What’s in a name(us)

One of my all time favorite dishes is Ceviche, which comes from Peru. It’s a cold, raw fish salad, where the fish is ‘cooked’ by marinating it in vinegar and lime juice.

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Torres Strait Islanders love their fish and they have a version of the ceviche called namus or numus 

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However, I doubt they got the recipe of South America, its more likely it arrived in the Strait with the Japanese pearl divers and their dish of Namasu which is much the same thing as ceviche and numus. It seems the Japanese got it from China around 700AD. There seems to be versions in East Timor and Samoa,I guess great ideas get around.

What’s in a name, it’s a great recipe. I visit to the pier the other night was fruitless for me, but a Priest and his family from PNG who I have become fishing buddies with, hauled about 50 Queenfish using lure and jig lines, so they gave me five.

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I followed the Strait recipe below, but put it on a bed of steamed sliced sweet potato and sprinkled fried corn kernels on top, similar to how the Peruvians serve it. Bloody awesome.

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Here’s an Islander version of the recipe

  • 2 fillets of fish, sliced finely (trevally or other pelagic variety)
  • 1 large onion, chopped finely
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • peanut oil (enough to coat the bottom of a small saucepan)
  • soy sauce (Old Cathay is a favourite but use what you have available)
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 chillies (optional, but if your game use birds eye and chop finely)
  • brown vinegar
  • castor sugar
  • 1 orange, chopped in quarters and sliced width-wise with peel still on
  • 1 red & green capsicum, sliced or chopped
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • shallots, chopped (for garnish)

Method:
In a large mixing bowl (use glass or ceramic) place sliced fish. In a small saucepan or wok heat up the peanut oil until hot and pour in the mixing bowl. Stir the oil through the fish thoroughly. To that, add the chopped onions and garlic. Mix well. Stir in the lemon juice and vinegar (about two capfuls). By then the fish flesh should be turning a little white as the acidity of the lemon and vinegar start to “cook” the fish. Mix in the sugar (about a teaspoon), chillies, orange and red and green capsicums. Add a little soya sauce for taste and to add some colour to the dish – remember not too much. You can also add salt and pepper to taste, but you probably won’t need much salt because of the soy sauce. Refrigerate overnight or for at least four hours. To serve: place the namus in small bowls lined with lettuce leaves and garnish with chopped shallots.

Here’s Samoan version that adds coconut cream at the end.

  • 500 g white fish fillets
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 lemon, sliced
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 400 ml coconut cream, if it’s not too rich or 1/2 cup coconut cream, if it’s rich

Directions:

Cut fish into cubed pieces.
Sprinkle with salt then lemon juice.
Cover and chill for 2 hours or overnight or until fish whitens, stirring occasionally.
Put in onion, coconut cream, tomatoes and cucumber, and garnish with 1/2 lemon slices.
Serve chilled.

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Cooking up a storm

With sound of knives on chopping blocks as a group of young men dice a mountain of garlic and ginger, the air is rich and sweet with its bouquet.

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Walking back from a tombstone unveiling ceremony, I inadvertently pass the preparation of not one but five Kupmurries, the Strait’s version of a Hungi or ground oven.

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I watched as the men (who traditionally prepare the meats and tend to the fires) prepared a combination of bush food, including deer, wild pig, dugong and turtle.

With the turtle, everything is used, the flesh, the organs, the blood. One of the delicacies is the freshly butchered liver slapped straight on the BBQ, which the men ate for lunch to sustain them during their preparations (which actually goes on for days).

I watched the young kids play with the turtle eggs, rubbery ping-pong-ball-like things.

The meats are marinated with the garlic and ginger, malt vinegar and soy sauce, the latter I’m guessing is the influence of the Malay and Japanese ancestors who came to the region as part of the pearling trade

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  Pearling lifestyle, by: Joey Liafoo, 2004. 

Three of the kupmurries were dedicated to cooking meat, while the other two were for damper bread and Sop Sop, which is yams, red and orange sweet potatoes doused in coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves and foil. These dishes were prepared by the women.

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The science of the Kupmurrie is simple but elegant:

  • dig a shallow hole in the ground
  • layer it with kindling and stones
  • set fire to it and let it burn down

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The hot rocks are then spread out

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A layer of split banana tree trunks are laid on the rocks and the food placed on top.IMG_7122

The food is then covered with leaves which both help trap the heat and provide a source of steam.

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This is all covered with a blanket.

