At the hearth of the matter: French Polynesia’s traditional Ahima’a oven

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For Hinano Murphy, memories of home cooking will always be tinged with the sweet smell of tinged ironwood, the hot steam of banana leaves and the crispy, crunchy umami of a perfectly roasted pig.

That’s because Murphy, the cultural director of the Tetiaroa Society, which strives to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of the French Polynesian island of Tetiaroa, grew up eating daily from the ahima’a — a traditional French Polynesian oven created by digging a deep hole in the ground and placing food on top of buried white-hot volcanic stones.

Image courtesy of InterContinental Resort And Spa Moorea

An Oven, a Technique and a Way of Life

“Ahima’a (pronounced ah-hee-mah-ah) is a way of cooking. It’s a technique, and it’s also a method for preserving food so it does not spoil,” she says. “Growing up, my grandmother used an ahima’a every day. It was a simple one where she cooked the food, and there was another one where she preserved the food, with heat that kept the food from spoiling.”

Long before terms like “farm-to-table” and “nose-to-tail” were popping up on menus in Moorea, Bora Bora and Tahiti, Murphy’s grandmother was feeding her family with fish and crabs caught outside her door, and breadfruit, pineapples and yams grown in her garden. On rare occasions, there was pig, and sometimes a bit of chicken. But mostly it was stews, roasts and puddings, all created by expertly wrapping food items in banana leaves and layering them, like puzzle pieces, into a fiery, molten hole dug deep into the soil of her yard.

As a child, Murphy walked to school with a satchel of ahima’a-cooked fish and cassava or taro — simple food that was roasted in the earthen pit and often reheated overnight in a simple broth of coconut milk to prevent it from turning rancid. For her family, like for so many families across French Polynesia, the ahima’a was the hearth around which daily sustenance was centred.

Image courtesy of InterContinental Resort And Spa Moorea

The Centerpiece of Celebrations

But in times of festivity, this rustic pit took on a whole new significance. For weddings, births and any sort of celebration, revelry would be surrounded around a much larger ahima’a, dug wide and deep enough to hold feasts for entire congregations or villages.

For visitors to the region, these celebrations are the best way to connect to the cooking techniques and traditions of generations past. For most local residents in French Polynesia, the daily ahima’a has mostly been abandoned in favour of more modern conveniences. The local cuisine includes a number of influences, primarily French and Chinese, as well as native Polynesian. But joyous events are almost always marked by the very Tahitian tradition of a massive ahima’a, and the banquets that are cooked inside of them.

“The ahima’a is how Tahitians party,” says Celeste Brash, a journalist, writer and jewellery maker who has lived in Tahiti for 15 years and authored the Lonely Planet guidebook to French Polynesia. “On any given Sunday, there’s always one going on. Many families will do an ahima’a on Sundays, and some restaurants do it as well.”

Image courtesy of InterContinental Resort And Spa Moorea

A Polynesian Puzzle

Ahima’a is a portmanteau of the Tahitian words “ahi,” which means “fire,” and “ma’a,” which means food. The preparation of an ahima’a begins early in the day — sometimes several hours before dawn — with a massive outdoor pit being dug and then filled with firewood and large basalt lava rocks. After the fire has been lit and the temperature has climbed to several hundred degrees, large banana leaves are wafted over the stones until they wilt. Then, in a careful and tedious process, the stems of the banana leaves are removed from the blades of the leaves and set across the burning stones to distribute and control the oven’s temperature.

In next, of course, goes the food. There might be a whole pig, or poulet fafa — chicken wrapped in taro leaves. There might be fish in coconut milk, or roasted whole with salt, and there will most likely be ulu, the every-present Tahitian staple of breadfruit, as well as po’e, a fruit pudding of bananas, papaya or mango cooked with cassava and coconut cream.

“It’s the best Tahitian culinary experience you can have,” says Brash.

The process of filling and layering the hot, spacious oven is a tenuous one, with placement, spacing and the choice of wrapping (banana or hibiscus leaf) playing a role in everything coming out perfectly cooked.

“You have to learn where to put everything,” says Murphy. “You learn where the pork should be, where the fish should be, where you are going to put the taro so the taro will get the taste of the pork… Every dish has its own place in the oven.”

Image courtesy of InterContinental Resort And Spa Moorea

Modern Ahima’a Experiences

For visitors who want to experience the joy of the ahima’a firsthand, options abound across French Polynesia. Every Monday night at the InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea, when the sun dips below the horizon, traditional dancers light the night with torches and guests gather around the heat of the ahima’a to feast on its bounty. At the chic Reef Restaurant at the Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa, the influence and imprint of the ahima’a is felt in the sumptuous roast dishes and coconut-milk-soaked sides of weekly theme dinners. And across the quaint tiki huts of the Painapo Beach Restaurant in Moorea, chef and owner Ronald Sage prepares weekly ahima’a feasts that are renowned throughout the region and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

“The beauty of the ahima’a is when you first open the oven, and the steam hits your nose,” says Murphy. “You have all these different flavours and tastes coming to you, and you start to taste it all even just by breathing in the steam when you open the pit.”

To experience the pristine beauty and seclusion of French Polynesia, consider booking a dolphin or shark diving and Helene Spa experience with the concierge at InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea, a jet ski and stingray feeding experience with the concierge at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa, or a uniquely Polynesian shopping experience with the concierge at the InterContinental Resort Tahiti.

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