I am taking you today to the end of the world, the first place in the world where the sun rises, the Tongan Islands, to discover the otai, a refreshing drink with watermelon and subtle notes of pineapple and coconut.
The kingdom of Tonga, a Pacific island country integrated in Polynesia, is located in the southwestern Pacific, about 2000 miles from the Australian coast. It includes four archipelagos: Tongatapu, Haapai, Vavau and Niuas.
Tonga has a total of 169 islands, of which only 36 are permanently inhabited. The majority of the population lives on the largest island, Tongatapu, where the capital is located, Nuku’alofa, whose name means “home of love”.
The Tonga archipelago is bordered to the north by the French territory of Wallis and Futuna and by Samoa, to the northeast by the American Samoa, to the east by the territories of the Niue and Cook Islands, belonging to to New Zealand, and to the west by the Fiji Islands.
The oldest human traces in Tonga date from 1300 BC. JC, making Tonga the oldest civilization of the Pacific. The name of “Friendly Islands” was given by Captain Cook, the famous explorer who landed there in 1773.
In Tonga, one of the most typical dishes is a mussel and clam soup with Polynesian pepper.
Ota ika is a traditional dish made of raw fish marinated in lemon and coconut milk, similar to ika mata from the Cook Islands or kokoda from Fiji. They also serve lu pulu, corned beef with coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves.
The cuisine is made up of fish, chicken, pork, fruits and vegetables. The soil is fertile and the climate favorable to crops. Vegetables are varied, such as tomato, carrot, onion, pumpkin, spinach and other more specific such as taro, sweet potato, cassava.
On special occasions, roast pork is cooked on hot charcoal. The traditional banquet of Tonga involves the use of umu, an ingenious cooking method in an oven dug in the ground, a custom that is widespread throughout Polynesia.
The most common and refreshing drink in Tonga is coconut milk.
Kava is also a popular drink in Tonga. It is a drink made from the plant of the same name, a plant related to pepper, hence its scientific name piper methysticum.
On the fruit side, coconut reigns supreme, as well as banana, papaya, mango, pineapple and watermelon. So let’s talk about watermelon which is the main ingredient of our otai today.
What is otai?
Otai is a fruit drink from Western Polynesia. It is usually prepared to accompany hearty meals.
Today, the drink is mostly associated with Tongan cuisine, although similar versions of otai have been made and are appreciated in other archipelagos, including Samoa, Wallis and Futuna, Tokelau (New Zealand Islands), Hawaii and Fiji.
How to make otai
In its original version, recorded by European settlers in the 1890s, the otai was prepared with a fruit called ambarella (called vi in Samoan and Tongan, wi in the Hawaiian language) and grated coconut, as well as milk and coconut water. The mixture was poured into large empty coconut husks.
Ambarella is a fruit tree native to Polynesia and it grows in tropical countries.
The modern otai recipe is usually a mixture of water, grated coconut pulp and a variety of grated tropical fruits, most commonly watermelon mixed with pineapple or mango.
The Tongan historians have therefore noted that this version is a very modern version as refined sugar, watermelon, mango and pineapple are all foreign ingredients that have been introduced over time and are not native to Tonga.
Tonga’s original recipe would be identical to that of Samoa, except that the preferred native fruit was not the ambarella (vi), but the Tongan mountain apple, called fekika, which is none other than the Kythera plum (Greece), also called the Kythera apple or the Kythera peach. Despite its vernacular name, this tree has nothing to do with plum trees, apple trees, or peach trees. In the same family, that of anacardiaceae, you can find the mango tree and the cashew tree, the tree that gives the cashew apple.
With the same fruit, different versions of otai are prepared in many countries.
It is called zevi in the Reunion, sakoua in the Comoros as well as in Mayotte, vī tahiti (meaning “Tahitian mango”) in Tahitian, and Cytheran plum or Kythira apple in Europe or pomme citerne in New Caledonia.
