Memoir: Foodie Trail of Tonga: 'Ota Ika (Raw Fish Salad)

    Memoir: Foodie Trail of Tonga: 'Ota Ika (Raw Fish Salad)

    Food Trail of Tonga: ‘Ota Ika (Raw Fish Salad)

    by Richard J Bell


    On the Polynesian food trail, I look at my Tongan map, and my eyes are drawn to the ocean coastline where I see small waves moving on the page. Jumping out of the paper are tiny fishes as I recall another favourite meal of ‘Ota Ika, a raw fish salad.

                Watching the waves lap on the shoreline, memories surface of being a teenager and eating the red tuna, cooked in lemon juice and then strained, served with coconut cream and a selection of fresh veggies. I loved the texture of the tuna literally cooked in lemon juice contrasted with the crunch of the fresh cucumber, tomato, onion, and deseeded chilli, and all served cold from the refrigerator.

                I usually prepare it the night before so that I can enjoy it for breakfast. However, my mother used to make a variation where she would mix it up with lettuce, so it resembled an actual salad. I  am always amazed with the foodie connection to her culture.

                I never really learnt how to make this dish with my mother but was taught during Tongan Language School as we learned the Tongan words associated with food.  We learnt ‘ota is the Tongan verb for raw, and ika is the name for fish. There were also English adaptations of terms such as onioni which translates into onion. My memory kicked in as we used lemani juice or, in English, lemon juice to cook the fish. I remember driving to a petrol station and seeing the word lemani written on a cardboard sign with some lumpy yellow lemons piled under it while on holiday visiting family in 2010.

    A couple of years later while attending Tongan Language School and there was a discussion about how long you leave the fish in the lemon juice. Some people say fifteen minutes, other recipes two hours.

                ‘Oh, I leave it overnight,’ I told the female student.

                ‘Overnight?! I leave mine for about fifteen minutes,’ she stated. “What type of fish do you use?”

                ‘Salmon,’ I explained. ‘Because you can also eat it raw.’

                ‘Richard, I think you are paranoid about eating raw fish,’ she replied.

                In hindsight, maybe accurate, because after two hours of the raw fish covered in lemon juice, it was pretty much cooked right through. Even so, I keep mine overnight in the fridge.

                The map of the Polynesian food trail would not be complete without at least trying raw seafood, whether you are paranoid of eating it or not.