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Compte rendu de Nourritures, abondance et identité. Une socio-anthropologie de l’alimentation à Tahiti par Christophe Serra Mallol

Nancy J. Pollock
p. 176-179
Référence(s) :

Serra Mallol Christophe, 2010. Nourritures, abondance et identité. Une socio-anthropologie de l’alimentation à Tahiti, Tahiti, Au vent des îles, coll. Bibliothèque océanienne, 545 p., couv. ill. en coul.

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1Christophe Serra Mallol draws on his fieldwork in two Tahitian communities early in the new millennium to place his ethnography of food ways across the time span from ancient Tahiti as recorded by European visitors in the 1600s up to modern Tahiti. The early visitors created a picture of Tahiti as a lush green environment in which food abounded; such depictions led to a misunderstanding that coined “the myth of abundance” (p. 220) which he questions. During their short-term stays botanists aboard these ships recorded the “bounty” of the vegetation of these isles as seen by European eyes. The author draws heavily on ethnographic detail provided by Teuira Henry and Morrison in particular for the picture of generosity that dominated Tahitians’ cultural food ways; canoe loads of breadfruit, topped by a pig, gifted to visiting ships, such as Captain Cook’s entourage in 1769, (Forster, 1777) were seen as emanating from a “paradise on earth”, “a Garden of Eden (p. 223). A myth of abundance has persisted to present times as analysts by pen and film reconsider the Myth of the Bounty under Bligh’s command – Fitzsimons (2018) among the latest.

2But as Serra Mallol stresses, the myth of Tahiti as an “earthly paradise”, a bounteous nature, one of the most fertile in the world, represents a misunderstanding of the realities of Tahitian food ways (p. 225). When the breadfruit season ended, Captain Cook found that in June 1769 local chiefs had imposed a rahui/ban on food gifts of taro etc, their only food, when the breadfruit season ended, so he could no longer replenish his ships. Abundance marked only part of the year’s bounty on Tahiti; it was followed by a season of scarcity, until the breadfruit trees produced a new crop of fruit.

3Details of breadfruit and other plant foods on which ancient Tahitians relied are elaborated throughout the first 217 pages of this text; the author considers the main elements of what he terms Tahitians’ edible space (p. 30), differentiating terrestrial resources, that have provided Tahitians with their main food base, from marine resources which provide an accompaniment to the starch foods (p. 45). Six plants, breadfruit, bananas, both fe’i/plantain, and sweet bananas, taro, yams, and coconut have provided the basic food resources (pp. 34-44), with occasional use of sweet potato and several fruits. Birds were caught occasionally, while fish from both oceans and lagoons provided an accompaniment, with coconut cream (miti) used as a sauce. Pigs contributed a significant symbolic and ceremonial addition to social life, but were not included in social terms as foods (e.g. p. 237).

4The author stresses that since vegetable foods dominated 80 per cent of general fare, the food supply was dependent on the local ecology; plant and tree foods were limited and irregular in both timing and amounts, particularly during those periods of the year when there was no crop from breadfruit (p. 45). Animals that outsiders tried to introduce were repulsive to Tahitians (p. 242). All their vegetal foods were cooked in the earth oven. The author characterises the ancient Tahitian diet as tri-partite: ma’a, ina'i, miti (starch, accompaniment and sauce (p. 109); that has persisted to mark Tahitian food identity to current thinking.

5The myth of Tahiti as luxuriant and bountiful with an abundance of food (p. 222), a Garden of Eden, was created by European visitors, including, Joseph Banks botanist with James Cook’s expedition (p. 176), and Teuira Henry and Samuel Morrison throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But for Tahitians the reality was that the season of abundance (of breadfruit) was followed by five or six months of scarce food plant resources. Chiefs carefully controlled the limited supply with social restrictions, rahui, over distributions throughout communities, as suited environmental conditions. The myth carried back to Europe was based on “exotic” botanical specimens sold to European botanical gardens, but misrepresenting Tahitian food resources. The abundance (of breadfruits) which Tahitians cooked in large earth ovens and ate liberally when available, was castigated by missionaries as too easy according to the Protestant work ethnic, not requiring the hard work required for European crops, i.e. wheat, that marked a “civilised” life style (e.g. Ellis Polynesian Researches, 1829). These newcomers with their own views of “good food” began a downgrading of local foods that needed to be replaced by introduced i.e.European foods (Chapter 2).

