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Fafaru by Any Other Name Would Smell as Foul

I arrived home from work and found my friend who was visiting from the United States in the yard, inhaling deeply on the sweet aroma of a Tahitian gardenia.

''What's that in your refrigerator?'' she asked with such distaste that I knew she had found the fafaru. I had meant to warn her about it, but it had slipped my mind.

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''I thought that was an awfully strange looking drink,'' she continued, ''so I opened the bottle to check it out, and whew! The whole house smells like it now. I had to come out here and put my nose into a flower.''

The Tahitian feasts offered at hotels and restaurants in French Polynesia include many of the foods modern Tahitians eat, such as breadfruit, plaintains (cooked bananas), po'e ( a sweet dessert), taro (a root), fafa (from taro leaves), manioc (yucca), and poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lemon juice). But most visitors to Tahiti come and go unaware of the existence of fafaru. I had lived there several months before encountering it myself.

The first time I smelled fafaru was at a wedding, though I didn't know what it was at the time. The flower-canopied room had been filled with wedding guests packed onto long picnic-style tables. Most of the food there I had tasted before. My not-yet husband told me about the ones I hadn't. But he neglected to tell me about fafaru.

Midway through the feast there was a stench. I looked for the baby responsible, but there were none at the table. Not even any young children.

I was incredulous when my future spouse later professed to not having smelled that particular odor and thought perhaps he was protecting someone from potential snickers and sneers. And so I still had no inkling of the existence of fafaru.

A few months later my husband-to-be and a friend were discussing some foul smelling food called fafaru. The light came on.

''Was there fafaru at the wedding?'' I asked.

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I have since learned that my husband adores the stuff. In fact, he is quite proud of the dish and never tires of telling me that it is a real Tahitian dish that you only find at real Tahitian feasts. This explains how he could claim not to have smelled anything despicable back at that wedding.

I, however, not being a real Tahitian but only one through marriage, do not share my husband's appreciation, so he eats it outside, well away from my nostrils. And now we have bottles of fafaru juice sitting inside the door of the refrigerator threatening unwary visitors whom I forget to warn.

''But what is it?'' my friend asked me. ''Why does it smell so bad?''

For a long time I had only known that it had something to do with fish heads. But recently my husband had asked me to help him translate how he prepares it into English so he could explain it to the tourists he meets at work.

''Most people use u'u fish heads,'' (a small red fish whose name is pronounced ''ooh ooh'') ''but I use lobster legs.

''First I let the lobster legs sit in sea water for about two weeks. Next I squeeze the water through a cloth until all the lobster parts are gone and it's smooth. Then I pour the water into clean bottles.

''Now it's fafaru juice. When you want to eat some, you just put raw fish in the juice for one or two hours and then you eat it with coconut milk. Mmmm.''

It doesn't sound that bad, my friend agreed. Not like thousand-year-old eggs or something. Just two-week-old sea water.

''Have you ever tried it?'' she wanted to know.

''I did try it once,'' I told my friend,'' because I was sure it couldn't possibly taste the way it smells. And it doesn't. But I don't think my stomach could keep very much of it down.''

''Are there are any other Tahitian dishes one should watch out for?'' she asked. There was apprehension in her voice, probably because we were going to a Tahitian feast that evening.

''Not really. Tahitian food is mild and pretty uneventful - there's nothing like monkey brain on the half-shell lurking behind unfamiliar names.'' I could see she was relieved to hear this. ''And don't worry,'' I assured her further, ''unless one wanders into a restaurant heavily frequented by locals, fafaru is unlikely to be on the menu.''

''Good,'' she said. ''Though Tahiti has many fine experiences to share, I'm glad Tahitians have chosen to keep fafaru to themselves.''

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