‘Ota, eating raw fish is a word indicating insatiable appetite, and common in Tonga. When one says ‘Ota mai ha fo’i ‘unomoa – I am hankering to eat raw unomoa. Someone may respond and say – That’s really appetizing!
So this is the time of the year to enjoy ‘unomoa in Tonga.
Unomoa is when a mullet is still at the younger stage of its life cycle. It’s a delicacy to natives of Tonga.
Ngalo’afe ‘Ulupano who lives in the coastal area of Tongatapu, the village of Popua, talked about how he enjoys fishing for unomoa when he takes leave from his work, every year in November.
“The unomoa season is from November to January,” he said. “This month is their breeding stage, he added.
When, January to March you would find them at their biggest sizes. That’s when they reach maturity. We call it Kanahe,” ‘Ulupano said adding that some people still call it fua.
The fish’s stages of life cycle begins with te’efo – ‘unomoa – fua and then Kanahe according to ‘Ulupano but he said the names varied from place to place.
On the day of fishing they have to figure out the tides before they sail to Mata’aho, an island situated close to Popua, and do the fishing there.
When the tide is coming in, someone has to climb up the tongo trees and watch out for the fish.
When the fish appear, the fishers are ready to do the ha’o or surrounding the fish in a shape of a ‘U’.
They would then drive the fish into the net.
The net is then pulled out into shore and they start plucking the fish out. At the same time others may start the ‘ota eating the unomoa with manioke or haka talo – cooked cassava or taro.
Once getting a bite of the ‘unomoa after it's cleansed one may say “Ouaa! meaning, Stop it! This does not really mean to stop eating, but it is just kind of jokingly asking the person who is enjoying the eating of the ‘unomoa to simply take it nice and easy. They have plenty of unomoa for him to eat. So there is no need to rush.
It is a kind of Tongan humour they do when knowing fully well that someone is hankering for something. And finding him being interfered and not to concentrate on what he or she is hankering for when he was told to stop causes others to laugh.
When one has enough eating of the ‘unomoa, he may say, “Mate!”. Mate in Tongan means die. But saying the word after eating the ‘unomoa or any such delicacies does not mean that someone died. It means he's had enough and now the only thing he looks for, is to get somewhere as soon as possible where he can lie down to rest, as he may have been over-eating the ‘unomoa.
This is the kind of way of life some of the people who left Tonga for overseas, miss and would not forget about.
'Ulupano said the catch is then divided among the fishers, they would then share with their neighbours.
They sell part of the it for $10 pa'anga for 20 ‘unomoa locally, and if they take it to town, Nuku’alofa, then they sell them for $20 pa'anga for 15 ‘unomoa.
Growing up at Nomuka in the Ha’apai group ‘Ulupano said they relocated to Tongatapu and live in Ma’ofanga when he was six.
Since then he used to scour the sea area by boat looking for fish.
In 1984 they moved to Popua at the far end of Ma’ofanga, to the east coast.
“My father was, a primary teacher at government primary school, and after Hurricane Isaac that wrought havoc the kingdom in 1982 his father was called by the Ministry of Education to start the Popua Primary School.
At the time I was already really familiar with the sea area,” he said.
‘Ulupano is working as a bosun for the Germany shipping company, Heino Winter and he spent most of the year overseas, in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seas.
“I take a leave every year according to my contract and that is the only thing I bring with me when I leave. A fishing net and other fishing gear,” he said.
For the 'unomoa he said, “We do the fishing every day except Sunday”.
They have to do it everyday as it is not guaranteed they get the ‘unomoa every time they go fishing, 'Ulupano said.