Jun 6, 2013

FOOD FARE: For the Love of Tonga

"I have a wife."

We all look up from our fried ice cream to see the cook pointing to his digital photo frame. From between the pots and pans, it flicks through images of beach sunsets, smiling people linked arm-in-arm, and palm trees lining dirt roads. The frame is covered in cooking grime, yet shines with a different kind of brilliance.

"This," he says, "is Tonga."
Sai Pe in Kanazawa, Ishikawa

A group of us ALTs drove down to Kanazawa for lunch together. We met up at Sai Pe, a yellow-orange corner of a building. The restaurant itself is very small. From the counter, two steps back would have you against the opposite wall.

The place stood out from the pristine, minimalist aesthetic common in Japan. One table looked like a giant thread barrel on its side. Each placemat had a chopsticks rest that resembled the knobs of finger bones.

We sat along the counter and ordered from the menu's English subtitles. The cook, a young Japanese man with a white bandana holding his hair back, spoke to us in halting English slang. We all had the lunch special for 950 yen. The cook lit the stove with a match and took a frying pan from the nail on the wall. Then he set before us dish after colorful dish:

Cream soup and an assorted salad for starters. The potato dish on the right was especially good.
What's in a name? By any other name this main dish would taste as sweet... greens, chickpeas, and beans over rice in a rich sauce.
A creamy drink of coconut milk with pineapple.
One bite of Thai-inspired fried ice cream.

The main dish was very unique in Japan. We asked what kind of food this was.

"Tongan," he said.

Oh? we thought, Where is Tonga? Mexico? The South Pacific? Turns out it's a tiny dot of land far off the east coast of Australia. Years ago, our cook joined the Japanese equivalent of the Peace Corps and moved to Tonga to teach and help the community. It changed his life.

He then explains that he has a wife. They met in Tonga. He spent two and a half years volunteering on the small island, and his camera broke after the second week. The photos, he explained, all came from his wife's camera. She captured the memories they both now enjoy looking back on. His wife captured the spirit of Tonga in pictures; he captures it in his restaurant.

Sai Pe isn't just another place to eat, it's a shrine to the memories and spirit that captured this young man's life. Cooking Tongan food for others is his way of sharing that great gift, paying homage to both the land and the woman he loves.

Where we find love, we draw from the well of inexhaustible inspiration.


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