Sometimes, it’s not specific dishes that stand out in a cuisine.
No, sometimes it’s the drinks that are the true stars of the show.
For the Tongan cuisine, there are two drinks in particular. First, there’s ‘otai, or a delicious coconut watermelon drink, which is the focal point of the recipe for this post.
And then there’s kava, a drink ubiquitous enough to warrant its own special clubs.
The Famous Drinks of Tonga
We’ll be covering a recipe for ‘otai later on, although we’ll save the discussion for this delicious watermelon drink for a little later.
But first, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least discuss the “other drink” from the kava-kava.
Rise of the Kava-Kava
What’s intriguing about Tonga and the other Polynesian islands is that, until the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th century, most societies were fairly alcohol-free. Instead, ceremonial drinks like that made from the kava filled that role.
Across various Polynesian nations like Samoa, Fiji and even as far as Hawaii, the kava has been a very local and highly utilized crop to the islands’ particular climate. Originally from its home of Vanuatu, the plant eventually dispersed through different Polynesian nations as a result of very healthy trading and commercial relationships early on.
At least for the Tongans, it’s not the leaves, however, that are considered the most valuable part of the crop. That particular honor instead is reserved for the root, which can have appealing sedative and almost anesthetic qualities when ground down and mixed into a liquid.
To prepare this kava juice, the earlier and most traditional way – much to the chagrin of incoming Europeans – would to first chop the root up into small, chewable pieces. From here, the future drinkers of the juice would each chew a piece of the root and, once softened, would spit the root into a large communal bowl. Coconut milk would then be poured over these chewed bits and thereafter squeezed out to create a fresh batch of newly decanted kava juice.
Nowadays, there are, you could say, more sanitary ways to prepare the kava juice in Tonga, but the kava culture is still very prevalent and strong throughout the country. There are special clubs of kava drinkers who congregate at kalapu (Tongan for “club”) in order to faikava (to “do kava”).
In addition to the more regular and common kalapu, kava is present at virtually every ceremony. As a constitutional monarchy with a still relatively rigidly defined social system, the appointment of a new king or regional chieftain comes with large fanfare and ceremony. At the forefront of ceremonies like this are, you guessed it, the kava juice.
But What About ‘Otai?
You might be asking yourself, since we’ve been talking so much about kava, why we didn’t seek to explore the actual recipe.
It’s a fantastic question and one we can answer in several ways. First, it was near impossible to find any kava root around us. Second, you might say that we’re not really trying to be in the business of sedating you.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is that kava is actually a fairly restrictive drink even for the Tongans. Put another way, not all Tongans are privy to enjoying this particular drink. In fact, only the men in Tonga are allowed to reap the “buzzy benefits.”
‘Otai, on the other hand, can be more universally enjoyed by both men and women alike. Especially in the hot summertimes in Tonga, this refreshing watermelon drink can be perfect to quench the thirst of anyone that needs it. Nevertheless, ‘otai can be enjoyed year round and will be enjoyed at ceremonies alongside the kava juice. You might, for example, find a steady supply of this watermelon drink at a Tongan wedding or birthday celebration.
About this Watermelon Drink
Alongside kava, ‘otai is one of the most recognizable and defining drinks from the Tongan cuisine… even though most of the modern ingredients are not technically native to Tonga.
Most versions of ‘otai have always contained a base of three ingredients: a type of fruit, a type of milk, and water. That is, however, where the consistencies in the recipes end. The original Tongan recipe would call for the fekkika, or a special mountain apple to Tonga, but the general preference has moved over time towards the European-imported fruits like watermelon, mango and pineapple. Nowadays, particularly with the prevalence of watermelon in Tonga, ‘otai is made most often as a watermelon drink.
Even the milk ingredient has somewhat changed. The most traditional preparation will call for coconut milk, although many Tongan recipes will prefer that you use evaporated milk instead, which is certainly not a traditional Tongan ingredient.
Finding the Right Watermelon
Before we discuss how to make this watermelon drink, we figured that it would be helpful here to offer a small tidbit on how to choose the right type of watermelon.
