A Pacific Travellers Raw Fish Guide

A Pacific feast without raw fish would be a raw deal for those who attended. AARON FREEMAN from Tatou delves into the distinct and subtle differences between raw fish dishes across the ocean and reveals the recipe that saw he and wife Heather reach the 2014 final of My Kitchen Rules.


Aaron & Heather Freeman (centre, with members of Aucklands Cook Islands community) were special guests at AUT University’s Four Seasons Restaurant which was part of Pacific Islands Trade & Invest’s week-long Trade Mission in New Zealand


FOLLOWING OUR PREVIOUS COLUMN about culinary pride and identity, Heather and I have been travelling the country presenting and cooking at local marae, to NGOs and Pacific trade delegations. We’ve promoted the power of indigenous cuisines and the pride our cuisine naturally affords our producers, growers and collectives.


When we identify what makes us unique, we begin to understand the most effective way to “shopfront” to tourists, who we from the South Pacific rely so heavily on to provide for our families and future generations. Our identity and commitment to remain unique is not all that could make us players in tourism and hospitality. It could also provide massive growth to local Pacific communities in the areas of agriculture, fisheries and primary industries as the demand for locally grown, sustainable produce grows.


Here I cover the Pacific from the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji and Hawaii, as we look at both the integral differences and similarities between our marinated raw fish dishes in contrast to the versions Aotearoa is possibly used to seeing around.




Ika Mata is found everywhere and in many forms throughout the 15 beautiful islands that form the Cook Islands. The jury is out on which is the preferred fish to be used throughout. I’ve had versions that in essence are a true Ika Mata, but the fish could be anything: trevally, red cod, parrot fish, tuna, kingfish, mahi mahi, wahoo, swordfish, hapuka or tarakihi.

What distinguishes a Cook Islands Ika Mata is the concept that it’s defined by what you don’t put in. A Cook Islands Ika Mata’s fish will be marinated in lemon juice for a period determined by the type of fish being used. If it’s firm, fleshy, white fish it will marin ate from 45 minutes to three hours or sometimes even overnight. If the fish being used is a pelagic game fish such as tuna or mahi mahi, then 30 seconds to five minutes in lemon juice is plenty. The final condiments assembled together form the trinity that make a Cook Islands Ika Mata complete: spring onions, defleshed tomatoes and finely diced red onions. This is all brought together by the lifeblood of the Pacific; coconut cream.




The homeland Samoan version of Oka is so different to what made its way to Aotearoa through migration. The main difference that defines us in the Pacific is the local produce used, which is the true essence of these soulfood dishes. The unique flavour of Samoan Oka is found in Samoa’s local limes and locally grown chilli. Unlike the Cooks, where chilli is never used in marinated raw fish, Samoa uses the Oka dish to showcase two of its culinary stars, chilli and lime. The Oka I’ve eaten is made with a variety of fish, although generally white-fleshed fish such as snapper or mahi mahi are preferred. The fish is marinated in lime juice from two hours to overnight (preferable). It’s then finished and assembled with both diced cucumber and diced onions, together with a little more lime juice and coconut cream. I’ve also eaten versions of Oka in Aotearoa that come with capsicum, prawn meat, octopus, mussels and baby squid.




A lesser-known fact about myself is that I’m also of Tahitian descent, which is quite common among those of us descended from Atiu. So you’ll understand the importance of identity associated with a part-Tahitian who has only spent a few hours on part of my homeland. The time was long enough for me to head straight for one of the local marinated fish dishes from Papeete.


Tahitian kai has its influences from French colonialism that have fed through over time to their indigenous cuisine. There are many versions of Poisson la cru available on the island, some with coconut cream (lait du coco) that feature unique ingredients such as carrot which are not traditionally found in other Pacific renditions.


In contrast, some (usually the versions with pelagic species of fish such as Yellowfin, Tuna) are without coconut cream and are marinated simply in lime juice with very familiar accompaniments like cucumber, local chilli, mango, and shallots. Poisson la cru a la tahitienne and Tahitian cuisine are shining lights that stand alone in taste, presentation and identity.




Our family loves Fiji - it’s the scene of many fond memories. In similar fashion to the Cooks, the best Kokoda I found on the island was not in the hustle and bustle of Suva or Nadi, but halfway between in a little village area called Pacific Harbor. It was not at a restaurant or resort, but in a local village eatery with a little canal offering canal tours to small groups explaining the history of Fiji, its culture and traditions. The true soul food style of both Kokoda and Ika Lolo sold in Pacific Harbor has played on my imagination and memory for decades.


