July 13, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

French Polynesia has a culinary secret. It’s home to mouth-watering Chinese fusion cuisine

9 min read


Papeete, French Polynesia
CNN
 — 

It’s a cloudless morning and the sun is shining brightly off the coast of French Polynesia’s capital and largest city, Papeete, enhancing the water’s already vibrant shades of blue.

Though just meters away from the territory’s largest commercial port, cruise ship terminal and airport, the water is clean and clear, amplified by the presence of kaleidoscopic coral and a diverse array of marine creatures.

My spearfishing guide is scouring the coral reefs for anything that might make for a delicious meal, but I’m hoping we catch some tuna, mackerel or parrotfish to make poisson cru à la chinoise, a Chinese take on French Polynesia’s national dish, poisson cru au lait de coco (lime-marinated raw fish with coconut milk).

Both versions of the national dish are as ubiquitous as they are delicious, but the popularity of the chinoise version poses an interesting question: How did Chinese food become one of this French territory’s favorite cuisines?

Forging new lives, thousands of miles from home

An aerial view of Mo'orea, an island in French Polynesia.

According to historical accounts, the first group of Chinese immigrants, primarily of the Hakka and Punti ethnicities, arrived in French Polynesia in 1865.

The majority were brought from China’s Guangdong province to work on a cotton plantation in Atimaono, located on the south side of French Polynesia’s main island, Tahiti.

But in 1873, the owner of the plantation died; just one year later, his cotton company went bankrupt.

Being more than 11,000 kilometers from home and having little money, many of those Chinese workers remained in French Polynesia to forge new lives.

Some continued farming on the defunct plantation, others opened small shops and eateries throughout the archipelago.

From these humble beginnings, the Chinese population has grown to become an integral part of French Polynesa’s business sector. Chinese is now the country’s second-largest ethnic group, accounting for more than 10% of the overseas territory’s population.

Depending on the chef, Ma’a Tinito can contain a wide variety of ingredients -- macaroni included.

Early on, Chinese cooks had to adapt to what was available in French Polynesia, utilizing more fresh seafood, fruits like coconut and breadfruit, and staples like taro instead of rice. Soy and oyster sauces, along with other ingredients needed for more complex Chinese cooking, would become more readily available only with later waves of immigration from China in the early to mid-1900s, says an article in the Journal of Pacific History.

This relatively slow pace of culinary evolution would also give local Tahitians’ palates more time to become accustomed to more flavorful food; before the Chinese arrived, Tahitian cuisine was very simple and predominantly seasoned with just a few ingredients, such as salt, pepper, lime, onions and coconut milk.

It’s hard to picture exactly what early Tahitian-Chinese food may have looked like or tasted like, especially with the prevalence of Chinese ingredients on grocery store shelves today. Thankfully, one relic of early Chinese-Tahitian cooking has stood the test of time.

Ma’a Tinito, literally meaning “Chinese food” in the Tahitian language, is also the name of a dish that’s considered one of the region’s earliest Chinese culinary creations.

According to research by the Sinitong Association, which oversees the local Chinese cultural associations of French Polynesia, it was invented by a Chinese kitchen assistant in the tiny district of Atimaono.

The story goes that the cook, short on ingredients, had to improvise to quickly satiate the hungry stomachs of the area’s plantation workers.

In his storeroom, he found red beans and salted pork, and then to add a bit of color to the dish, he fetched some bok choy (Chinese cabbage) and long beans from the vegetable garden. Curious locals asked the workers, “What are you eating?” The workers replied: “Ma’a Tinito!” (Chinese food!)

Easy to cook, cheap, delicious and easily adaptable, the dish, and its name, were here to stay.

A surefire way to immerse yourself not only in the flavors, but also in the culture of Chinese-Tahitian cuisine, is to sign up for a food tour.

“Our Chinese food is about family and friends,” says Orama Mollimard, founder of the local food tour and travel company Tahiti With Me.

“It’s something that is meant to be shared and appreciated with everyone at the table.”

Having had almost two years of experience as a food tour guide, Orama decided to found her own company in 2024, so that she could share her favorite eats with new friends from around the world.

Her Papeete food tour highlights Chinese-Tahitian snacks as an ode to her own Chinese-Tahitian heritage.

Hungry foodies can look forward to a few of Orama’s personal favorites, such as steamed chicken rice balls, Chinese-style fish beignets and plum-powdered mangoes.

Poisson cru à la chinoise is a Chinese-inspired version of the national dish, poisson cru au lait de coco.

When trying one of Orama’s recommended versions of poisson cru à la chinoise, those familiar with how raw fish is served in China might draw some connections between the two.

Yúshēng, meaning “raw fish” in Chinese, is a popular yet relatively simple dish that generally consists of raw fish slices and an accompanying savory, sour and sometimes spicy sauce.

This delicacy has been eaten for thousands of years in China, and has been brought by the Chinese diasporas to all parts of the globe.

One can easily imagine Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s or early 1900s experimenting with different combinations of flavors and fish, eventually leading them to create a sweet, sour and savory Chinese-inspired version of poisson cru.

Tuna, julienned carrots and turnips, cucumber, onions, garlic and ginger, mixed with a beautiful dressing of lemon or lime juice, sugar, salt, pepper, sunflower oil and rice vinegar – a simple yet delicious manifestation of Chinese-Tahitian fusion that pays heed and compliment to the national dish.

While not all poisson cru à la chinoise recipes require the addition of sugar, French Polynesia’s collective sweet tooth deems it unthinkable to exclude it.

“Our cooks make the dishes slightly sweeter than they would be normally to appeal to local tastes,” says Karl Chung-Tan, second-generation owner of the Restaurant Golden Lake on the island of Mo’orea.

