Cooking ‘ota ika: a Tongan soul food that’s a riot of flavour and a connection to home | Food

It’s a balmy mid-morning in Seven Hills, unusual weather for Sydney in July, where the subtle bites of frigid air are usually expected. Desperate for freedom, my two-year-old is engaged in a frantic one-way battle with the red straps of the Woolies trolley hugged around her waist, securing her safely to the built-in child seat. Her eyes are fixed on an empty play centre a few metres away, while mine examine the display of seafood that lies bare on a bed of ice in the Brothers Fish Market at Seven Hills Plaza.

This story originally appeared in Colournary magazine

“Prawns are fresh, sister! You try some?” asks the gentleman behind the counter. His eyes are the colour of Elkhorn coral and his charcoal hair is tipped with silver. The pronounced wrinkles across his forehead inform me that he can name every species existing in the bountiful waters off Australia’s coast. I wish I could ask him: “Do you know which fish I need to make ‘ota ika?” Instead, I respond: “Oh, I’m just looking.”

Fresh white fish fillet is cleaned, cut into bite-size pieces then briefly marinated in fresh lemon juice. It’s combined with finely diced vegetables – spring onion, cucumber, tomato and capsicum
Fresh white fish fillet is cleaned, cut into bite-size pieces and marinated in fresh lemon juice, then combined with finely diced vegetables. Photograph: Sherry Zheng/Colournary

Unable to recall the type of fish that tastes best in this simple Tongan specialty and too embarrassed to ask my mum (she told me three times the previous day) I text my Tongan-born-and-raised husband: “Hey, I got everything for the ‘ota except the ika.” Internally, I scold myself: “The most important ingredient of the dish!”

Pushing my trolley and toddler away from the seafood, I continue texting: “There are too many to choose from. Can you grab it after work and I’ll take it to Auburn so Mum can make it tonight?”

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, but it was never to help my mother cook. I was there purely to devour the fruits of her labour – a sapid feast of Tonga’s finest. I missed endless opportunities to learn about ingredients and observe the methods behind our cultural foods like ‘ota ika – a soul food, similar to the ceviche of Latin America, with many flavourful variations across Oceania. In the Kingdom of Tonga and here in Australia, ‘ota ika often sits among a spread of delectable me’akai (food) in the buffet of Tongan celebrations and it is a staple of Sunday lunch.

‘I didn’t always appreciate and enjoy ‘ota ika as a child. The thought of raw fish chunks immersed in a cloudy, soupy pool did not charm my fledgling palate the way a Big Mac could’
‘I didn’t always appreciate and enjoy ‘ota ika as a child. The thought of raw fish chunks immersed in a cloudy, soupy pool did not charm my fledgling palate the way a Big Mac could.’ Photograph: Sherry Zheng/Colournary

Fresh white fish fillet is cleaned, cut into bite-size pieces then briefly marinated in fresh lemon juice. It’s combined with finely diced vegetables – spring onion, cucumber, tomato and capsicum. Finally, coconut milk is poured over the vibrant mix, gently stirred through then chilled until the dish is ready to serve. The recipe varies for Tongan families in the diaspora, according to both preference and what is available in their supermarkets. Sometimes, Kara coconut milk or canned coconut cream are used as substitutes for homemade milk. My mother always used unsweetened, thickened cream – diluted in a bit of water. She says the cream helps uphold the flavour of each ingredient.

I didn’t always appreciate and enjoy ‘ota ika as a child. The thought of raw fish chunks immersed in a cloudy, soupy pool did not charm my fledgling palate the way a Big Mac could. It wasn’t until I reached my early 20s that I was able to enjoy the riot of flavours. Recently, the dish has been a form of reminiscence – a connection to my late grandfather and motherland. Grandfather Mahe passed away before I could meet him, but over the years my father would share stories about him. “You know Mahe Lahi spent hours out at sea, fishing so we could eat,” Dad would explain. “We didn’t have much, but he always made sure he came home with fish or seafood to eat. Whatever he had, he shared with his sister and their families too.”

Like Grandfather Mahe, many families in Tonga relied on a healthy ocean to feed their families. An ocean filled with marine life unifies Tonga’s hundreds of islands, it is a vital source of nourishment, and the basis of our diets.

In 2015, Tonga was classified as the second most at-risk country in the world in terms of its exposure to natural disasters and the ripple effects of climate change. This means Tonga’s coastal waters and the marine life that inhabits them are being destroyed, and traditional practices such as fishing and gathering seafood are being impacted greatly. Over the years, Tonga’s surface air temperature and sea temperature around its coastal waters have increased and ocean acidification has resulted in the slow deterioration of coral reefs, reduction in reef productivity and diversity in reef species.

‘Ota ika now evokes the stories my father shared about Grandfather Mahe throughout my childhood
‘Ota ika now evokes the stories my father shared about Grandfather Mahe throughout my childhood. Photograph: Sherry Zheng/Colournary

Despite the threat of climate change, Tongans continue to care for the ocean and depend on it. Traditionally, people would catch, clean, then bone their own fish for ‘ota ika. They would then grate the copra, or white meat inside the coconut, using a hakalo, a traditional coconut grater made from a long piece of metal curved into a blade, attached to the edge of a wide wooden stool. The coconut meat was rolled up in coconut husk and then squeezed so that all the milk was extracted from the copra to marinate the ‘ota ika.

‘Ota ika now evokes the stories my father shared about Grandfather Mahe throughout my childhood. In Australia, ‘ota ika is a connection to the ocean that provided my family and ancestors with years of nourishment. It is also what keeps me bonded to my culture and history.

When my husband returned home with a snapper from the Brothers Fish Market, I drove to my parent’s home in Auburn. Instead of watching Mum glide gracefully across her kitchen like I normally would, I wrapped an apron around my waist, armed myself with a sharp blade and began slicing the fish, while Mum guided me. Now, when I make ‘ota ika for Sunday lunch, my four-year-old stands with me at the kitchen bench and hands me the ingredients while we talanoa (tell) stories of our family and our home.

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