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And then plastic and sand…

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Then leave for an hour and 45 minutes…

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Bush foods such as turtle and dugong have been hot beds of contention, as both animals are endangered, many environmental groups are outraged at this traditional hunting practice.

And with the onset of social media, where young hunters have posted photos and videos of their kills, has further aghast the latte-sipping metrosexual middleclasses…

Tensions are high on the islands too. An elder told me in no uncertain times “That all eyes are on you.” I was forbidden to take photos of the turtle being slaughtered and told I would be run out of town if I posted anything negative about their hunting practices. But that is not why I have written what I have below…

Well peeps, Aboriginal hunting rights allow traditional and not commercial hunting, for their own consumption. Us whities have done a damn good job of fucking up the majority of the planet, so it’s hardly surprising they get more than a little miffed at their traditional practices being under threat.

The fine print here in Qld:

In Queensland, Aborigines living on trust lands are exempt from hunting and fishing legislation under the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 (Qld) s 77 and its Torres Strait equivalent. This exemption allows for traditional hunting for consumption. 

There is actually no solid evidence their hunting these tasty, yet endangered sea morsels is to blame for their dwindling numbers. Read this conversation, and this one too.

Now I am, have always been, an avid conservationist, with political leanings to, libertarianism. a dash of anarchy and enviro-terrorism, but getting emotional over saving the cutesy animals based solely on emotional responses is not on. Stop the Japanese killing thousands of whales commercially under the farcical banner of ‘scientific research’ yes – harpoon the fuckers and feed them to the sharks,  same with the Chinese shark fin industry, fur pelt industry and the  ivory peddling industry. Kill ’em all and let God sort them out. But the key word here is industry – Indigenous hunting practices are a tradition, not an industry, that’s the difference.

Hell, who knows, if we let them carry on as they have for millennia, maybe they we look after their resources sustainably.  

And remember, if you think you are doing the world a favour eating your soya-based meat supplement, think again.

The (lemon)grass is always greener…

OK so I have started exploring TI on the ‘company mountain bike’ (yes I get a company bike!). On my circuit of the island I have discovered a scattering of community gardens with chili bushes, lemongrass, paw paw, pineapple,  some immature orange trees, watermelon, pumpkin and taro.

Thursday Island is a difficult place to have a garden – poor soils, prone to waterlogging in the wet and baking in the heat, not least of the challenges gardeners face. Local identity George Ernst, who has lived and worked in the Cape and Torres Strait region for many years, has developed a garden system that has proven to produce fruit, vegetables and flavourings and can be adapted to ornamentals, medicinals and other plants.

The ‘donut garden’ name extends from the round mound of mulch and compost that reduces weed growth, retains moisture and breaks down to provide food for the plants. The distinct shape and relatively small size, between 3 and 4 metres across, also helps to define these gardens.

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One of the gardens is next to a rocky beach, where I spotted some other fellow foragers, small reef sharks patrolling a couple of metres from the shore. This area is called Quarantine Point and it is where Islanders slaughter the dugongs they hunt.

As the name suggests they are for anybody in the community, so I grabbed some fresh chilies and lemongrass to spice up my dinner.

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It was dark by the time I got home and when I entered the house and turned on the light I realized I had picked up a tiny hitchhiker sitting on my arm.

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He must have crawled out of the clump of lemon grass I picked.

I figured I had enough protein with the fish I caught recently off the pier. So the gecko got a reprieve from my skillet.  

The fish is something mob here call ‘blackfish’ – apparently a tasty little morsel with poisonous spines on its dorsal fins. The only cure, I am told is to either piss on the wound or rub the fish’s liver on it – needless to say I was very careful to gut it.

So my new impromptu recipe:

Chilli and lemongrass blackfish

  • couple of red chillies, finely chopped
  • two lemongrass sticks, finely chopped
  • a crushed garlic clove
  • splash of Hoisin sauce 

lemongrass chili

Fry the spices in oil, chuck in the Hoisin sauce and stir. Add fish, frying both sides till crispy and serve with the fried spices on top.

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I’ve heard a great meal needs only four principle flavours to make it work, I guess its true.

TI Tucker

One of the reasons I am trying to be a better fisherman is because the prices in the supermarket on TI are so steep they make your eyes water. Because of the remote location and distance from the nearest city, which is Cairns (its so remote we call Cairns a city), everything has to be freighted in.

But there is some good tucker here. Things that back in Tassie are an exotic treat, such as Crayfish, are not seen as anything special up  here, like I said previously, they use it for bait for fishing!

