Taste: Tahiti's Po'e

ISLANDS Audio Series: Hear author Adrienne Egolf's audio account of finding po'e in Tahiti.

"We only eat that on Sunday." I look down at my watch, then out the truck's window and back at my watch. I'm trying to remember what day it is. But a week among French Polynesia's lush green islands and impossibly blue lagoons has erased the information from my mind. And now, I need a calendar if I'm going to taste Tahiti's traditional dessert, a starchy concoction of freshly sliced, baked fruit called po'e. "We save it for days when we have time to do it right," my driver, Teri'i, continues. "Days when family comes over." This is a dish I need to eat.

I'd already tasted the savory side of Tahitian cuisine — the ubiquitous poisson cru and barbecue pork dished out at almost every resort's buffet. But at all those well-stocked dessert tables with my spoon at the ready, I could not find the sweet complement to this smorgasbord. Po'e was always missing.

Which was strange. Traversing the hills of Moorea and Taha'a, I'd lost track of the vanilla plantations growing in neat, low rows along the hillsides; the dusty swaths of taro plants covering the ground; the banana trees filling the spaces with wide, green leaves; and the coconut palms towering above it all. In fact, fruit crops seem to account for a healthy majority of Tahiti's landscape. So with all the ingredients so omnipresent, where were all the banana-leaf bowls of baked fruit and taro pudding, spiced with the world's best vanilla and topped with warm coconut cream? Where, I had wondered, was the confluence of all these wonderful Tahitian flavors? Where was the po'e?

Now, as Teri'i steers the 4x4 truck around Moorea's curvy mountain roads, I'm finding out. "You know ahimaa, the Tahitian oven?" he asks me, steering with one hand as he ­hugs a tight corner on the way up to Belvedere Overlook. "It bakes in the ground. Gotta get up early for that. It's not worth it unless the whole family is coming over to eat." I am more convinced than ever. I come from an Italian family; I know what Sunday dinner tastes like.

Like coconut, taro is a common ingredient in this part of the world, a necessary starch component used to stretch the menu for people living in a hot, wet climate. But unlike in Hawaii, where bland taro-root pudding, called poi, is eaten daily with almost every meal by the dutiful locals and the obliging tourists, in Tahiti, the staple takes on a sweeter incarnation. If poi is the white bread of Polynesia, then po'e is the warm, flaky baguette.

Add to that recipe the bluest water in the world and these lush landscapes that rival visions of Eden, and this po'e has got to be something special.
Several days after my enlightening drive with Teri'i, I find myself on Motu Roa, a private islet on the outer edge of Bora Bora's lagoon. While I bask in the warm water, star-struck by Mount Otemanu rising above and the vast emptiness of the beach around me, my guide for the day prepares a feast in a thatched-roof pavilion by the water. I don't even have to ask what's on the menu. This, I know, is the kind of day I've been waiting for.

The spread before me, all served on waxy green leaves and dressed up with hibiscus flowers, is familiar enough. Barbecue fish in hearty, slathered chunks; poisson cru dripping with coconut milk and lime juice; and sliced pineapple and melon in golden and crimson bursts of color. But in one corner of the table, a new flavor beckons.

There on a backdrop of bright-green leaves is a spongy mass of gray taro with hints of banana chunks, soaking in white coconut cream. It looks like tapioca pudding and smells like just a hint of vanilla. Here is the po'e I've been searching for — served with all the love and island flavor I expected. I pile on a heaping portion of the delectable selections and head to my ocean-facing picnic table. The soft pudding is still warm from the underground oven, and the coconut cream pools around the edges of my plate. I take a bite and let the banana melt in my mouth. The sweetness — cut by the starchy taro root and softened by the coconut cream — comprises the subtle aromas from those rolling hillsides I've become so used to here. The texture is similar to the fruit puddings I've had before, but it tastes different, richer, more satisfying. It's a familiar flavor, a comfortable flavor, I think, reaching down for another bite.

Savoring the milky dregs of my first serving of po'e, I dig my toes into the sand and gaze out to the blue lagoon before me. I have no idea what day it is. But it tastes like Sunday.

From the February 2010 issue of ISLANDS magazine.