Glutton Onboard: Turning into my parents in Tahiti

Poulet au sel at Restaurant Memene

When we were kids, my parents would regularly drive hours from our home in western Pennsylvania for decent Cantonese food. Although our tiny town boasted its very own Chinese restaurant — New Mandarin Inn, to be exact — it was not up to the standards of my exacting mother, who preferred a particular type of Cantonese food. Pittsburgh did not hold any of those types of restaurants, either. According to my parents, if you wanted real Cantonese food, you had only a few options: New York’s Chinatown, about 6 hours away; Toronto’s Chinatown, about 4 hours away; or Cleveland, a mere 2 hours by comparison.

The restaurant that my parents deemed good enough for them was a place on the outskirts of Cleveland called Bo Loong. My siblings and I would grow to loathe the very words; to us, the words “Bo Loong” essentially = a long drive, rewarded by crappy food. In protest, I would often just eat white rice, thinking my parents would care that I was not getting a decent meal; I would be wrong. In time, “Bo Loong” would become shorthand for anything that we would hate, all that awaited us in the world that was basically a black hole of suckitude. Even today, my brother and sister and I never choose a Cantonese restaurant for a family night out in Bangkok if we can help it. The scars are that deep. Bo Loong, Bo Loong, Bo Loong.

So imagine my surprise upon leaving the boat in Papeete, Tahiti, determined to find the same Chinese restaurant that my mother deemed good enough a few years ago on our last visit here.  It was called Restaurant Meméné, and, unlike its more “famous” (for Tahiti) competitors like Le Mandarin, it was basically a hole-in-the-wall a short walk away from the municipal market (but then again so is everything else in Papeete). You see, I was desperate. The boat that I call home for the next 5 months has great service and surprisingly good Indian food, but their Asian food still has a way to go. I missed good rice.

Although some things have changed in town — a new, ugly structure is being built on the port, replacing the parking lot that once hosted all the charming (if expensive) food trucks at night — COVID has left Restaurant Meméné completely unchanged. The same flimsy red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling; the same woman takes our order with a grandmotherly solicitousness. Meméné herself is also completely unchanged, taciturn, maybe even a little grumpy, but still a great cook.

Unfortunately, her canard lacque (roast duck) was all out, as was her steamed chicken with ginger sauce. No worries, as we didn’t need them. We ordered the riz cantonais that seemed to be on every table, and steamed mussels positively coated in garlic and garlanded with a thick, if somewhat unnecessary, mantle of glass noodles. A surprisingly large offering of thick, smashed cucumbers in garlic and chilies was a blast to the palate after the anodyne stuff on offer during the ship’s “Far East” buffet nights. A steamed pomfret in soy sauce served under a mountain of shaved green onion was so good that we ended up ordering two, much to the delight of Meméné herself.

But Meméné’s real talent is in her “au sel” dishes, in which the protein of your choice is stir-fried dry with salt, garlic and chilies. We tried three: chicken, squid and sweet small shrimp, fried crisp and eaten with the shells on.

Calamari au sel

Some of her dishes also have Polynesian touches: dumplings stuffed with taro, pork stir-fried with taro, and a great crispy-skinned pork served with coconut milk on the side.

All the time we were stuffing our faces, of course, my son sat alongside wearing his sad face, picking at his fried rice and chicken with a fork. He did not try to punish us by eating only white rice, but he wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with happiness either. He was the picture of me, 40 years ago, at a restaurant table in downtown Cleveland. We were back at Bo Loong! It was the circle of life! (Imagine the appropriate gif here because I can’t insert it since Disney will sue me).

To prove I’m not my parents (and because it was his birthday), we took him to an ice cream parlor where he consoled himself with a scoop of New Zealand’s best hokey pokey flavor. Chinese food might have been a dirty trick to play on him, as it was his birthday and all, but there was also a bright side. After all, Tahiti is a much longer drive from Bangkok than Cleveland was from New Castle.

