Week 13 – Coconut Fish in Banana Leaves
Where are they? Somewhere in the Pacific? was the general response. Yes indeed the Marshall Islands are located in the middle of the vast North Pacific Ocean, north of the equator, and due north ( a long way) of Vanuatu. They are everybody’s idea of the picture perfect tropical island. Very isolated, the group of 29 atolls and 5 lone islands is split into the Ratak Chain to the east, poetically called the Sunrise lands and Ralik Chain to the west meaning the Sunset islands . These are formed by two groups of a strung out straggling collection of long low coral atolls or some volcano tops barely rising out of the sea.
In fact since at their highest point the Marshall Islands are only 10 metres above sea-level!! they are in great danger of disappearing altogether. Much to the dismay of the local inhabitants facing rising sea levels. These islands are so small, they only just managed to squeeze an airstrip on one.
There is no fresh water supply, islanders are still pretty much dependent on rain water. Native vegetation is limited to lush tropical island palms that can colonise islands, and wildlife to what ever flew there – so birds, bats, insects but of course fantastic marine life.
Inhabited by sea-faring Melanesians navigating using ingenious stick charts over 2,000 years ago, the islands came to the attention of Europe with the Spanish laying first claim, then sold to Germany in 1884. They received their name from British explorer John Marshall (1788). During WW2 the islands were invaded by the Japanese after which the USA conquered them.
They remained under US ‘protection” until independence in 1965. I qualify protection because the US government used the islands from 1946 to 1958 to test Nuclear bombs, 67 in total! Including the infamous Bikini Atoll and the testing of the first Hydrogen bomb in the 1952 which blew Elugelab Atoll off the face of the earth! “Yes Karwowski – Kaboom!”
Still mostly sustained by a big American presence, there is very little export or industry, some fishing, copra, some handicrafts and although tourism is increasing, it’s low because of it’s isolation .The world’s largest shark sanctuary was established there in 2011. But it’s an idyllic get away for those who like things laid back, and peaceful. Attractions revolve around the gorgeous ocean, diving, snorkelling, fishing or surfing and lolling around on pristine white beaches overhung by coconut palms is about it.
Marshall Islands are another on of those countries where I would venture to say that traditionally they don’t have a cuisine – they have food. And much of that nowadays is imported from the USA. Sadly this means a great deal of processed food is consumed, high in salt, sugar and fat. Tinned meat such as Spam is hugely popular as little meat was traditionally available.
Like so many other Pacific Islands where soil quality is very poor, (see post on Kiribati) locally grown crops are scarce and mainly confined to a few starchy roots such as Sweet Potato, sago, cassava and tomatoes along with tropical island fruits like coconut, melons, and breadfruit.
Marshallese food makes the most of the fantastic local fish and seafood, and of course now most fresh food items are available in modern supermarkets- but apparently not always – maybe only after the supply ship has been. Traditional cooking methods are grilling, roasting over fires and ‘Hungi’ style (where food is cooked in a pit on hot rocks buried for many hours.)
Coconut is King
Here spicing and chillies are not common, recipes I found were very plain and simple, the natural goodness of the produce shines through. Since coconut is so vital in the Marshall Islands (not just for food) I paired it with fish, wrapped in banana leaves and topped with red onion and tomatoes. A side dish is sweet potatoes fried and tossed with brown sugar, red onions and some sambal – cos’ we like spicy food.
A simple salad of papaya seemed fairly authentic plus plain steamed rice, all served on banana leaves which gave us the tropical island spirit. Hubby loved the sweet potato which he normally won’t even eat – so a big win there! The fish parcels were delicious, I must confess to adding a bit of a fresh Malaysian style spice paste (or rempah) to jazz them up, but the combination of fish with fresh coconut was terrific. I loved it so much I gave it a 9/10, and hubby 8.5/10 a very high score from Mr Picky!
I hope you will make this as it’s really yummy and the banana wrapping can be substituted with baking paper and foil if you need. I have wild bananas growing down the back of the garden so I can just pick some leaves anytime. Do try to get them if you can as they do impart a special fragrance to the parcels as well as looking exotic.
