The fabled plum-rimmed orchid was what made FeFe’s faikakai so irresistible. I’ve never seen one, not even in a photograph, but I knew without a doubt that those coconut caramel-smothered dumplings wouldn’t taste the same without it. If the only thing I learned in life was how to make FeFe’s faikakai, my entire existence would be completely and unconditionally fulfilled.
If only FeFe ever let me set foot in the kitchen.
“’Ikai!” she shouted, shooing me away with her wooden spoon. “No! No cook! I cook!” Her broken English carried through my dad’s house like an angry wasp. Stung like one, too.
“FeFe, please! I’m seventeen, now! I can learn!”
But my grandmother wouldn’t budge on the matter. She stood with her arms crossed, nose in the air, blocking the swinging doors that led to Dad’s kitchen. “’Ikai,” she repeated. “Lopini no cook faikakai.”
When she used my Tongan name, she meant business.
“Robin, just let it go,” Al groaned from the couch in the living room. “She’s never let you in on the secret of her faikakai before, and she’s not going to let you in on it today.”
“I know the secret, Alefosio,” I countered, emphasizing my cousin’s full name for effect.
“What, the orchid?” Al guffawed, spilling his can of Sprite all over himself in the process. “That stupid flower is just a story. It doesn’t even exist.”
I crossed my arms in front of me stubbornly. “Oh, yeah? How come I didn’t know you conducted an archipelago-wide expedition in Tonga?”
“Smartass,” Al muttered under his breath.
“Robin. Al. That’s enough arguing.” Dad sauntered into the living room, already looking tired at eight o’ clock in the morning. His late-night shift at the restaurant must have been rough.
I wrapped my arms around Dad’s waist and laid my head on his shoulder. “I can take your shift, tonight,” I offered.
Dad grinned and patted my arm. “There’s no need. I’m alright, sweetheart.” Then, he heaved himself down onto the couch with Al. “Have I told you two about your great-grandfather Kui Atamai?”
Al rolled his eyes. “Do you have to?”
I was about to slap Al’s arm for being so disrespectful, but Dad’s disappointed gaze was enough to make him regret his words. “Your mother was one of Kui Atamai’s favorite grandchildren.”
“What about Kui Atamai, Dad?” I pressed. Dad loved storytelling, and I surely loved to hear them. Besides, I was always down for anything that made Al stop complaining. I settled onto the floor at Dad’s feet, ready to be transported to the jungles of Tonga.
Dad gave a little smirk and spread his arms out wide, taking on a low tone as ancient as our heritage. “Kui Atamai lived with his mother and father on Niuafo’ou, the very northernmost island of Tonga. Their fale, with its doming thatched roof and strong coconut palm pillars, sat on the edge of an ancient volcanic rim, just as their ancestors had for thousands of years before them, in the village of Futu.
“When your great-grandfather was just a little pēpeé, a terrible eruption from the ancient volcano destroyed his family’s village, and unrelenting lava flows enveloped all the huts of Futu and cut the village off from the harbor. To survive, his father Kui Malohi swam across the great crater lake, carrying his wife and Kui Atamai upon his back. He made it to the opposite bank, but the exhaustion cost him his life.”
Dad paused in silence with his eyes closed, offering this brief, quiet peace to Kui Malohi. When he opened his eyes, again, they were fiery, like staring down into the chamber of a volcano.
“Your great-great-grandmother, Fefine Kalasia, made the decision to leave the island of our ancestors, to protect Kui Atamai. A wise decision, too, for the volcano was angry. It erupted again and again, until just seventeen years after our family left, the entire island of Niuafo’ou was evacuated, for the volcano’s fury was too great.
“Our family’s story continued on the island of Tongatapu. Fefine Kalasia found work in the Tonga Royal Palace and built a new life for herself and Kui Atamai from the ground up. She found favor with the Queen at the time, Sālote Tupou III, and was allowed to bring Kui Atamai to work from time to time. So, Kui Atamai grew up in the Royal Palace, befriending the prince, little Tāufa’āhou.
“'Atamai,’ Tāufa’āhou said one day while they were playing just inside the sacred stone fence, ‘what was Niuafo’ou like?’