Kokoda in Fiji is generally prepared in the same style as a Cook Islands Ika Mata, with a few subtle differences. Usually prepared with lime juice only, it showcases beautiful local chilli and coriander/cilantro. This mixture is then combined with lolo (coconut cream), finely diced spring onion, shallots, cucumber and tomato.




The origins of Poke in pre-contact times were likely the use of what was available – crab, reef fish and perhaps octopus. These days Hawaiian style Poke is a cultural mash-up of traditional Hawaiian, with some Japanese influences. Yellowfin Tuna is the most common form of Poke in Hawaii today. Slivers of fresh tuna are tossed through lime, then flavored with the likes of shoyu soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and garlic. Ahi Poke is also sometimes garnished with black and white sesame seeds, furikake, or togaroshi seasonings, along with the usual elements of tomato, cucumber, sometimes shredded lettuce and seasonal fruit.


Poke has recently taken more inspiration from Japanese cooking. You can now get Ahi Poke that has seared tuna instead of raw. A dish that began as a resort luau dish that no one really took seriously is now a significant dish that helps define Hawaii on a plate. Renditions of Hawaiian poke can be found at eateries in New Zealand, although as the locals say, there’s nothing like those original Hawaiian kine grinds!




To take this further, once we understand what identifies us and makes us unique, we achieve true purpose. Local communities benefit from greater demand for primary industry resources as well as skilled workers in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Applying our techniques to our nations’ dishes that were perhaps previously viewed as unworthy, transforms them into something unique that we can all share pride in.



Tahitian Tuna Tartare with plantain crisp (serves 4)


This dish is very close to our hearts, and one that we made in the MKR NZ 2014 semifinals. It was the first time we had ever cooked for our lives in the competition. It was also the first time we were truly given the option to cook Pacific food, and the first time we had the honour of cooking for our esteemed international guest judging panel.


This was the best-presented plate that Heather and I put up in the entire competition. It came out looking just as I had drawn it 280,462 times … just as I had imagined it. It truly represents the soul of the Pacific, and did not lose any of its culturally defining factors in its refinement. The use of mango with tuna is a favourite in our house. When fully assembled, it’s a visually gob-smacking dish that belongs in a fine Tahitian resort. It’s a showstopper.




1kg Yellowfin tuna
2 Mangos
2 Coconuts
6 Limes (juiced)
4 Shallots
1 Cucumber (long)
4 Plantain (green banana)
3 Red and green chillis
1 Handful of purple karengo fronds

1 Bunch of spring onions
2 Tbsp Tabasco sauce
1 Tbsp Olive oil
1 Tbsp Salt/pepper
1/3 Cup Red wine vinegar
3 counts* Sesame oil
2 Tbsp Kikkoman soy sauce
1 Tbsp Sugar
1 Cup Water


*(This recipe’s islander measurement hack: “3 count” = start pouring and count to 3). You’ll also need a Muslin cloth for this recipe.




Open and grate a fresh coconut. Squeeze coconut pulp in a muslin cloth to produce milk. When coconut pulp becomes dry from your squeezing, pour a little water over the top of the pulp and squeeze again until you have enough milk for the tuna. Slice small circles of lime and place in the milk. Add lime juice and salt to taste.


Slice the plantain into chips, shallow or deep fry at 180.C until brown and crisp. Take out of the oil. Season with salt and pepper.


Finely dice your tuna into uniform sized pieces. Dice mango into small cubes. Dice chillies, shallots and spring onions finely.


Add ¼ Cup of lime juice, tabasco, soy sauce and sesame oil to your tuna mixture and toss with a spoon to combine.


You need to taste your tartare mixture to see what it needs to balance the flavor (chilli, lime juice, salt, soy, sesame oil).


Once the mix is balanced to your taste, take spoonfuls of the mixture and press into a circular food mold or food grade PVC pipe offcut. In a separate bowl, add red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.


Use a peeler to peel a thin layer of cucumber – long enough to wrap around the tartare. Put cucumber into pickling sauce to marinate (around 10 minutes minimum up to a maximum of two hours).


Wrap tuna tartare with a pickled cucumber slice. Place plantain chips to the side with a bowl of fresh moinatai (coconut milk). Garnish tartare with karengo fronds and serve.


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