An ‘ahima’a is an almost compulsory feature of any a festive gathering in The Islands of Tahiti. These traditional earth ovens require quite a bit of preparation. The oven is actually a hole in the ground, filled with red hot volcanic stones and used to steam cook food. The stones have been heating on a fire for most of the previous night.
In Rurutu an earth oven is called an umu’ai on special occasions, such as a wedding, the whole island is invovled in preparing it. On other islands, such as Bora Bora, Moorea, Huahine and Maupiti, the tradition of an ‘ahima’a is alive and flourishing. ‘Ahima’a is an old Tahitian word; ‘ahi means fire and ma’a means food. Traditionally, an ‘ahima’a was used for preparing feasts for big celebrations. The missionaries introduced the idea of special family meals on Sundays, and so, almost every family used to have its own ‘ahima’a oven. Today they are used for special celebrations, such as birthdays, weddings or other important occasions. The food cooked in an ‘ahima’a oven has a slightly smokey taste, but is always succulent and delicious.
Preparing an ‘ahima’a !
The most important quality for preparing an ‘ahima’a earth oven is patience. The day before the meal, a large hole is dug and filled with coconut husks, twigs and branches. Then large volcanic stones are placed on top and the wood is set on fire. By early the next morning, the stones are red hot. The food is then wrapped in banana leaves and placed on the stones, and the ovenis sealed. The cooking takes another few hours, but the steamed chicken, pork, fish, breadfruit, taro, fē’i bananas, and sweet potatoes come out incredibly succulent and make all that effort worthwhile.
The opening of the oven is a big moment, for gourmets and gourmands alike. As the mixed odours of the various foods in the oven waft up, all those hours of preparation sudenly make sense. The traditional ‘ma’a Tahiti’ or Polynesian meal, cooked in an ‘ahima’a earth oven, will consist of delicacies such as ei’a (fresh fish from the ocean) and pua oviri (wild pig), that will be accompanied by ‘uru (breadfruit), taro, fé’i bananas, and fāfā (spinach). The dessert is usually po’e (a very sweet pudding made with fruit such as papaye or fe’i and cassava flour), which is also cooked in the earth oven and served with coconut milk.
The preparation of an ‘ahima’a starts the day before, and the cooking itself takes about four hours. To continue the ecological aspect of cooking in an earth oven, you can use a leaf from from the purau tree (a variety of hibiscus) as a plate, half a coconut for a bowl, and a cup made of bamboo.
During your stay in The Islands of Tahiti, try to taste the following dishes: poisson cru au lait de coco, poulet fāfā (chicken cooked with spinach and coconut milk), banana po’e, and fara’oa uto (a kind of coconut bread). Another dish to try, if you’re feeling adventurous, is the famous fafaru, an extremely pungent dish of fish marinated in fermented seawater. Fortunately, it tastes much better than it smells!