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Glutton Onboard: Getting sticky on Easter Island

There are two theories on why civilization on Easter Island nearly disappeared, all those years ago. One is that the first Polynesian inhabitants — descendants of the original explorers who had found their way to Tahiti — were used to inhabiting islands, making use of all of the island’s resources until they were cashed, and then moving on to the next one in the chain. The problem for them was that, well, Easter Island was the last of that chain, 2290 miles from the nearest land.

The second is that the original Rapa Nui’ans — inhabitants of Rapa Nui, since nobody “in the know” really calls it Easter Island — had devoted so many of their resources to making statues of their ancestors that they had neglected to spend any time doing anything else (like farming), under the mistaken belief that their ancestors would take care of everything else. What one only needed to do, they thought, was to have faith.

Of course, both theories could be simultaneously correct. There are maybe lessons to be learned in both of them. But what is very much not questioned is that when the Dutch “discovered” Rapa Nui hundreds of years after its civilization died out in 1650, they saw with their own eyes the concrete aftermath of that civilization’s beliefs, scattered throughout the island. What I’m referring to, of course, are Easter Island’s 600 stone statues.

It took a long time to figure out, but scholars eventually deduced that the statues were moai: recreations of major ancestors, writ large (indeed, no two are supposed to look alike). They had been transported to various places on the island deemed auspicious for their families by people who read the stars. However, transporting them was no easy task; these statues ranged from a couple of meters tall to 10 meters, weighing more than 80 tons. Even today, tour guides disagree on how these statues were moved, but all agree that they were transported via some combination of ropes, logs, and a whole lot of teamwork. Once they were raised to standing (some theorize by placing a stone under the statue’s forehead, bit by bit, until it could be hauled upright), the final touches were added: the red “topknot” representing the ancestor’s hair, dyed red by the local soil, and most importantly, the white coral “eyes” through which the ancestor’s power could be transported. So strong was their faith in the power of these eyes that, when surrendering to a rival family, they would topple their ancestor statues face-first into the ground so that the eyes would in effect be “deactivated”.

The original Rapa Nui’ans believed that the more ancestors erected on their behalf, the more blessings would come to their families. This belief was so strong that, by all accounts, even when the trees began to disappear and then the food, the statues were still being carved and hauled to wherever they could be manage to be taken. Even now, at the main quarry of Rano Raraku, there are statues on their backs, awaiting transport that never came, and figures carved into the mountain, waiting for the final cuts that would lift them from the surrounding stone.

I had no intention of finding something to eat on this island; I imagined a land of desolation, abandoned statues scattered throughout a barren landscape. The truth is that the land is fiercely protected by the people of Chile, of which Rapa Nui is a part; no fruit or vegetables are allowed on the island, and littering and touching the statues is strictly forbidden. People who violate these rules can be fined US$70,000. So my dreams of hugging a statue and getting transported back in time were totally dashed.

On the plus side, Rapa Nui today is a charming island, strangely full of life on an island famous for being the site of a society’s death. Small, charming houses abound in the main town of Hanga Roa, as do wild horses originally brought from Chile for work and set free by their owners. And yes, there is food everywhere: a mix of Chilean (empanadas) with Polynesian, like pil-pil.

I was not going to risk grabbing a hot snack, since our time at each site was strictly curtailed and our guide was eager to move us along. Instead, I came upon a fruit vendor (watermelons and pineapple are everywhere) who also sold “cubito helado”, which turned out to be shaved ice flavored with various syrups like pineapple, shoved into a plastic tube. The tidy and smart could simply open the top and slurp at their own leisure, but I am messy and dumb, and my attempts to eat this shaved ice ended up with me getting syrup all over my hands, shirt and face. I gave up at the middle and threw it away, but if I had had more faith, who knows what would have happened? That is the point of true faith, after all. 

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Glutton Onboard: Guayaquil’s small packages

Guayaquil’s famous Las Penas neighborhood

In a bid to make myself as irritating as possible to my husband’s family, I have made it a personal mission to try at least one food item from every stop (except for Easter Island, which has nothing). Although a 3-day rest in Manta afforded a generous number of opportunities for dining on land, the 6-hour pit stop in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city, necessitated a sort of economy of ambition. I thought up what I could sample on the go as my tour group inevitably lumbered on ahead of me, and my thoughts alighted on one of Ecuador’s most famous street food snacks: empanadas. Originating in Portugal and Spain, these “hand pies” are filled with anything you like, from meat to cheese to a mix of both, a convenient mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack. Portable and presumably ubiquitous, I could simply pick up a few from a chain restaurant or neighborhood store, and that would be that, my local food ambitions quenched.

