A Feast Worthy of the Name

When in Tonga, well, do as the Tongans do: sit, enjoy, and eat.

Tongan Feast

At a Tongan feast, even the table cloth comes from the islands: banana leaves cover the tables as we sit down for a meal to remember.Mark Pillsbury

We came to Tonga in the low season, that is to say, in the summer, when most cruisers leave to get out of the way of tropical cyclones. At the Sunsail base we were told we should assume all the restaurants and resorts on the out islands would be closed at this time of year, and that we should buy provisions enough to have all our meals on the boat.

Fine.

After all, we came to sail, swim, snorkel, maybe hike, and explore a village or two. We didn’t travel 40 hours to go out to dinner. We came to see fish and birds, not waiters in flipflops.

Still, we did want to get a good taste of all things Tongan. So when the base called us a couple days into it and asked if we’d be interested in joining other charterers for a Tongan feast, well, we were lickin’ our chops.

We arrived at the appointed island slightly ahead of schedule and luckily talked to some folks who advised us to take small bills for the dancers. Never would have thought of that, being a few thousand miles from the nearest club of the sort where singles come in handy. But, it seems, the Tongan youth, while learning to perform in the ways of their ancestors and thereby save the islands’ traditions, also depend on their dancing to earn a few bucks for walking around money. And, we were told, this being the start of their school year, the villagers could use the cash to buy books, paper, and pens.

In the old days, the tradition was for visitors to paste bills on the childrens’ oiled, sweaty bodies, a throw back to the times when they were rewarded with flower petals. Apparently, though, this upset some in the PC crowd, so now, a basket is set out for donations.

Once ashore, we were first directed to the many villagers who brought down their handiworks of carvings, baskets and the like. Next, we were serenaded by traditional songs, sung by men in between rounds of kava. Then came the dancers, four boys and five girls, who put on a fine show indeed. And finally, it was time for the feast.

A long table was set up under a tin roof by the beach and it was covered from end to end with food. Octopus, raw fish, crab, chicken salad, clams, fish cakes, pork, beef, and cooked papaya were served in “bowls” made from melons and banana shoots; our utensils were thin, six-inch, finger-width shoots from the banana tree. And the dining was absolutely superb.

Our Tongan hosts, Maka and Leslie Latavao, started their underground fire at 1100 and by 1530, they were ready to put the food onto the hot rocks to cook. Everything was made from scratch and everything was grown, harvested or caught in Tonga or its surrounding waters.

Leslie’s brother, Kuina Fatai, organized the dancers, all either his children or relatives. Like his sister and brother in law, it’s a business but also a commitment to retaining the Tongan culture in an Internet age.

Before offering her blessing for the feast, Leslie explained each dish and how it fit into her country’s traditions.

“You have friends, tell them to come,” she said.

So I am. Go to Tonga. Enjoy the feast.