Early in my working life, I was fortunate enough to secure employment in the South Seas, in the New Hebrides, now called Vanuatu. My work there took me around the outer islands and in my early years to the Torres Group. There is a food experience that I shall always associate with that place.
The Torres Islands – seven in all – were the northernmost islands of the Northern District of the New Hebrides and lie about 100kms north of Espiritu Santo on which the District Headquarters was situated. With a population then of about 300, these islands, even in Pacific terms, were extremely remote. To reach them on the small district ship, involved steaming for about 16 hours to Ureparapara in the northern Banks Group, anchoring overnight and then sailing at dawn for a further three or four hours to Hiu, the northernmost island of the Torres Group. Only the islands of Hiu, Loh and Toga were inhabited then and a few hours were spent in each of the three centres of population, before the ship again headed south for Ureparapara. We were always under pressure of time as the Fijian captain was anxious to be off well before nightfall; there was no safe anchorage in the Torres Group. However, on occasion there were a few hours to spare for R and R and these were put to good use.
The seas in this corner of the Pacific are alive with fish and lines were frequently thrown off the stern. Within moments it seemed, large sword fish or tuna were flopping around the deck. This was the first step towards the eating of Tahitian Salad, New Hebrides-style. I add the New Hebrides bit because, although this dish is served throughout the Pacific, it does have local variations. Once the fish was caught, the Captain gave instructions for the ship to steam to Tegua, one of the Torres islands that was then uninhabited.
The launch was lowered into the water and two sailors went ashore armed with a machete. Out beyond the reef, one could see one of them shinning up a coconut tree while the other went foraging in a lime grove. Back on board the ship, they handed over their bag of coconuts and limes to the young Melanesian cook, Philip, and he started to prepare our feast under the watchful eye of the Captain. The process was somewhat tedious. A few coconuts were first husked and their white flesh pulped with a large stone and thrown into a bucket partially filled with water. This concoction was stirred and then put aside. Next, the fish was gutted, skinned, cut into big bite sizes and placed in another bucket. The limes were squeezed and the juice was poured over the raw fish. That too was left to marinate in a shady spot on deck. Meanwhile, we had weighed anchor and the ship was heading southwards for Espiritu Santo and home.
After a few hours, Philip inspected his buckets and, following a nod from the ever-present Captain, he proceeded with the final steps in preparing our Tahitian Salad. Assisted by one of his mates, he poured the pulped coconut and water through a hessian sack into a bucket and then with great vigour squeezed the sack to extract every last drop of liquid. The end result was a white, milky substance, which was added to the fish. A quick stir, a shake of salt and our feast was ready. The crew and passengers, never numbering more than about 12 persons in all, gathered and Philip ladled out the Tahitian Salad into bowls. Words fail to describe the food experience that then followed. Think of tropical heat tempered by sea breezes, the blue of the vast ocean and the sky, the retreating Torres islands against the skyline, the smiling black faces of the Melanesian crew crouching on their hunkers as they joyfully eat their food and for me, the culinary magic of that mix of fish, coconut and lime.