“Kui Atamai scratched his chin and thought hard, but he couldn’t recall anything from Niuafo’ou. ‘I only remember being surrounded by water, upon the back of a strong, giant crab, a paka, with my Mami.’
“Tāufa’āhou looked at him skeptically. ‘A paka? I don’t believe you.’
“'I won’t believe you until you find this giant paka,’ Tāufa’āhou said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“So, years passed, and Kui Atamai set his sole purpose in life to one day return to Niuafo’ou and find the giant crab in the crater lake. His tales about the paka became more and more fantastical. The crab’s shell was covered in every color of jewel from wrecked pirate’s treasure. He was fifty feet tall and seventy feet long. His eyes were made of lava!
“The more fanciful his paka became, the more the paka became just a myth. Not only to Tāufa’āhou, but to Kui Atamai’s family as well.
“Finally, when Kui Atamai was old enough and strong enough, he built his own tongiaki and sailed across the sea, traveling hundreds of miles of Pacific water, back to his birthplace.
“When he finally spotted the limestone cliffs of Niuafo’ou, he anchored his tongiakai and swam to the black-sanded shores. He had no clue where he was on the island, but as he climbed onto the black lava flows, he felt as if the hands of his ancestors were hauling him up to the top of the cliffs. Up, up, up he went, until he found himself standing atop the island. The great ocean spread around him in all directions, but the ocean was not the water he was looking for. No. He stood there, staring down into the deep crater lake.
“'I will find you, paka!’ he swore to the lake, with his fist high in the air.
“But Kui Atamai had horrible timing. For as he climbed down the steep limestone cliffs toward the vast lake, the wind of a tropical cyclone began to blow in off the coast. The afā would go down in history as a hundred-year-storm.
“The cyclone ripped through the island, shaking the coconut palms clear of their fronds and sending mudslides cascading down the sides of the cliffs! Kui Atamai had no choice but to hunker down low within the jungle, taking refuge in the thick, green vegetation.
“He found shelter in a low rock formation, but all too soon, the mudslides reached him, filling his hiding hole to the brim with mud, water, and broken tree branches.”
Al’s excited voice interrupted my father. “What did he do?” He was leaning forward on his elbows, eyes wide.
“Al!” I moaned, now completely irritated with my cousin. “Don’t ruin the story!”
Dad blinked a few times, seeming to come back to the present, and chuckled. “Finally showing some interest in Kui Atamai, aren’t we?” he teased Al with a nudge in the shoulder.
“Then what happened?” I asked sharply, impatience coating my tone. “What happened to Kui Atamai?”
“Well, he survived, of course!” Dad said matter-of-factly. “We’re all here, aren’t we?” After he cleared his throat, he reverted back to his deep, storytelling voice. “Kui Atamai had to keep moving, finding shelter where he could but avoiding any surprise floods. Slowly, he continued his way down the cliff. The weather had cleared by the time he made it to the base of the cliff. Clear, blue sky sat above him, now, the air so still that if he yelled, the entire island would hear him.
“At his feet now was a forty-foot drop to the crater lake. He sucked in his gut, puffed out his chest, and leapt from the limestone rock face, plummeting into the deep waters of the crater lake. He was about to fulfill his life’s purpose.
“He dove down into the depths, the water a shock to him as he had never swum in freshwater before. Where was the salt? Where was the sting?
“Then, as he swam toward the center of the lake, a humongous, dark shadow rose in the water, far in the distance through the murkiness. ‘The paka, surely!’ he thought, excitement exploding through his limbs. He tried to approach the massive shape, but the oxygen in his lungs was running too low. He kicked to the surface for a gulp of air . . . and found tumultuous waves towering over him! For the storm had not ended; the calm had been only the eye!
“He was thrown back and forth, side to side, pulled underneath the waters in a new winding current rippling through the lake. The dark clouds swallowed all light of day, and it was impossible to tell which way was up and which was down through the unrelenting bullets of rain. Kui Atamai kept his head above water for as long as he could, but the water was too strong. His legs could no longer keep him at the surface. He sank below the waves, and darkness overtook him.”
My tiny gasp broke the tense silence that followed my dad’s words.
“But you said he lived!” Al fussed from beside me.
“He did,” Dad said with a grin. “He woke up washed ashore on one of the little islands in the middle of the great crater lake, an island called Motu Si’i. This little island saved your great-grandfather’s life. Kui Atamai kissed the ground upon which he laid, and when he turned his head to look into the low bushes that crowned the island, he froze in his footsteps.