6Tahitians’ own cultural values of foods and food ways were thus devalued, to be replaced by religious syncretism and technical innovations in the food scene (pp. 219-335). Bread made from imported flour replaced breadfruit as one example of how Tahitian food traditions have undergone subsequent amendments. The triple impact of Christianisation, the political and economic effects of French colonial production, and the aftermath of the installation in the 1960s of the nuclear testing centre (Centre d'expérimentation du Pacifique, cep) all changed Tahitian attitudes to food.

7On the basis of the “myth” of food abundance, paradoxical developments linked Tahiti to the wider food world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. When Captain Bligh successfully transported a second shipment of breadfruit saplings from the Pacific to the Caribbean, he not only provided the latter’s plantation owners with a desired new “easy” and abundant crop of cheap food (p. 239), – a practise that marked the beginning of many such food transfers into Tahiti, despite the local “abundance”. New forms of food commerce in urban areas replaced traditions of food sharing, altered Tahitians’ own eating patterns, as well as introducing others’ higher valued imported foodstuffs, particularly bread (p. 239). The irony of contrasting images of abundance, yet devalued local food resources in favour of imported food ways is a highlight of this text.

8The onslaught on Tahitian food values continued throughout the 19th century. Tahitians required cash to purchase the new expanded food inventory of imported foods. A new alimentary triad replaced the traditional Tahitian triad: bread as the starch, accompanied by butter, and coffee as the drink (café-pain-beurre (p. 289) and consequent references). The three new foods had the merit of being quick to prepare, easily procured, and at minimum cost. But they also became monotonous, yet inevitable for those with little income. I.e those living on the outskirts of Papeete. While coconut plantations replaced breadfruit trees on the land, and copra from yielded some cash, particularly during the early 20th century, government and mercantile businesses provided limited employment for Tahitians drawn into a cash economy. Tahitians were transformed from subsistence eaters to become consumers (p. 297).

9Major temporary employment opportunities, such as mining for phosphate at Makatea, the us military Base at Bora Bora during World War ii, and associate with the establishment of the nuclear testing station at Mururoa in the 1960s (p. 310) had strong impacts on Tahitian food values and practices. For Tahitians, as the author argues, abundant food has become as illusory as the jobs needed to earn cash to buy it. The author questions why the myth of abundance has become so deeply entrenched as a characteristic of Tahitian identity even in modern times.

10In the third section of the book, the author traces Tahitian modernity (pp. 337-523) by addressing the continuities afforded by ancient Tahitian and Polynesian cultural cuisine through to the early 21st century. Findings from his own research in two Tahitian communities, Pamatai, outside Papeete, and Ma’atea, on the neighbouring island of Mo’orea, he draws a marked contrast between the latter community where ancient Tahitian values and practices, have persisted, albeit in modified form, and the sub-urban community of Pamatai who have of necessity become reliant on purchased, i.e. imported foodstuffs. Social consequences for considerations of abundance are marked.

