Making Faikakai Tōpai - just like nana does

7:27 pm on 8 September 2020

The island community that historically painted Mt Smart stadium in red during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup is celebrating its language in Aotearoa this week - Uike 'o e Lea Faka-Tonga 2020.

To celebrate and share a little bit of my Tongan culture with Aotearoa, I've asked nana to teach me (and you) how to make a classic Tongan dessert called Faikakai Tōpai - dumplings covered in a sweet coconut syrup.

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Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

This is my 81-year-old nana's go-to dish for every family feast or special church occasion. She doesn't know the origins of the dish, but she says it's a recipe she learnt from her parents, passed down through generations. Also, don't panic, but this is the first time nana has measured the ingredients for this dish after decades of making it off the cuff. People don't usually measure ingredients back in Tonga, she says. They just know.


This is what you'll need - warning, it feeds a whole island family.

For the Lolo faikakai or coconut syrup:

- 1.25kg brown sugar

- 1L of Kara coconut cream (diluted with a cup of water)

For the tōpai or dumpling:

- 5 cups of plain flour

- 5 teaspoons of baking powder

- 2.5 - 3 cups of cold water

How to make the syrup

First, we begin with the syrup. It's important to note that timing and focus is crucial.

1. Put a pot on the stove on high and wait until it is heated.

2. Pour the whole 1.25kg brown sugar into the pot and begin to stir.

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Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

3. As the sugar begins to melt, you'll start to notice little sugar clusters forming - keep stirring!

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Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

Now, this is one of the steps you'll have to pay close attention to. If you overcook the sugar, nana says your syrup will taste bitter.

4. Once the sugar has melted down to a brown liquid state, add half of your coconut cream. And keep stirring!

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Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

5. Nana stirs for about 10-15 minutes, before she adds the rest of the coconut cream… and keeps stirring.

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Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

As we're waiting (and actively stirring), nana explains that she feels the cooking of the syrup is almost scientific. That makes me laugh, but she's dead serious. She says the exact timing of when the sugar is heated enough to mix with the coconut cream can be easily overlooked but would result in a bitter-tasting syrup.

She's still stirring by the way, with a large wooden spatula. In Tonga, she says they usually use a large, thick stick to stir with.

"Because you know, in Tonga, it's usually made for the big feasts and kai pola or something special. So usually it is made in very large pots, so we need a large stirrer."

For the pot size we're using, personally, I don't think nana needs the large wooden spatula she's using. But I think it makes her feel like she's making it back home, in Tonga.

6. After stirring for about 20 minutes, keep stirring.

The syrup looks ready to me, but nana says it's not. She says if you scoop the liquid up and it runs off the stirrer smoothly like water from a tap, it's not ready. She says many people undercook the syrup, and when they do, it results in a watery sauce.

Alternatively, if you leave it too long, for the slightest few minutes, it becomes overcooked and what Tongans call, te'e peka, which literally translates to - bat poo. I think that's pretty self-explanatory.

Steps 6 and 7

Steps 6 and 7 Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

7. After stirring for about 30 minutes, scoop up the syrup with your stirrer in the pot. If the syrup runs off in a slow drizzle, it's close to perfection. Remember, this step of the recipe is also crucial, you don't want to end up with te'e peka.

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Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

8. After about 30-40 minutes (exact timing will depend on your observation of the syrup's liquid state), your syrup is cooked and ready!

To make the tōpai or dumplings

9. Put a pot of water on medium-high heat and slowly bring to a boil.

10. Add 5 cups of flour to a bowl, 5 teaspoons of baking powder and mix.

Steps 10 and 11

Steps 10 and 11 Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

11. Slowly add your 3 cups of water to your dry ingredients and mix.

12. Once it gets to this stage (see picture below), it's ready to go in the pot.

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Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

13. Scoop small balls of dough into your boiling water.

Steps 13 and 13.1

Steps 13 and 13.1 Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

14. To check if the dough is cooked, you can take out a dumpling, and cut in half to check whether it is cooked all the way through.

Steps 15, 15.1 and 15.2

Steps 15, 15.1 and 15.2 Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

15. Boil until dumplings are cooked right through.

Mabel's nana with her Faikakai Tōpai

Mabel's nana with her Faikakai Tōpai Photo: RNZ/ Mabel Muller

Once dumplings are ready, cut into small pieces and drizzle your syrup over it and it's ready to be demolished!

I can see nana is humbly proud of her faikakai tōpai and her ability to cook the lolo or syrup to perfection. I'm glad I've learnt this from my nana. One day her frail wrinkly hands won't be around the kitchen anymore and I'll have to rely on this recipe myself. Enjoy!

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