French Polynesia: Wear Your Muu Muu to the Umu

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Story and Photos by Paul Ross

Wear Your Muu Muu to the Umu



Pit Pig Roasting Underground

Polynesian Pig Rub

South Pacific Barbecue Sauce

Poisson Cru


Controlled burning was the first and is still one of the most popular forms of cooking, as evidenced by Neolithic (Cro-Magnon) finds and modern (Pro-Mignon) beef grilling. But right after direct food-on-the-fire grilling and before pots and pans, must have come pit cooking. Anyone who has ever sampled food prepared in this manner knows that nobody cooks like Mother Earth. Though time and labor intensive, the method is simple: dig a pit, toss in combustibles, add rock, let the fire burn out and the stone heat, line the excavation with fresh, wet vegetation, heap on comestibles, cover with more trimmed greenery, bury the whole with the previously exhumed loam, wait for several hours, disinter, and serve immediately.

Every country has its own version of cuisine a la pit but some of the most legendary and continuously-practiced examples can be found in the South Pacific. In Hawaii, it’s the luau. New Zealand’s Maori have the hangi. Tahitians call it hima’a. And a thousand miles away in the Marquesas islands, there’s the umu.

The main ingredients and techniques haven’t changed over the centuries. Back in 1846, Herman “Moby Dick” Melville described the item this way in his Marquesan-set novel Typee. “After slaughtering a pig [with a rock!] the carcass was waved over a flame. In a moment the smell of burning bristles betrayed the object of this procedure.” Then, after gutting and thoroughly washing the pig with water “an ample thick green cloth, composed of the long thick leaves of a species of palm tree, ingeniously tacked together with little pins of bamboo, was now spread upon the ground, in which the body being carefully rolled, it was borne to an oven previously prepared to receive it. Here it was at once laid upon the heated stones at the bottom, and covered with thick layers of leaves, the whole being quickly hidden from sight by a mound of earth raised over it.” Melville observes this process by which the natives “convert perverse-minded and rebellious hogs into the most docile and amiable pork [which he identifies in transliterated native lingo as puarkee] a morsel of which, placed on the tongue melts like a soft smile from the lips of Beauty.” He concludes, “I commend their [the indigenous islanders] peculiar mode of proceeding to the consideration of all butchers, cooks, and housewives.”

Pig Dance



On Ua Huka, they don’t just eat pig,
they dance in celebration of it!


This tradition is still a way of life on Marquesan Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, Hiva Oa and some of the other mispronounceable mid-Pacific islands and atolls visited by the hybrid freighter/cruise ship Aranui in fortnight-long voyages through off-the-beaten sea lane of French Polynesia. The Francophonic outposts there include the Australes, Tuamotos, Marquesas, and Society Islands (which contain Tahiti, Moorea and Bora-Bora).

The Aranui departs from the Tahitian capital of Papeete but spends most of her voyage plying the far less touristy waters of the Marquesas and Tuamotus, where it is one of the few regular supply links that distant islanders have to the rest of the world. In several ways, it’s “out there.”

Aranui Ship



Even at anchor, the Aranui is a hard-working
combination of freighter and cruise ship as she
carries both passengers and much needed supplies
to the far islands of the Marquesas.


Off-loaded into whaleboats by burly and frighteningly-tattooed crewmen with the same nonchalance that they hoist 200 pound sacks of copra, passengers have to be open to adventure, surprise, and authenticity. As a reward, they are greeted and entertained by friendly folk, treated to entertainments and craft demonstrations, and offered artwork at prices that tend toward steep but are, in fact, in line with the costliness of everything on any island. (When was the last time you got a bargain in Hawaii–which is only an hour less flying time from L.A. than Tahiti?) Several times, this sharing of local culture with visitors from the outside involved traditional foods.