“These small flowers looked back at him, white with purple rims as dark as a plum, their petals formed in such a way that it appeared they had mouths, gaping wide at the fact that a man had dared wash upon their shores.”
“The plum-rimmed orchid,” I breathed.
Dad nodded slowly. “Kui Atamai never found his paka, but he discovered a brand new orchid, never before described in any book, or displayed at any museum.”
“Is that what this entire story was about?” Al blew air through his lips.
I wanted to scream, but Dad just continued on as if Al hadn’t spoken. “He collected as many flowers as he could, stuffed them wherever he could in his soaking wet clothes, and dove back into the lake. He climbed and descended the sharp limestone cliffs, left new footprints in the black sands of the beach, and swam to his tongiakai, which had been blown closer to shore by the afā. He sailed his way southward, back to Tongatapu.
“'Faha koe! My son!’ Fefine Kalasia exclaimed when Kui Atamai waltzed back to their doorstep. ‘Where on this Earth have you been?’
“He presented the orchids to his mother and relayed his entire journey, his search for his paka.
“Fefine Kalasia burst into tears, but never had the chance or the courage to tell Kui Atamai the truth behind his paka until much later in his life, when he had a wife and children of his own.
“To celebrate Kui Atamai’s return home, Fefine Kalasia brought out an old recipe for faikakai on Niuafo’ou, one that used things such as coconuts and bananas in the dumplings. Instead of coconuts or bananas, however, she gathered in her hands some of the orchids her son brought back to her." Dad held out his hand in front of him, turning it slowly from side to side as if he were grasping the very same orchids Fefine Kalasia had.
Then, his eyes snapped back to us. “And, well,” he shrugged, “the rest is history. Fefine Kalasia passed her secret down to Kui Atamai’s wife, who then passed it on to her daughter, Amipa.” He nodded his head toward the swinging doors of the kitchen and winked.
Al clapped his hands together and stood from the old couch. “I’m just here to eat the faikakai.” But as he passed Dad, he stopped, stood there for a second in some sort of deliberation, and finally wrapped his arms tightly around my father. “Thanks for the story, Uncle Atonio.” Then, as he trudged off, I caught him trying to steal a peek over the swinging kitchen doors before disappearing through the doorway to the dining room.
I looked at Dad eagerly. “Is all of that true? Did Kui Atamai really find the orchid?”
Dad smiled a funny little grin and responded, “You tell me. You can help me plan a trip to Niuafo’ou in the next couple of years—your Fefe says it’s time for a supply run.”
A trip to the volcanic island of our ancestors? A bolt of excitement at the idea made me squeal.
Still, something bothered me. “But why hasn’t our family ever turned in the orchid? No one knows it exists! We could name it after Kui Atamai!”
Dad shrugged his wide shoulders, a pout of nonchalance on his face. “They make the faikakai too delicious to spare any, I suppose.”
His answer didn’t satisfy me. Really, we could spare one or two of the orchids, right?
But as I looked toward the kitchen, the clangs and bumps of Fefe bustling around in there, working backbreakingly hard over the stove, I realized—no, we couldn’t spare even the stem of one flower.
Fefine Kalasia didn’t uproot her entire life from Niuafo’ou just for us to give up her secret. Fefe and my grandfather hadn’t left Tongatapu with the hope of becoming famous off an orchid. My family’s courage led us here, to this house butted up against of the back of my dad’s restaurant, where my Fefe’s kaikakai was the star attraction. If we gave up the orchid, we would be giving up something that my family has held close to its unified heart for three generations.
Maybe some things were better left a secret. After all, it wasn’t our secret to share. It’d been Fefe Kalasia’s and Kui Atamai’s.
Still staring toward the kitchen, hearing the nonstop busy efforts of my grandmother, I no longer felt the urge to charge in on her this very moment. I’d learn our secret in time. I could be patient.
Then, as if she’d been listening in on my thoughts, Fefe barged through the swinging kitchen doors and met my wide eyes with a steely gaze of her own. “Lopini. Come. I teach you to cook.”
· "Niuafo'ou". Global Volcanism Program. Smithsonian Institution.