When I stayed on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia, breakfast at the resort was served as a buffet. It included a characteristic spread of cured meats, cheeses, croissants, fresh fruit, pancakes and eggs prepared to order, and similar fare, all the staples one might expect of hotel and resort breakfasts, all clearly influenced by the tropical and French setting, but it also had one distinctively Polynesian offering: a bowl of poisson cru à la tahitienne, usually translated as “Tahitian ceviche.” Known in Tahitian as “i’a ota,” simply “raw fish,” but more commonly described locally with its French name, this dish instantly captured my heart and my palate, and few breakfasts passed without a ladle-full of it next to the cheeses and croissant on my plate.
I’a ota is not just a bowl of raw fish, of course. Like Latin American ceviche, the fish is mixed with a weak acid, typically citrus juice, to render its exterior opaque, and it is here also mixed with various vegetables and, importantly, coconut milk. I’a ota is usually tuna caught locally, but other seafood can be treated similarly, usually with a different name. The result is somewhere between a soup and a salad, depending on the amount of coconut milk used, and it tastes the way the Mo’orea beach feels: breezy, sweet, salty, rich, light, and above all, tropical.
Given that the mix of vegetables used in poisson cru à la tahitienne at the resort where I stayed features such European classics as cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes, one might be forgiven for thinking the dish is a postcolonial innovation. That was certainly my read of the dish when I encountered it, especially given the French name. Delightfully, however, it turns out that i’a ota is a distinctively Polynesian invention, with variations found across the entire Polynesian triangle and predating European contact entirely. The citrus fruits used in i’a ota, likewise, are Polynesian cultivars spread between the islands as the Polynesians populated them rather than more recent additions to the island landscape. I’a ota has not been static since European contact, of course; in addition to now usually going by its French name, its mix of non-fish additions now reflects previously unfamiliar vegetables and fruits. (Hawai’ian poke is a distant cousin.)
This recipe serves six. I’a ota is shockingly stable when refrigerated, so it is safe to prepare enough for several days at a time. The acid continues to slowly “cook” the fish over time even in the refrigerator, so the experience slowly shifts accordingly. Poisson cru à la tahitienne makes a lovely breakfast, lunch, or dinner, as needed, and is especially welcome on hot summer days.
You will need your preferred cutting tools, a wooden spoon, and a mixing bowl. Depending on which ingredients come to you already processed in some way, you may need additional tools such as a citrus reamer or additional bowls for reserving ingredients before mixing.
- Sushi-grade tuna, approximately 400 grams. I buy cubed sushi-grade tuna frozen in packages approximately this size. Bluefin is traditional.
- Crushed pineapple, 398 mL. This is the volume of one can that I buy.
- Limes, 2, for juicing, or the equivalent volume of lime juice.
- Carrots, 142 g. I buy shredded/matchstick carrots for this recipe and use ½ a bag to get this amount.
- Tomato, 1 or 2
- English cucumber, ½. Substitute 3 mini/Lebanese cucumbers.
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Coconut milk, 400 mL. This is the volume in one can that I buy.
- Scallions/green onions, as garnish. Chives are traditional but the French embassy has not yet arrested me for using scallion greens, so it’s probably fine.
- Variants: Chopped onion is a traditional inclusion, but I find this recipe works better without it. Leaving out pineapple reduces the intensity of its tropical sharpness. Recipes from western Polynesia often add chopped spicy peppers. There are similar dishes from all over the region that use other kinds of seafood, such as mussels, crab, and eel.
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: As written, this recipe is gluten-free.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Choose included vegetables with their carbohydrate content in mind. Coconut milk is naturally low in carbohydrates.
- Low-FODMAP: This recipe already makes several digestion-friendly substitutions. Leave out onions.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: This recipe is meant to showcase fish, but leaving out the fish would make a zesty salad, I suppose.
- If your tuna is not already cubed, cut it into cubes no more than 1 cm on a side and reserve.
- If your pineapple is not already crushed, cut and crush it and reserve.
- If you are using limes rather than lime juice, thoroughly juice the limes with a citrus reamer. Reserve the juice and discard the peels.
- Cut the carrots, tomatoes, and cucumber into suitably small pieces and mix in a bowl with salt and pepper.
- Add the tuna to the bowl and mix.
- Add the lime juice and crushed pineapple to the bowl and mix.
- Add the coconut milk to the bowl and mix.
- Serve in individual bowls garnished with chopped scallion greens.
I hope this bright, simple piece of the Pacific islands can bring you some tropical joy, the same way it brightens so many of my days.