Thursday, July 17, 2008

East Meets West Meets East

“Mahina O Hoku/Aloha Wau Ia ‘Oe” by Natalie Ai Kamauu

Once again I've just returned from traveling, but this time only from across the country, the east coast, where we recently celebrated a significant birthday for my mother. It was heartfelt and hard work, but every bit worth the effort. And, more importantly, it was a family affair.

My Samoan mother is the eldest of 11 siblings, and most of them are local to her. Her father joined the military to get his relatively impoverished family out of the poor Samoan islands. He eventually retired in the last coastal town he was stationed at, Wilmington, North Carolina.

Wilmington is this beautiful boutique beach and golf course community off of the Intracoastal Waterway, considered to be right in the center of Hurricane Alley. Its southeastern coastline unapologetically juts out into the ocean just tempting the Atlantic to strike at it every year with a myriad of tropical storms and smaller hurricanes that fizzle into depressions as they hit the Carolina coast. Sometimes these storms do not weaken, and, in fact, severely punish the peaceful shores of Wilmington and its neighboring coastal communities.

This is not to deter from the beauty of Wilmington, however. I used to visit frequently as a child during the summers and most major holidays. Its winters are mild, although its summers are unforgiving, thick with humidity and flying insects. But its landscape is lush and green with rivers, sounds, and beaches seeming to be strategically situated throughout the city limits.

Likewise, my parents live in a lush, green neighborhood, a golf course community, which is not uncommon. Their backyard is where we decided to celebrate my mother's birthday…Polynesian-style. This is where most people are intrigued, that a large Samoan family has settled in a very southern coastal town.

My mother's Samoan side of the family is large, very large. I am one of about 36 first cousins. We celebrate graduations and major life accomplishments within the family by hosting luaus, where we invite friends not familiar with Samoan custom to eat, drink, and dance with us (it has become a cultural experience for many…as well as a time to celebrate for all). And actually, upon my arrival into Wilmington this time, my family had successfully hosted three luaus in the three weekends prior to my mother's birthday celebration. With a family this size, you can imagine how many special events can happen in a given year.

So, this celebration was not unusual; it reminded me of how appreciative I am to have my large, Polynesian family. My sisters and I flew in to town for the weekend (we are all situated in different states). My parents were putting up about 21 family members at their place, while other out-of-towners stayed with other local family for the weekend. And each day, family would come over to help in the kitchen, play suipi (the national Samoan card game), or break out the guitars and sing until late in the evening. It was shaping up to be exactly how I remembered family gatherings to be like in my childhood. Except this time I was taking a more active role.

In the thick of things I was in and out of the kitchen, sleeves rolled up, hair pulled back, beside my sisters and cousins, preparing dishes like sapasui (bean curd noodles with vegetables, meat, soy sauce, and garlic) and oka (sashimi-grade fish in coconut milk, lemon juice, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers) while children ran underfoot. We had rolled over one hundred spring rolls (for frying) the night before, and I was making my fourth large batch of sushi rice. One of my uncles was prepping the umu (the underground oven) for the pua’a (the pig) with large banana leaves and rocks. He was going small this time with a 65-pound pig. We didn’t expect more than 100 guests at the luau because we hadn’t invited as many as we normally would (yes, they do get larger, much larger; both the luaus and the pigs).

My mother had marinated the chicken the night before, and another one of my uncles was hauling his large grill into the backyard with his truck to barbeque the chicken. Another one of my uncles had assembled a separate food station, complete with portable burners and woks, on a table under a tree outside so that he could prepare the pancit and fry the spring rolls. One of my aunts was preparing her famous banana poi (overripe mashed bananas, coconut milk or cream, and lemon juice served like you would a pudding). I can taste the banana poi in my mouth right now.

So, where exactly am I going with this? Well, all this is to say that, although I don’t really mention my Samoan half that much (I am also half German), I still very much identify with my Polynesian roots. And although most of my immediate Samoan family is not close by, and I only get to see them several times a year, I still hold them close and dear to my heart like a cherished hula that plays over and over in my head. Fortunately, I still have plenty of Polynesian family spread out all over, especially in California, Hawaii, and Samoa. And my roommate and good friend, a Hawaiian herself, and I are also in a halau (a hula school) in southern California, so we are dancing regularly and plugged into the Polynesian community somewhat still.

Of course, it is always in the little things that I am able to feed my nostalgia. Like listening to that familiar hula, or...enjoying this recipe, one of my favorite Samoan dishes that one of my uncles makes better than anyone I know.


1 1/2 lbs. sushi-grade Ahi tuna, cut into 1/2" cubes
1/2 cup Lime juice (or Lemon juice)
1/4 cup Coconut milk
1 Cucumber peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2" cubes
1 Tomato seeds removed, diced
3-4 Scallions chopped
Kosher or sea salt (big pinch)
Fresh ground pepper (pinch)

Mix all ingredients together well. Let marinate 10-20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste. Drain excess liquid. Garnish with some freshly chopped scallions and serve. Variations include: using other fish like halibut, snapper, or swordfish, and/or adding diced red onion, cubed red peppers, grated carrots, or minced garlic.