The fruit is fleshy, yellow-orange, ovoid, about 3 inches long. You can also find this fruit among others in Central Africa, under the name of cassimango, precisely in Cameroon, in Madagascar where it is called sakoa manga, and in Indonesia and Malaysia where it is called kedongdong. In Cambodia, it is known as məka (ម្កាក់). In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is called manga sende.
What is the origin of watermelon?
This fruit, king of color and form, one of the most used also in the art of carving, celebrated in the famous paintings of great masters such as Caravaggio or Matisse, is native to tropical Africa.
Watermelon (cucurbita citrullus) was already known to the ancient Egyptians as mentioned in hieroglyphs dating back five thousand years. They cultivated it along the Nile. In Ancient Egypt, it was said that the watermelon came from the seed of God Seth, and that it was buried in the tombs of the pharaohs with other foods that were supposed to be used in life after death.
Watermelon can also be read in the Bible where the Jews, exhausted in the Sinai desert, regretted the juicy fruits eaten in Egypt. In Greek civilization, watermelon was designated by the same name as cucumber. In Europe, watermelon was already present after the Moorish crusades and invasions.
What are the benefits of watermelon?
In addition to a delicious taste, watermelon has interesting nutritional and health benefits.
The standard composition of the watermelon is 92% water and 8% sugars. Its consumption therefore contributes to our hydration during the hottest days. According to the latest scientific research, the daily consumption of watermelon protects the skin from the risks associated with excessive exposure to UV rays.
Some of the valuable properties of watermelon have recently been confirmed by science, which has proven that it helped against heart disease and reduced levels of bad cholesterol. Watermelon consumption can also help keep weight under control.
Citruline, a substance found in watermelon that makes this fruit suitable for preventing hypertension and heart disease, is extremely beneficial.
Watermelon consumption can also help improve the quality of sleep. Eating a few slices after dinner can boost serotonin production in the body, due to its carbohydrate content.
Watermelon is an energetic fruit. A single serving can increase energy levels by 23%. This is due to its vitamin B6 content, which the body uses to synthesize dopamine, a promoter of well-being. Watermelon also contains magnesium, which is used by our body to provide energy to the cells.
Watermelon is one of the lightest and least caloric fruits we have in the summer thanks to its abundance of water and its total absence of fat. The calories come from the low natural sugar content. 100 grams of watermelon contain only 30 calories.
How to choose a watermelon
Look for a firm watermelon, whose shape is homogeneous and symmetrical, without bruises, cuts or bumps. Weigh it. The watermelon must be heavy. This means that it is loaded with water and therefore ripe and tasty. Compare the weight of a watermelon with another of the same size. The heaviest will be the most mature. This advice applies to most fruits and vegetables.
It is imperative to find the yellow spot. The bottom of the watermelon should have a yellow spot. This is the point that was in contact with the ground while the watermelon was growing in the sun. So the darker the point, the better the fruit. If this spot is white or non-existent, it is because the watermelon has probably been harvested too early and it will not be ripe.
Check its color. A watermelon that is perfectly mature should be deep green and not shiny. A shiny watermelon is often not mature.
Finally, tap on it. The technique of hitting a few small strokes on the watermelon is not easy to master: give a firm tap with your fingers, stick the watermelon against the ear and religiously listen to the sound of the watermelon. A ripe watermelon must sound hollow. Avoid those with a thud or deep sound, as this would mean that your watermelon is not ripe.
There are many varieties of watermelons: from red watermelons to green, black or white peel, from yellow watermelons to green peels of oval, round or even square shape among our Japanese friends.
Try otai, this is a delicious thirst-quenching drink!
- ½ watermelon without seeds, grated
- ½ pineapple ripe, very finely grated
- 3 tablespoons freshly finely grated coconut
- 2 cups coconut milk
- 1 lime freshly squeezed
- 2 cups water
- 3 tablespoons caster sugar
- 4 slices lime
- Mix all the ingredients (except the lime slices).
- Serve very fresh, with crushed ice if desired, and a slice of lime.