“You’re just a tad bit obsessed with dead fish, don’t you think?” my wife, Jan, asks without opening her eyes as I crawl back into bed.
Granted, I had gotten up at 3 a.m to drive two hours to a Japanese fish market just so I could make sure the sushi chef at the restaurant we were going to dine at that night picked the best cuts of tuna belly. “I’m not obsessed,” I say. “I’m curious. I just wanted to see where Takashi gets his toro, that’s all.”
“Mmmm,” she murmurs, not buying my argument. “Then what about the kokoda?”
“What about it?” I say a bit defensively.
Her eyebrows arch up as she smiles. Jan is referring to a certain dish on Fiji that I think about. A lot. On a trip a couple of years ago, we hadn’t been on Tokoriki, part of the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji, for more than an hour before I tasted kokoda (koh-kon-dah) for the first time. It was a revelation. The small chunks of raw reef fish were marinated in the juice of local bush lemons, which cooked them like ceviche, firming the flesh and turning it opaque. Served with fresh coconut cream and red-pepper flakes in a coconut shell, the fish was as flaky as phyllo pastry and just as delicate. The citrus added depth to the one-note tones of the coconut cream the way tart ber- ries do to vanilla ice cream. I dipped a spoon into the spiced-up cream, trying to identify additional flavors — onion, coriander, maybe green pepper.
After that initial experience, did I become obsessed? Well, we visited four islands on that trip and had may- be 15 proper meals. I’m quite certain I did not order kokoda more than a dozen times. And mostly that was for research purposes. Yet after my first bite on Tokoriki, it never again tasted quite as good. I couldn’t figure out if it was the amount of coconut cream used or if the fish had been tinned instead of served fresh. Maybe it was the absence of hot peppers or too many pep- pers. Maybe it should only be served in a coconut shell, not a bowl.
For such a simple dish, there seemed to be a lot of variables. I started noting them on the blank back pages of the book I wasn’t reading. “Way too much coconut cream,” I wrote about one. “Rubbery fish” was the verdict on another. “Strong and oily... barracuda?” I questioned of a third. In my mind, the best kokoda was the first one I’d had, but I imagine I would have said that about the first doughnut I’d ever sampled as well. Is our first, eye-opening taste of anything always the best, the standard by which all other versions are measured?