This extends to other dishes. For example, the classic Cantonese roast suckling pig is given a unique twist here: instead of being served with a yellow mustard dipping sauce as it is in Hong Kong or Guangzhou, it’s paired with a side of lush and velvety coconut milk.

Dishes like these make it clear French Polynesia’s chefs aren’t attempting to simply mirror their counterparts in China. By embracing local ingredients and tastes, as well as traditional Chinese techniques and flavors, they are able to create an even more uniquely delicious and innovative synthesis.

Globalization has made accessing once hard-to-find ingredients relatively easy, and while authenticity has its charm, the evolution of Chinese-Tahitian fusion in French Polynesia makes for a rare and exciting culinary story.

Ready to experience it first-hand? Below is a selection of restaurants throughout French Polynesia serving excellent Chinese-Tahitian food, along with recommended dishes to try.

It was only appropriate that Restaurant Le Dahlia was my first introduction to Chinese-Tahitian cuisine. Opened in 1972, it’s the oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurant in Tahiti.

Their suckling pig with coconut milk is truly outstanding.

Their steamed black bean parrotfish is said to be a must-try, but diners need to call a few days in advance to order it.

I’m not sure how many times one must eat poisson cru to be considered a connoisseur – but of the seven or eight times I enjoyed the dish throughout my recent trip, Chez Mei’s version stood head and shoulders above the rest.

The Papeete Sunday Market offers local farm products, fish and meat, handicrafts and souvenirs.

The Papeete Sunday Market is the beating heart of French Polynesia’s capital city.

All kinds of goodies are available for purchase: wild-caught whole tunas, locally grown fruit and vegetables, freshly baked pain au chocolates and croissants, poisson cru by the pound, and even pearls and other souvenirs.

Yet where the market really shines is its incredible array of Chinese dim sum (snack) offerings.

While all these recommended dim sum dishes are of Chinese origin, some might be best known by a name in one of four languages: Tahitian, French, Hakka or Cantonese. As such, the corresponding local name for each item is listed. Embrace your inner polyglot and get snacking!

– Chao pao (steamed stuffed buns)
– Nems (spring rolls)
– Bouchons/Siu Mai (steamed dumplings with pork, shrimp or chicken)
– Samoussas (fried wontons)
– Lopepan (white glutinous rice dumplings, filled with turnip, chicken and pepper)
– Founpan (red glutinous rice dumplings, filled with brown sugar and crushed peanuts)

The market opens at about 4 a.m. and tourists are advised to get there early.

When I arrived at 4:15 a.m. it was already humming with activity; there was a line 20-30 people deep to grab a few slices of one vendor’s famous Pua’a Roti (Cantonese-style barbecue roast pork).

While not on the regular menu at Golden Lake, insiders can ask for a family-style portion of Ma’a Tinito to be cooked to order.

The mainstays of the dish are its thick, sweet and salty brown sauce and large chunks of tender pork, yet almost every other element is fungible; it’s the perfect dish to cook at home when you’re in a pinch.

Versions of the dish vary as widely today as they probably did in the 1800s, as beans, macaroni, Chinese cabbage, taro, or rice noodles can be added as the chef desires.

Traditionally, the dish was served with banana, yet today, locals more commonly enjoy it with rice or bread.

Le Panda D’Or (Vaitape)

Le Panda D’or is the only privately operated Chinese restaurant in Bora Bora.

Located in Vaitape, Bora Bora’s main city, travelers will likely pass by it on their way to or from a jet ski tour, shark and ray cruise, or when shuttling between different resorts, thus making it an easy lunch stop on the way to their next destination.

Their shrimp-stuffed fish did not disappoint.

At Bora Bora’s world-famous resorts, the executive chefs and their teams are continually pushing the boundaries of Chinese-Tahitian fusion.

The three following resorts I visited all expressed a strong incentive to develop new dishes to keep offerings exciting for their discerning guests.

A favorite at this St. Regis Bora Bora restaurant is the caramelized pork stir fry. The good-sized, ever-so-slightly fatty pieces of pork are crisped to perfection, and the addition of purple and green cabbage, onions and carrots made the dish visually appetizing.

The portions are reasonable so you’ll most likely have room for dessert. The Cocoriander is a must-try – provided you like coriander. The chocolate “coconut shell” has freshly made coconut sorbet inside, which can be paired with as much or as little of the side of coriander cream as you please.

Although coriander is certainly not an ingredient exclusive to Chinese cuisine, it’s often used for flavoring and/or garnish in China, making the dish stand out as a beautiful example of innovative Chinese-Tahitian fusion.

Banyan's wok-fried spiny lobster is a must-try dish.

A modern Chinese restaurant, Banyan offers a local adaptation of a traditional Cantonese dish. Its lovingly hand-crafted Siu Mai (steamed pork and shrimp dumplings) are the five-star version of what you can find at the vibrant Sunday Market in Papeete.

They can be enjoyed as presented, but feel free to ask the server for some vinegar or chili paste if you’d like to try them as dumplings are sometimes eaten in China.

All of the fish and shellfish at Banyan is locally sourced and that includes the signature wok-fried spiny lobster.

Dishes are served in family-style portions, so expect a gracious amount of lobster meat, covered in a thick yet delicate, home-made XO sauce, a quintessential Hong Kong condiment.

It’s hard not to have high expectations of the food after seeing this restaurant’s setting. Vaimiti, perched above idyllic cyan waters and pristine white sands, commands incredible views of Mount Otemanu and what might be the world’s most beautiful beach.

A menu mainstay of nearly two years here is the Hunan-style Mahi Mahi.

“Hunan-style” usually suggests a fiery heat, yet this dish has been made more appealing to guests from around the world with chilis that lend a sweet, rather than spicy, note.

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