Nowadays, the expenses incurred and time needed to prepare an earth oven feast render the umu a big event reserved only for special occasions. The recent centennial commemoration of the death of artist Paul Gauguin was such. Ironically, Gaugin’s wanderings seem to have been as much to escape tourism as they were to seek a simplified paradise. Yet, here we were, several hundred strong, crowding a remote tiny cemetery and elbowing our way in for travel snapshots of his resting place. Following a ceremony at Gaugin’s gravesite (complete with “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes) above the sleepy port town of Atuona and a headstone’s throw from the final repose of Belgian singer/composer Jacques Brel, a large tahoua (traditional Polynesian gathering space) the celebration swelled to welcome over a thousand islanders, dignitaries, Gaugin relatives, assorted visitors and even a few locals. Amid drumming, dancing and singing –Marquesans need only a dropped hat to occasion music and seductively rhythmic movement— the earth oven was opened and a dozen roasted/steamed/baked pigs brought forth.

Fire Dancer



Getting a little too close to toasting one’s
buns, an over-enthusiastic fire dancer
shows a fan how it’s done–well done!


My guide to the event, furnished as part of the Aranui’s free land excursions, was a Paris-educated Marquesan named Pascal Erhel Hatuuku whose island name (Teikimaa-kautoua) means “the man who sings before he goes into action.” Pascal revealed that, although the meat is never seasoned and not even salted, the porkers are often fed a diet of coconut –which imparts its own characteristic flavoring to the meat. Spices don’t figure prominently in island cuisine despite South American influences. The now generally discounted theory of Thor “Kon-Tiki” Heyerdahl that first Polynesians emigrated from Chile/Peru has been discredited by more recent scientific work which indicates southeastern Chinese origins. But this heritage didn’t impact cooking. Until modern times, ginger was only employed as a medicine or dyeing agent, rather than a spice.

“The umu,” continued Pascal, “takes about two hours to get ready (that’s the actual digging, fire-tending, rock heating and addition of the prepared ingredients) and from four to five hours to cook.” He added that sometimes goat is also umu’ed but that, unlike the menu of their Maori cousins in New Zealand, chicken and fish are never in the mix in the Marquesas. “Fish we eat grilled or raw.”

Like a 4th of July picnic gone island-happy, everyone at the Hiva Oa feast had enough to eat to complain about overdoing it. You don’t think that you’re eating too much while it’s happening, but afterwards even a nap feels like work. And this was only the first umu!

Getting the traditionally prepared Umu out of the ground



Getting the traditionally
prepared Umu out of the
ground requires team effort.


Yvonne Fournier, mayor of the town of Hane on the island of Ua Huka and proud proprietor of an eponymously named restaurant, served-up a more manageable umu for a smaller contingent (about 200) of select patrons. Generously sharing a wealth of knowledge about island lore and history, Mme. Fournier also enumerated the accompanying side dishes that complete such a meal, and they are really starch-heavy: taro, manioc (often as a pan-baked sweet cake), several types of banana which are customarily wrapped in leafy bundles like some sort of tropical tamale, the islander’s omnipresent staple–breadfruit, potato, umara (sweet potato), plus an island chestnut which, along with the manioc, breadfruit and some of the bananas, can be prepared by grating and mixing with sugar, milk and coconut milk into both cakes and puddings. Various fried items can also be present in forms from potatoes to shrimp as can an array of dried and fresh fruit.

Carrying the pigs to the guests



Another team carries
the pigs to the guests


At least now the mystery of the post-umu heaviness had been solved. The copious amounts of food are sluiced-back with torrents of water, juice, soft drinks (the banana-flavored one sounds like a smoothie gone bad but it kinda works) and the local beer Hinano (which was recently joined by another Tahitian-based brew named Tabu).

Cruise passengers waddled back to the Aranui, where they had classic French cuisine, unlimited amounts of wine and the irresistible mixological skills of a bar-tending wizard named Yoyo to off-set their island feast–with no gym aboard! (sigh, belch). But I’d go back in a clogged heartbeat.

Umu Dancer



This dancing isn’t as slow and seductive as the Hawaiian hula, it’s fast and hot. No matter, both dances irritated the missionaries.


