A Lesson in Tongan “Ota Ika”
Last night for dinner, we enjoyed a very special treat! My Aunt Va’inga is visiting from Tonga and I asked her to teach me how to make a traditional Tongan dish. She suggested one of her favorites, “Ota Ika.” If you like Mexican ceviche or Hawaiian poke, you will fall in love with this flavorful raw fish preparation.
Here we are showcasing the completed dish and wearing our leis. I even found a hibiscus flower in the garden for my hair!
Start by cubing some gorgeous pink Ahi tuna steaks. It is easy to find here in the US and is the same fish she uses in Tonga. She says that Mahi Mahi or Red Snapper also tastes great in this recipe.
Here Va’inga is tossing the cubed fish with salt. We then covered the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for about an hour. In the meantime we minced the onion and peppers, juiced the lemon and prepared the coconut milk. (More on that below!)
The dish was so easy to prepare and absolutely delicious. This recipe for Ota Ika is fresh and bright, with the sweetness of the coconut and the bite of the hot chili pepper in perfect harmony.
1 – 3/4 pound fresh Ahi tuna, diced into 3/4 inch cubes
3 teaspoons salt, divided
1/3 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup coconut milk (fresh or canned)
1/2 cup minced onion
2 minced red chilies, or more to taste
In a large bowl, combine diced Ahi tuna and 2 teaspoons of the salt. Refrigerate for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Add lemon juice and toss to coat. Refrigerate for 10 minutes. Add coconut milk, onion, chilies and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the remaining salt, to taste.
When it comes to the coconut milk in the recipe, you have two choices: Make it fresh or use the canned coconut milk. The canned version is easy to find in our grocery stores, but it doesn’t compare to what Va’inga can make from scratch at home in Tonga!
Let’s play a quick round of “Guess the Gadget.” Can you guess how this tool is used?
The bench/tool above is called a “Hakalo” and is used to grate fresh coconut meat from the shell. Imagine straddling the bench and taking a coconut half and scraping the inside on the sharp teeth. The shredded meat and juice fall into a bowl placed underneath.
Normally Va’inga will just pick up a fresh coconut from her backyard and make fresh coconut milk anytime using the hakalo. Here in the US, we had to improvise!
Warning: Professional! Do not attempt!
With a few short whacks from the back of the knife, Va’inga opened up the coconut with ease. (I once tried to do the same and ended up having to use a hammer! Looks like I need some practice…)
She then grated the coconut meat using the fine side of a cheese grater. We then added a dash of Fiji Water (they are island neighbors to Tonga!) to moisten the coconut and create the milk. We figured the unique mineral profile of the Fiji Water would best imitate what Va’inga uses at home.
Whether you use the canned coconut milk or attempt the make your own, I recommend giving this unique and delicious recipe a try. Ha’u Kai! (Come eat!)
How to make fresh coconut milk:
Grate fresh coconut meat to make 1 – 1/2 cups. Place in a bowl and stir in 1/2 cup of lukewarm water until the liquid looks milky. Squeeze the coconut to release the liquid.
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