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The Chefs Redefining Polynesian Cuisine

Category: Food & Drink,Lifestyle

But Scandinavia was never colonized. For Fiso, 30, and her peers, the challenge is defining a cuisine that was never considered a cuisine at all by Western conquerors; their diets were deemed of limited interest beyond anthropology and what could be fobbed off on tourists as exotic remnants of some imagined paradise. So these chefs must speak not only for ingredients but for cultures that, in two and a half centuries of domination by the West, have been undermined, exploited, misrepresented and threatened with erasure. To do so, they are reaching back to a pre-contact past — before the advent of meat pies and Marmite, spaghetti and Spam — in search of both origins and identity. The history of their ancestors’ food is also the story of fishing, hunting and gathering; of their management of natural resources; and of the social mores that enabled them to survive as a people. What their elders ate is inextricable from who they were, and who these chefs are today.

MOANA IS THE word for ocean in Maori, Hawaiian and Samoan, but on maps, the waters in this part of the world bear a name from another tongue, bestowed by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan in 1520: Mar PacĂ­fico, or peaceful sea. Three centuries later, French explorers coined the term Oceania as a catchall for a heterogeneous area that, in its broadest definition, stretches from Asia to the Americas and encompasses more than 10,000 islands, some former colonies turned sovereign nations (New Zealand, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea) and others far-flung dependencies of Western empires (Bora Bora, American Samoa, the Marianas). The islands were eventually subdivided into Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, which were seen as culturally and racially distinct, although the lines of delineation have never been entirely clear: Anthropologists disagree on boundaries, and Fiji is often considered uncategorizable, a nexus where Melanesia and Polynesia meet.

Of these, Polynesia — a triangle drawn from New Zealand to Hawaii to the remote Chilean territory of Rapa Nui — has most compelled the world’s attention, typically as a projection of repressed Western desire: an ahistorical haven peopled by flower-bedecked voluptuaries from a Paul Gauguin canvas. That fantasy turned to kitsch with the rise of tiki culture, beginning in Depression-era California at restaurants such as Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, where diners were distracted from their troubles by gardenias afloat in giant bowls of rum and the then-novel Mai Tai, which was Polynesian only in name, an appropriation of maita‘i, Tahitian for good.

But the menu at Trader Vic’s, now a global chain, never had any kinship to what Pacific Islanders actually ate. Instead, it skewed vaguely Chinese (cream-cheese-stuffed crab Rangoon, sweet-and-sour pork) with interpolations of tropical fruit — what the food critic Craig Claiborne of The New York Times dismissed, in 1958, as “pineapple and coconut fare.” For much of the 20th century, not even travelers to the Pacific could easily find local cooking beyond their resort’s carefully choreographed luau.

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