So, as I sank slowly in the west, I had to bid a fond farewell to Polynesia; land of beautiful people, too many vowels and cooking that’s the pits in the best way possible.

To answer the unspoken but loudly thought question: I gained 10 pounds.


(I have spiced these up in deference to our editor, who would go crazy with the bland food in the Marquesas.)

Pit Pig Roasting Underground

This recipe wreaks havoc on your lawn, but hell, grass grows back. Is “carcass” a better word to use than “body?” I’m not sure.

The entire carcass of the pig can be roasted in a closed pit. Dig a hole 3 feet deep, 30 inches wide and of sufficient length to accommodate the pig. Build a wood fire in the pit and allow 12 inches of hot coals to build up. This will require about 3 to 4 hours burning time and wood equal to about 2 times the volume of the pit. Use only dry hardwood.

When sufficient coals have accumulated, level them and remove any unburned chunks. Cover the coals completely with a 2-inch layer of pea gravel. Rub the carcass with the Polynesian Pig Rub. Wrap the carcass in wet burlap bags or old (but clean) t-shirts, cut apart. Place the wrapped carcass on a sheet of 2 by 4 inch welded wire, and lower it into the pit. Cover immediately with galvanized roofing supported on pipe or steel posts. Then put 12 inches of dirt over the entire pit. Allow the pig to cook for about 10 hours (or until the internal temperature of the pig reaches 160° F–but you have to dig it up to find out!). Serve the meat dressed with the South Pacific Barbecue Sauce.

Yield: Dozens and Dozens of Servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Polynesian Pig Rub

Here is my spiced-up version of a rub that’s really pit-iful! (Sorry.) It does not exist in French Polynesia, but I was out of manioc powder.

  • 3 cups paprika

  • 1 cup ground cayenne

  • 1 cup dried coconut flakes

  • ½ cup garlic powder

  • 1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/4 cup dried thyme

  • 1/4 cup dried oregano

  • 1/4 cup onion powder

  • 1/8 cup salt

  • 3 tablespoons ground allspice

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.

Yield: 6½ cups

Heat Scale: Medium

South Pacific Barbecue Sauce

This is a finishing sauce that perks up virtually any pit-roasted meat, even goat! Pineapple and habanero chiles complement each other and produce a sauce with fruity heat and lots of spices in the flavor. You may have to triple this recipe if your suburban umu has a bunch of guests.

  • 2 15 ½-ounce can sliced pineapple chunks, drained and liquid reserved

  • 1 cup catsup

  • ½ cup brown sugar

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

  • ½ cup bourbon (drink the rest of the bottle during the 10 hours of pig roasting)

  • 1 teaspoon dried ground habanero chile or 2 fresh, stems and seeds removed, minced

  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger

  • 2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice

Place the pineapple in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.

Combine the puree and all the remaining ingredients, including the pineapple liquid, in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until it thickens. If prepared ahead of time, refrigerate, and reheat before using.

Yield: 5 cups

Heat Scale: Hot

Poisson Cru

Here is the French Polynesian-style ceviche. Serve this to the guests while they are waiting for the pig to roast. This recipe only serves three people, so you’re going to be busy multiplying this by 10 or 20 after depleting your checkbook buying the fish.

  • ½ pound sushi-fresh tuna, cut into chopstick-handleable pieces

  • ½ cup each diced cucumber and carrots

  • ½ cup diced bell peppers (red, yellow, purple ¼your choice)

  • 3 fresh bird peppers, finely minced

  • ½ cup diced tomato

  • ½ cup onion, chopped

  • 1/4 cup chives, finely minced

  • ½ cup lime juice

  • Salt to taste

  • 2 cups fresh-grated coconut meat

  • 1/4 cup freshly diced pineapple

Take a big bowl and mix up the tuna and vegetables with your hands. Add the lime juice and salt. Grate the fresh coconut meat into cheese-cloth and wring out the coconut milk into the mix. Add the pineapple and mix well. Allow to sit for an hour for the fish to “cook.” Stir and serve.

Yield: 3 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

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