“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?
To answer that question, it made perfect sense for me to suggest a trip back to Fiji a year later, in search of not just great kokoda but the best kokoda. Jan declined to join me but did flip- pantly tell our friends that “Dave, my obsessive food freak of a husband, is going to spend a week in Fiji in search of the perfect bowl of raw fish.”
If I was being obsessive about this, then you’d have to say the same thing about NASA scientists wanting to probe space to see if there’s water on Mars or a novelist spending four or five years just to write a book. It’s all part of man’s natural propensity toward exploration and greatness. Fly to Mars, write the great American novel, eat the best kokoda — it’s all the same.
This time in Fiji, the more kokoda I ate, the less it measured up to my first bite. I was thinking the perfect serving of kokoda would forever elude me when, very early one morning at a Fijian fish market (okay, fine; I’ll admit that I like to hang around fish markets), I ran into an Australian named Shane Watson. I could tell he was a serious afi- cionado of raw fish by the way he was eyeing a spangled emperor, one of the best-looking dead fish I’d ever seen.
Shane bought a few emperors. Envious, I asked him what he was going to do with them. “I’m a chef,” he said. “They’ll be on the menu tonight.”
“What about kokoda?” I asked. “Could you make kokoda with them?”
“Ah, that’d be lovely,” he said. “That’s what I’ll do with them.”
Frankly, I’m glad Jan didn’t accompa- ny me on this trip. She would have been critical of my decision at the fish market to cancel my hotel reservation and take a three-hour boat ride with Shane back to Likuliku Lagoon Fiji, the resort on Malolo Island where he worked, to pay a fair amount of money for a bure over the water just so I could have dinner there (you have to stay there to eat there) and to indulge myself in a deep platter of Shane’s spangled emperor kokoda.
But I’ll tell you what: She missed out. The fish was delicate and flaky and tasted sweetly of the ocean, as did the tiny sea grapes, harvested in the lagoon, which Shane added to the dish. The coconut cream was light and didn’t overwhelm the white flesh. Chili oil suggested heat without overpowering the delicate flavors of coriander, shallot and rice-wine vinegar. It was a kokoda triumph.
Back home, I told Jan my story, leav- ing out some arcane information such as the $1,000-a-night bure at Likuliku. Sometimes, too many details can detract from a good story. I was thinking about that when my friend Abe Takashi asked me if I wanted to go to Tokyo with him to visit his favorite fish markets. I’m all for it, of course. I just need to figure out what to tell Jan.