11For the Pamatai households cash purchases have become almost their only means of feeding their households, whereas Ma’atea households still rely on produce from their still verdant valley where the land still provides a subsistence life-style, with occasional purchases of tinned meats or frozen chicken for special occasions. Their diet is slightly more varied than their suburban cousins, for whom food choices have become more a matter of individual selections; Chinese plate lunches that workers regularly consume, consist of rice, meat sauce and a soda drink – thus replacing the traditional triad with modern foods. Cheap fast foods such as baguette and sodas are having health consequences for young and old Pamatai households. For those relatives who rejoin families on Mo’orea offering traditional cuisine at Sunday lunches after Church, traditional tastes are kept alive. On these occasions extended family members, whether living and working on either island, are drawn together by the earth oven as the centrepiece for sharing produce from both the land and supermarkets. Plenty of food, laughter and goodwill provide the centrepiece for social interaction around traditional foodways. These two divergent forms of Tahitian foodways contribute to a new myth of abundance, associated with a new disequilibrium. Modifications of social access to food, including the meaning (and practices) of generosity, and new individual concerns about “good” food as healthy have emerged as a result of reinterpretations of Tahitian values over time. Serra Mallol’s own research in the two communities highlights modernities that incorporate elements of Tahitians’ own culinary cultural principles as practical in today’s lifestyles. Abundance today may be occasional, co-existing with periods of scarcity for both communities. Tahitians “nourish” their social relationships with shared foods, as generosity remains a key social principle by which Tahitian identity is maintained. Abundance is a non-material assessment, that early European visitors misunderstood.

12Serra Mallol concludes that food acculturation in Tahiti today is based on perpetuation of the social and cultural dimensions of food concepts and habits, not just functions and nutritional values (p. 528). Food is pleasuring within the social context today, as in the past, reinforced by daily rhythms no matter how little food is available – irregularity still contrasts times of abundance with times of scarcity in modern context (p. 528). Commensality and rituals in which food gifts are a prominent feature reinforce nourishing bonds. Traditional ways are reinterpreted in modern contexts. The myth of abundance is as much a social construct by outsiders, as it is one way of representing both past and present Tahitian foodways as Tahitians themselves consider them.

13This valuable ethnography that collates material from a diversity of written sources as well as his own fieldwork to addresse continuities and changes in Tahitian food ways a is marred by several omissions, and difficulties in the labelling of sections of the text. Notably for the reader there is confusion in the labelling between sections and chapters, and references are supplied in both foot notes and a “Bibliography of principal works, articles and documents cited” (pp. 533-539). 

14The main arguments are presented in three sections as set out in the Summary (Sommaire) at the beginning of the book (pp. 6-10): the first section, entitled “Ancient Tahitian Food” (L’alimentation ancienne à Tahiti) (pp. 6-218) while the second section is entitled ”The Opening to the other and new products (L’ouverture sur l’autre et ses nouveaux produits, pp.  219-336); the third section is entitled the outcome for “Tahitian modernity- a social-anthropological account of food” (pp. 337-532). However confusion arises for the reader between the untitled yet detailed three Sections in the Sommaire (pp. 6-10) and the labelling of each left hand page of the text as “Chapitre” 1, 2 or 3. In the Sommaire each section’s title is printed in larger font size, with sub-sections printed with a smaller font; this enables the reader to follow the progression of the author’s ideas. But within the lengthy three sections at the top of the left hand page appears a label Chapters 1, 2 or 3, that distinguish what I have called sections. Furthermore the Conclusion (pp. 524-532) is included under a Chapter 3 heading. Whether these lay-out mis-matches are due to print editing is a concern. Readers wishing to cross-reference ideas in the text have to rely on the three section titles (larger font size and at the head of each right hand page) or the sub-sections as entitled in the Sommaire.

15The absence of a map, or any tables or illustrations (apart from the cover) detracts from accessibility to specific data, particularly when recognising unfamiliar foodstuffs, and in following changes over time between the two communities. A clear map early in the text, would provide a visible aid to the location of this study within Oceania and within French Polynesia. Whereas “Tahiti” may be a familiar term to some readers, that name is often used here and elsewhere, as synonymous with the Society Islands, or even the larger entity of French Polynesia. In this text the author is referring in most cases to the island of Tahiti, as distinct from its (close) neighbour Mo’orea; at times he uses it to refer to the several other islands known as Society Islands, or French Polynesia, as part of Polynesia. Maps of the islands of the wider entity of Society Islands, and of Tahiti and Mo’orea in particular, would clarify the author’s distinction between the environments, referred to in early writings as well as in his own two major research sites.