Chargrilled Coconut Fish Parcels wrapped in Banana Leaves serves 4
Ingredients for Rempah – spice paste
- 1 fresh coconut
- 1 fresh red chilli, chopped
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 lemongrass stalk, peeled & cut into short lengths
- salt & fresh ground white pepper
- 4 firm white fish steaks/fillets e.g. snapper, ling, barramundi
- 1 large tomato, sliced
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 2 large fresh banana leaves/ silicon paper & aluminium foil
- Little oil for leaves
To open a fresh coconut: DON’T PUT IT IN THE OVEN! I know a lot of recipes where this is advised – this is so unnecessary and will only ruin the beautiful flavour of your fresh coconut. It’s really simple, first pierce the eyes with a sharp knife point, let the coconut water drain through a sieve into a bowl.
(i) Cup the coconut in the palm of one hand, with the eyes at the top of your hand. With the back of a heavy chefs knife or a cleaver firmly hit the middle of the coconut. Go around the circumference of the coconut, hitting firmly. You will hear the shell cracking as you go – once it’s 3/4 done, just pull the rest apart. There you have it – so easy!
(ii) Use a small thick blade to prise the flesh out, it comes out quite easily in large chunks. Peel the brown skin off with a potato peeler, then rinse the coconut flesh and it’s now ready to use.
To make fresh coconut cream and milk: (i) Grate the chunks of fresh coconut in a food processor. Reserve 1/3 for Rempah. Place grated coconut in a blender with 1 cup of near boiling water. Blend on high until smooth. Let sit for 10 minutes.
(ii) Pour into a wide jug or bowl lined with a clean damp tea towel or cheesecloth. Tightly wring out the cloth, extracting as much liquid as possible. Put coconut back into blender and repeat process with another cup of water.
(iii) Leave the extract to sit 15 minutes, The thick cream will rise to the top, carefully spoon this off. What’s left is your delicious fresh coconut milk! OMG so much better than even the best of the tinned stuff.
(iv) The coconut solids can still be used, in place of desiccated coconut in cakes and desserts, or in curries etc. Can be toasted golden for a lovely topping to sprinkle on pancakes, cereal or yogurt.
- To make Rempah, blend chilli, lemongrass, chopped red onion, reserved grated coconut, salt and pepper together into a smooth paste with a little coconut milk to help blend.
- Cut banana leaves into 4 large squares, cutting either side of centre rib. Wash and carefully dip into boiling water to soften. Dry. Oil the centre of each leaf, place fish fillet on top, then top with spice paste.
- Lay slices of red onion along fillet and top with sliced tomato. Spoon 1-2 TB of fresh coconut cream over fish.
- Fold leaf over to form a parcel, fold ends over, secure with toothpicks.
- Either grill, BBQ or place on metal rack and cook base of parcels over a gas flame ( to get charred flavour) Turn carefully to cook other side on grill or finish cooking in oven if cooking over flame. 5-10 minutes depending on thickness of fillet.
- To serve, place each one on dinner plate and let diner open own parcel- ah the aroma! Will take you to the South Seas!
Overall Marshall Islands scored well, an average 8½ /10, (7/10 from the kids, as they’re not so keen on fish).
Sticky Sweet Potato serves 4
- 1 large yellow sweet potato
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 1 dsp sambal oelek (malaysian chilli paste) Subs: 1/2 tsp chilli flakes & 1 tb water
- 1 tb. brown sugar
- 1 dsp kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) Subs: normal soy sauce & add 1 tsp. extra brown sugar
- 1 dsp vegetable oil
- Cut potato into finger thick slices (about 1.5cm) Heat oil in large frypan on medium heat, fry potato on both sides until golden brown.
- Add onion and fry till softened. Add chilli, sugar and soy sauce, toss well. Fry, adding a little water if necessary 3-5 minutes on low, until potato is tender.
Papaya Salad serves 4
- 1/2 medium red papaya
- 10 cherry tomatoes
- 1/2 red chilli (optional)
- 1/2 avocado
- 1/2 lime, juiced
- Salt & pepper
- Peel, seed and cube papaya and avocado. Cut tomatoes in half and thinly slice chilli.
- Put in a small bowl, season with salt & pepper, squeeze over lime juice and toss lightly.