The first thing to look for is the shape of the watermelon. Ideally, you’ll find one that is firm and relatively blemish-free (i.e. devoid of any cuts or dents or bruises). The more symmetrical the melon is in shape, the better too.
From there, you’ll want to pick up the watermelon. Since a watermelon is mostly water, you’ll want to pick one up that is relatively heavy. The heavier the watermelon is, the juicier and tastier the inside will be.
Finally – in what might be the most important tip of all – you should be on the lookout for any sort of “ripe spot.” If you happen to find a yellowish spot on an otherwise green watermelon, that should signal to you that the watermelon had been picked prematurely and before it could fully ripen. You want to avoid the “ripe spot” and instead choose a watermelon with a healthy, green dullish sheen all over.
How to Make the Drink
When combining your ingredients, the goal isn’t to create a smoothie-like consistency. Instead, you want to mash your fruit up in a way that they’re still very much chewable within the drink. In the case of watermelon, you’ll want to still have large chunks in your watermelon drink that the drinker almost even snack on in between sips of the ‘otai juice.
Once you’ve mashed up and created a juice around these chunks of fruit and pulp, several recipes might have you add a dash of sugar or sweetener into the juice as well. This particular addition is entirely up to you, but you can also do without since the drink might already come out sweet enough for your liking.
As you finish adding any additional ingredients that you’d like, you simply mix everything together and let the watermelon drink sit and chill in the fridge for several minutes.
Our Take on the Recipe
While trying to find a root recipe on which to base our ‘otai, we were relatively unimpressed with the lack of depth in explaining what the rationale behind the recipes. We did, however, find this recipe that at least had some context, which is why it’s served as our reference.
Compared to our reference recipe, we did, however, make some changes both in ingredients and in process to our watermelon drink. For one, we swapped the evaporated milk for the healthier, more traditional option of coconut milk. Not only did this make the milk slightly healthier, but it also allows this recipe to become more friendly to other dietary preferences as well.
Next, we did add a little bit of sweetener to our version of ‘otai, although we’d leave this as an optional addition for you. Instead of a 1/2 cup of sugar like the original suggested, however, we used only 2 tablespoons of honey. Even with a dramatic reduction in the sweetening amount, this is all that we felt was needed to give it a nice taste.
Finally, mainly because we found some really delicious and ripe mangos in our area, we substituted the canned pineapple for mangos. Since ‘otai is technically a watermelon drink for the most part, we felt these “secondary fruits” could be interchangeable while still retaining the main essence of the recipe.
To help create a consistent juice texture, we did include an extra step of blending all the non-watermelon ingredients together. We hoped that this would create some sort of consistency into the juice alongside the chunks of watermelon, and our overall assumptions proved to be correct here. If you can help it, we’d definitely suggest adding this additional step into making your own ‘otai.
Other than that, that’s pretty much it! This watermelon drink is incredibly easy to make, and it’s one that the entire family can enjoy!
How would you prepare ‘otai? Anything else to put into your watermelon drink? Comment below!
- ½ a ripe seedless watermelon (or 1 whole small seedless watermelon), cubed
- 1 fresh mango, peeled and pitted
- ½ cup shredded coconut
- 1 7 oz can of coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons of honey
- Juice of 1 lime
- Up to ½ cup of water (per your preference)
- In a blender, combine your mango, shredded coconut, coconut milk, honey and lime juice
- Blend together until they are all well combined and you have a nice orangey liquid formed. Don't worry if it's a bit too thick, since it will mix with water from the watermelon
- Place your watermelon in a large bowl. The larger the bowl, the better... just in case things might get a little messy
- With either a masher (like you would for mashed potatoes) or a fork, mash your watermelon down into smaller pieces. You'll want to keep some of the watermelon pieces intact, but otherwise mash the rest to free liquid
- To make your watermelon drink complete, combine your mango/coconut milk puree with your mashed watermelon in your large bowl. Mix around thoroughly until all ingredients are well merged together
- Transfer your 'otai to a cup or a pitcher, and enjoy!