, there was still an after taste that resembled the smell, but was less offensive. Although I can’t say I enjoyed my fafaru, my repulsion to it has been nearly extinguished and I’m beginning to understand that it is an acquired taste. I’m optimistic about trying it again. Perhaps once I’ve been in this country as long as Daniel, I, too, will be able to enjoy what many consider a delicacy.

Recipe

For obvious reasons, fafaru is not served in tourist areas and restaurants. If you want to try it, you’ll need to befriend some locals or make it yourself. Mitifafaru can be bought at local markets and from the refrigerator section of supermarkets throughout French Polynesia.

Buy some fresh local fish (tuna, bonito or swordfish are the preferred choices), and with a sharp knife slice it as thin as you can. If you prefer shrimp, just devein them. Place in a bowl and cover with mitifafaru.

Marinate for 10 min. Drain off excess water. Serve with coconut milk or bottled mitihue (a fermented coconut milk usually found next to the mitifafaru at the market). Just remember that this is a real Tahitian treat!

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