Once you’ve arrived on the island of Moorea (just a short hop across the channel from Tahiti) it doesn’t take long for the idea to creep up on you. It might be the intense blue of a tranquil lagoon, or the unbelievably starry night skies. It could be the tropical breezes and the endless sunshine, or maybe it’s the dramatic way volcanic peaks are silhouetted against the sky. In my case, however, it’s the barefoot elegance of a simple meal of Poisson Cru (French for “raw fish”) eaten beneath a rustling palm tree. But whichever way you come to the conclusion it doesn’t take long to concede that yes, Moorea really is paradise.
When I travel I like to leave no mountain unclimbed and no taco, dumpling, or oca root untasted. So it’s no great surprise that on Moorea I’ve grown fond of a local dish known as Poisson Cru. It’s as ubiquitous as it is delicious, it’s on nearly every menu and its flavor defines Polynesia – sweet and exotic. If these islands have a national dish it must surely be this Polynesian twist on ceviche.
Like ceviche, Poisson Cru is raw fish “cooked” in lime juice. However, I don’t really like that comparison because it implies that Poisson Cru is as popular and well-known as ceviche (or sashimi, tartare, crudo, and Hawaiian poke). But it’s not. Maybe today’s best chefs aren’t vacationing in the South Pacific enough because the overlooked Tahitian Poisson Cru becomes uniquely Polynesian with one simple and very local addition – coconut milk.
So why then is it next to impossible to find Poisson Cru outside these islands?
I don’t know. And rather than worry about it I’ve decided that I should hone my Poisson Cru skills before I leave Moorea. So while some in our group head outdoors to snorkel, lounge, or perhaps hike to the Belvedere Lookout I set out in search of good fresh fish.
Having had a strong feeling I’d end up in the kitchen even on vacation I researched the fish mongers on Moorea before I left Los Angeles. So I knew there’s a fish market here simply called the Old Fish Market. It’s listed in all the guidebooks as a “Top Sight” on the island if for nothing else than a chance to view a beautiful old painting of the market by the famed Tahitian artist François Ravello. I’d read that the market is on Cooks Bay near a village called Pao Pao. On the map, it looks like it’s only a few kilometers from Villa Lagon the house where we’re staying. In the days leading up to this trip, I happily fantasized that I’d walk to the Old Fish Market – leisurely taking in the view of the island’s trademark “Shark’s Tooth” mountain – each morning of my stay. So, while on drives around the island, I kept my eyes open for the sign, Cooperatif de Pêche Moorea, after all, what’s better than fresh fish? Fresh fish with a French accent!
However, I soon realized there’s a reason they call this place the Old Fish Market. It’s not because it’s quaint, or old-school, or even because they sell yesterday’s catch. It’s called the Old Fish Market because it’s closed!
Which doesn’t turn out to be a problem. You can buy freshly caught fish – mostly tuna, mahi-mahi, or brightly colored reef fish – from a fisherman at makeshift markets casually set up on many street corners. At first, I’ll admit, it’s a little intimidating (and possibly dangerous to my digestion) to haggle over a raw fish hanging from a string by the side of the road. So I thought to myself that the fish at the huge Champion Toa Moorea Supermarket or the hunks of thon rouge at one of the many neighborhood magasins would probably be just fine. And for the first few days, it was. I poached local billfish in banana leaves and I tried my hand at Poisson Cru. Still, in the back of my mind, I knew I was missing out on an authentic south seas experience by not talking to the man or woman who actually caught the fish I was eating.
So towards the end of our stay, I made it a point to seek out a roadside fish stand and buy fish like a local. It was intimidating and I walked away several times. But I eventually came back because I realized that I was suffering from cultural imperialism. We Americans can be very prone to this affliction. I don’t want to be the kind of person who believes that my values are somehow automatically better than the values of another culture. Especially if I’ve never swayed my hips in their multi-colored sarongs before.
Besides, it’s moments like these that let you truly travel the world without merely vacationing from it. Buying that hunk of fish allowed me to see how proud this man is of his livelihood. It probably means good things for his family and the local economy. Still, it’s true, I sniffed and poked and questioned before I handed over my francs.
As for the rest of our stay on Moorea. Well, it’s paradise. From the white sands of Tema’e to waves crashing on the black lava rocks of Motu Tiahua. Whether you stay in the lap of luxury like our place at Villa Lagon, or you plant your butt in the sand and watch the sunset with the locals at a simple pension like Fare Tokoau (the happy, friendly, quiet Airbnb where we ended our stay), it’s all as beautiful as you ever imagined and then some. GREG