Our tour focused on wending its way through “Las Penas”, a colorful favela settled in the mid-17th century on the upper reaches of the city, overlooking the river. Making one’s way to the top, much like at Bangkok’s Golden Mount, affords a view of the entire city, as well as of the turquoise waters beyond. But first, one must pick their way up the 444 steps that make up the ascent through the neighborhood.

Sadly, empanadas were not as accessible as I had originally thought — at least when compared to McDonald’s, KFC, Doritos and Cheetos. Dismayed, I briefly considered picking up a popsicle instead, but knew that I would wimp out and end up with a flavor like blackberry instead of something that I had never tried before, like soursop. Soursop is something I’d seen (and hated) before in Brazil, but taxi (banana passionfruit) and lulo were fruits that I had never had the chance to try, even in Colombia.

So thanks to my cowardice, I held off, and around the 250th step or so, was promptly rewarded with a bewitchingly delicious scent — something like meat and onions — as well as this sign:

But when entering into the alleyway, the empanada vendor was nowhere to be seen. A woman sitting across from the doorway, next to a sign advertising “bollos”, advised me to knock on the door. I promptly did, and was met with a cacophony of barks from the dogs inside. I was surprised that this woman did not try to persuade me to try her bollos instead, because at that point, I was ready to.

Eventually someone did show up, if only to persuade the dogs to stop barking at me, and I asked if empanadas were available. She looked back inside to ask, and then said to me, “Queso only,” which was fine with me, if only because I thought I could just pick up a few of them and then hurry back up the steps to join my tour group. She asked me how many, and I showed her my handful of Ecuadorian coins: 3 Ecuadorian dollars and an American quarter in all. She nodded and said “7” and I, exhilarated with my upcoming haul, nodded back.

So when that same woman emerged from the back of the house with a bag of flour, I realized, oh, I’m going to have a wait a while. She gave us a couple of chairs and a table on which to rest our elbows, and then promptly disappeared. The same woman who had urged us to knock in the first place smiled a bit mournfully. “Everyone wants empanadas today, not bollos,” she told a passing neighbor. I made a mental note to Google “bollos” when I got back to the ship’s WiFi.

I could tell my daughter was starting to get antsy when, with her superior data provider, she googled “How to ask how much longer in Spanish?” (It’s “Quanto tiempo mas”, in case you were wondering). But it ended up not being necessary. Once we had risen to inquire, two paper bags full of empanadas individually wrapped in paper napkins emerged from the kitchen, and with a smile and a nod, my daughter and I set out to try to rejoin our party.

They were nowhere to be found, not even the very oldest members. If it hadn’t been for the neighborhood inhabitants, and for the fact that it was the only group foolhardy enough to climb all the steps to the top, Nicha and I might still be in Las Penas to this day, presumably setting up our own empanada shop closer to the bottom of the staircase. But friendly denizens directed us in the general direction, and, although my legs at times felt like they were giving out and I thought I might end my world cruise with a heart attack on the steps of Guayaquil, we did end up finding our group, at the very top of the steps, of course.

Nicha and I celebrated with an empanada each, overlooking the view of the city:

Ecuadorian cheese is special in that I really can’t pinpoint it, and I eat a lot of cheese. It’s stretchy like mozzarella, but tart like young goat cheese, and uniquely suited to filling up an empanada or livening up something stodgy like a fried green plantain ball. Of course, the rest of our empanada haul was devoured by my husband’s family.

It was only later, when I got back to the ship, that I Googled “bollo” and discovered that they were tamales made with green plantains and filled with fish or meat. They were probably the smell that had directed us to that alleyway in the first place. It’s become my new goal to return to Guayaquil, if only to revisit that old woman and her bollos.

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