30 April 2011

You say sea grapes, I say limu

The limu is kept fresh inside
When I see a triangle-wrapped leaf package I know there's bound to be something good inside. At feasts, little leaf packages hold fai kakai, a delicious cassava sweet, dripping in caramely coconut sauce. During Sunday dinner, larger green parcels sometimes hold lu, our favourite special dish of taro leaves wrapped around meat and cooked in coconut milk. This week, it happened to be limu.

My coworker and I eagerly walked outside when we heard that there was limu for sale. There stood a large tub of bowling ball-sized green triangle packages, being watched over by a saleswoman and a small kid. To show us how fresh it was, she unwrapped one of the parcels to reveal a shining pile of little green clusters that looked like their rather uncreative English name: sea grapes.
Inside the wrapped leaves

In Tonga, like in Hawaii, the word for seaweed is limu, but unlike Hawaii, there's only one common type generally available. The first time we had it was at the huge annual church conference last year as we were sitting at a feast table sampling the various dishes. The little clusters were in coconut cream with corned beef, onions, and garlic, and it was a nice lighter contrast to the heavy roast pork and fried chicken.

The little pods close up
This kind of limu is apparently a huge delicacy in Japan, called umi budo, and is just taking hold in other parts of the world in gourmet restaurant dishes. As part of this apparent re-branding of this type of seaweed, it's now sometimes referred to as "sea caviar," which confuses me. I wonder- doesn't "regular" caviar also come from the sea? It's part of the Caulerpa racemosa seaweed family, I learned on a Hawaiian website, which is a much more helpful name, because googling "limu" to try to find this type of Tongan seaweed is like googling "vegetable" to try to find asparagus.

Its taste is unexpected, and the little crisp clusters pop as you chew them, surprisingly releasing a strong peppery salty oyster-ish flavour that perhaps is indeed a little like caviar. I took my bundle of limu home, balancing it on my handlebars and stopping for a can of coconut milk on the road: no time to grate and squeeze it fresh. I chopped up some fresh pork, dry fried it with garlic, onion, turmeric, and curry powder, and then dumped the pork in with some coconut cream and the washed limu. It was a bit of a cross between a curry and a salad, and tasted amazing for our dazzlingly hot noontime lunch break.
Limu with curried pork served on vermicelli

Although the curry addition may get quizzical looks from Tongan limu lovers, and the coconut milk might be too strange an accompaniment for a Japanese umi budo fanatic, it was a perfect lunch, the beauty of fusion cooking in Tonga. The beauty of sea grapes -- errhm Sea Caviar.


  1. I like the pictures! Thanks for posting :) Happy belated Easter by the way!


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