16Illustrations/photos or drawings, of the major food plants in their environments would help clarify the local resources, seen as exotic by some outsiders, within the Pacific island environment. Photos of food resources such as breadfruit taro, fe’i bananas etc abound in the tourist literature, and their usage for example in an earth oven would be helpful for non-tropics-centred readers. Aerial photos of the two communities would be helpful for a wide readership without being too specific as to location. Figures and Tables could help clarify details of the comparison between the two communities, as well as changes over time, as discussed in the third part of the text.

17The author cites numerous texts he has drawn on for this work in both footnotes and a Bibliography. The pages of the Bibliography together with the Index, are headed on each left hand page as Annexes (pp. 533-545) but not in the Sommaire at the beginning. The running footnotes amount to a total of 826, the last on page 532. So the Bibliography (pp. 533-539) is a helpful reference guide to the main citations. Readers may prefer to have the numerous citations placed at the end of each of the three sections.

18The Index (pp. 543-545) is very hard to use. It has been condensed into three pages, by use of a smaller font, and omission of any spaces between key words. The type face is also very light. It seems apparent that the publishers were trying to reduce the length of the book, 545 pages in total, but that is a false economy for readers. Dipping into this long text is not assisted by the compacted Index.

19A lexicon of principal Tahitian words used in the text (pp. 540-541), with some alternative spellings, is useful to clarify Ma’ohi (Tahitian) terms as translated into French. It clarifies the use of “ai” or ‘amu as Tahitian words for “to eat”, as distinct from ma’a as the generic term for “food” in the restrictive sense of vegetable foods; ma’a in turn is distinguished from ina’i or accompaniments (p. 540), as distinct again from pota, the Tahitian term for all green vegetables, whether taro leaves, salad or cabbage. These fine linguistic distinctions are integral to the theme of the ethnography whereby Tahitians distinguish between key aspects of their food ways as distinct from key English food concepts. The lexicon is a useful compilation of key Tahitian concepts that the author uses throughout the text to underline Tahitians’ concept of “feeding” social as well as biological relationships.

20The term “Nourritures…” used in the title and throughout the text is intentionally multi-vocal, inclusive of the social/cosmological, biological and ecological aspects of food ways that “nourish” the society. The author uses the term “alimentation” to refer what I translate into English as food or foodstuffs, as distinct from the wider social considerations of Tahitian food usage in anthropological setting.

21The author and the publisher Au Vent des Iles, based in Papeete, are to be commended for filling a large gap in the literature on changing food ways and values of food over time, in either English or French for a Pacific community. And the book adds considerably to recent literature on Tahiti. Using an anthropological approach to emphasise both the social and biological importance of food in social relationships in a specific island ecological context, the author and publishers have made a major contribution to the anthropology of food in both the local framework and in a wider global framework. It is to be hoped that the French text will become available in English for a wider readership – and that the author’s papers will likewise reach a multi-lingual readership.

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Ellis William, 1829. Polynesian Researches during a Residence of Nearly Six Years in the South Sea Islands, Londres, Fisher, Son & Jackson, 2 vol. Traduit en français par Marie Sergueiew et Colette de Buyer-Mimeure sous le titre : À la recherche de la Polynésie d'autrefois, Paris, Société des Océanistes, 2014 (

Fitzsimons Peter, 2018. Mutiny on the Bounty, A saga of sex, sedition, mayhem and mutiny, and survival against extraordinary odds, Sidney, Hachette Book Group.

Forster Johann Georg, 1777. A Voyage round the World in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Resolution, Commanded by Capt. James Cook, London, B. White, 1777.

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Référence papier

Nancy J. Pollock, « Compte rendu de Nourritures, abondance et identité. Une socio-anthropologie de l’alimentation à Tahiti par Christophe Serra Mallol », Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 148 | 2019, 176-179.

Référence électronique

Nancy J. Pollock, « Compte rendu de Nourritures, abondance et identité. Une socio-anthropologie de l’alimentation à Tahiti par Christophe Serra Mallol », Journal de la Société des Océanistes [En ligne], 148 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2019, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL :

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Nancy J. Pollock

Depts. of Anthropology and Development Studies (retired), Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

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