Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sua I'a - Fish Soup

By panipopos

I've met two people in my life who avoid meat served with bones in it. According to these folk, it's too much trouble, too messy, and just plain primative to be gnawing meat from a bone. These guys (yes, they are both men, grown men) think that chicken, pork, beef and fish must be able to be cut with a knife and eaten with a fork. If, by some great misfortune, they happen to get served a bone, they'll cut a little meat here and there. But when their plate is returned to the kitchen, you may as well serve that meat right back out to someone else for all the flesh that will be left on the bone.

Now obviously, these people are not Samoan.

You see, a Samoan's plate would be returned to the kitchen with bones as clean as a whistle. Or maybe that's just the Samoans in my family.

Let me illustrate. If my family had chicken legs for dinner, we'd be crunching away at the cartilage like it was a carrot. If we had beef, we'd be sucking out the gelatinous marrow from inside the bones. Pork, well, if it was straight from the umu and fall-off-the-bone-tender, no work involved there. But if we were eating trotters, all twenty-something of the individual bones in the pig's foot would be so clean, you could wire them together and exhibit them at a natural museum.

But let me tell you about the fish. When my family ate fish, dinner conversation was scarce. Instead, you'd hear slurping and sucking sounds and lots of finger licking, pausing only to pick out the bones from our mouth and place them in a neat pile on the side of our plate. I mean, fish took our bone-cleaning skills to the highest level of expertise. I'm not talking about eating the fish's body and tail - that's child's play. I'm talking about breaking down a fish head, getting a full meal out of it, eyeballs and all!

The following recipe is for those of you who are right now thinking "Oh yeah, I totally know what she's talking about". It's for you that have read this far, and have not screwed up their face in disgust. It's for the shameless cartilage-crunching, marrow-sucking, trotter-eating, fish-eye-loving bone cleaners amongst us. I know you're out there.

Sua I'a (serves 3-4)
1 lb (450-500g) whole fish or fish pieces with bones
½ an onion
1 can (400ml) coconut milk
1-2 (400-800ml) cans water*
salt to taste
2 spring onions (optional)

* Add enough water so that your fish is mostly if not completely covered.

Any medium-firm textured fish (snapper, sea bass, yellowtail etc) works well in this soup.

If you're using a whole fish, clean, scale and gut it, then chop it into serving size pieces.

Slice your onion thinly.

Put the fish pieces and onion in a small pot. Add the coconut milk and water. Season with salt. Bring to the boil and then turn down and simmer for up to 10 minutes, depending on the size of the fish pieces. Don't overcook your fish, or you might find all the flesh has fallen off the bones, and is floating at the bottom of your soup.

While that's cooking, slice the spring onions. When the fish is cooked, turn off the heat, throw in the spring onions and cover.

Serve hot, either in a bowl, or with the fish on a plate and the soup in a mug.

And enjoy fishing out dem bones!


  1. hahaha! I can totally relate and know exactly what you are referring too. A classic dish that always brings my heart back to home.

  2. I KNEW you were a bone, sua i'a always reminds me of my parents and their facials while they're taking out ivi...

  3. I was laughing while reading your descriptions of a traditional Samoan family meal and nodding enthusiastically the whole time lol. My guilty pleasure is bone cleaning, nothing comes close to island cuisine. Are you on facebook and twitter as well? Looking forward to following your recipes, Alofas from NYC!

  4. Hi Liz...sorry I'm not on facebook or twitter, or else I'd be glued to the computer 24/7...I'm just here on this blog and over on Youtube who hosts my videos...Wow, life in the Big Apple must be worlds away from life in our humble islands...thx for dropping by my blog!

  5. Fa'afetai tele lava for posting this recipe. I'm so excited to make this in the next few days. As for the bone cleaning, my husband teases me that I don't leave anything on the bones for the dog to enjoy. His next comment is "No wonder the dogs in Samoa are so skinny." My bone cleaning skills I learned from my dad. Thank-you again!

  6. Lol i posted your panipopo video up on my facebook and i think you have a whole East coast following now. But im dying to try your recipe. NY has it's good and bad, but can get crazy at times, in a good way. Thanks, and take care!!

  7. Best: He's so right about the dogs! Hope your sua i'a works out...happy cooking!

    Liz: Thanks so much for posting my video and for supporting my blog!

  8. oh my goodness! i was grinning from ear to ear reading this post:) so typical of my family meals-bones, cartilage and all! when i married, my husband was amazed that those parts of animals could be eaten-he's palagi:) i still ask for his bones so i can eat the cartilage...some things never change! thanks for the recipe...i may surprise my dad one day with this cause he's the sua i'a maker in our family-and a darn good one too. thanks!

  9. whenever my parents are around, I don't even bother making the stuff they can make, because they make it so much better...

  10. Your post is OH SO TRUE, and my family can totally relate to all da bone cleaning to be done when we eat haha!! =) Thanks, Jaybird!

  11. Maybe that's why the dogs were always so skinny at my house, no meat on the bones we threw them.

  12. wow i am so related to this i love bones and any food from Samoa ohh its make wanna go back to the Island thank you for posting this i actually follow one of your recipe on here. its yuumy Samoan food.

  13. Thanks so much for your way to get a taste of home is to cook Samoan food in your own kitchen...Happy cooking!

  14. Thx for posting this. I never made an attempt to make a Samoan dish before oh wait I made pagipopos before but thats all. When my Father comes back to Cali from his vacation Im going to suprise him wit samoan food. And sua i'a is his fav.

    1. My parents love this too. So simple, but delicious. Enjoy!

  15. I am not a bone cleaner how will I manage in Samoa?