I have eaten cray tails three times so far in three weeks and never once had to pay for it.

I  get given the occasional cray tail for the old newspapers (they use it to wrap fish).

Also the local bakery does make a great curried cray pie though (similar to the Tassie Scallop pie).

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Even the pub does a cray Morney which is cheaper than steak.

I have started knocking up my own recipes too, such as Cray tail Carbonara:

  • some garlic, fried in olive oil,
  • one rasher of bacon diced,
  • handful of sliced mushrooms,
  • Handful of peas
  • one diced cray tail
  • All quickly fried, then stir in cream that’s had an egg whisked through it
  • Chuck in some parmeson and mix it into some fettuccine pasta, and served with a splash of red wine, bloody awesome!

But I think the real gastronomic highlight was when I was invited (as the press) to an Islander’s 70th birthday party.

I have never seen so much food in my life.

feast of kings

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There was traditional dancing and general revelry until late into the night.

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I popped a gastronomic cherry that night. The first time I ate turtle. Sure the environmentalist part of me had pangs of guilt, but this is a fishing practice the stems back before us Europeans even measured time, and even though these are endangered animals, they are not fished on a commercial level and only by the traditional fishermen – so in this case I considered fair game – quite literally.

It was quite a dark meat, more like beef or venison that anything fishy.

Much of the food was prepared in a Kup-murri, the Torres Strait version of a Hangi, where turtle, pig and deer is all cooked in the ground with wood and coconut fronds giving everything a fantastic smoky flavour. Unlike the New Zealand version, its only the men folk that can cook the Kup-murri.

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There is so much food that everyone wraps up parcels to take home before they even eat, so they can have delicious cold cuts the next day(s).

Sunday turtle cold cuts

Sunday turtle cold cuts

My Sunday lunch was no other I had ever experienced, turtle and mango’paw paw chutney on damper bread.

Then a few days after the birthday feast, I local fisherman mate gave me some dugong, yes it’s another endangered beastie, but again caught within the traditional fishing rights. He slow cooked it with onions and garlic – tasted ;like pot roast pork, quite tasty, but I struggled with the psychological element for a while.

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Thinking I had just experienced two once-in-a lifetime experiences in one week, the following weekend, there was not one but two wake parties and everything was back on the menu once again. These wake parties often occur a couple of years after the funeral, as the family takes time to raise the funds for the headstone. They then have a ceremonial headstone reveal and a huge party and feast that night as a celebration of the person’s life. I’m getting used to my new sense of ‘normal’.

Island party favours

Island party favours

plenty of fish in the ocean

Well I am a lousy fisherman, always have been, but while I am exiled from family for the next ten weeks I intend to to my damnedest to learn. After all there is plenty of fish in the ocean and the Strait seems to have more than its fair share. Plus, apart from drinking and rugby league there is sweet F.A. else to do up here.

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An American mate I meet in the Amazon Jungle a couple of years ago, crashed on my couch a while back and left me a fishing rod, which I hauled up here. But I soon realise I may be under-gunned. My line is 15 pound strength, and the locals tell me 150 pound snaps like cotton. I suspect it’s an old fisherman’s tall tale…

My first endeavour involves sitting on the dock dangling prawn tails on hooks, but not a single nibble – I go home empty handed.

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Then on the second attempt a couple of days later I manage to catch what’s known locally as a Monkey Fish, inedible and I was the laughing stock of the other fisherman on the wharf, they were pulling Trevally and coral trout a foot long. You had to be quick as there as a two metre Bronze Whaler Shark snapping the fish right off the lines as they were pulled in, a couple of time it breached clean out of the water. He didn’t go for my fish, it was too small, it didn’t even come out in my photo!

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On my third day I hung out with some local lads, and one guy, who will call G, taught me some local knowledge, firstly how to caste, secondly how to read the tides and most importantly what bait to use.

This may be hard to believe, but they use crayfish as bait up here!

I managed to catch a slightly bigger fish than my previous attempt, and G said it was a keeper. But he felt sorry for me and gave me a couple from his esky from my dinner.

He told me you he makes fish curry using the lemongrass from the community garden on TI (Thursday Island in local talk). He also leaves some fish on ice over night to tender it up.

The following night, using my new found knowledge I managed to pull up a nice trevally, despite the same shark jumping out of the water as I did.

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Panfried with oil, salt and lemon juice, a dinner of champions…

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