SEEMINGLY SIMPLE CAN BE EXTRAORDINARILY MEANINGFUL
I was dismayed when I learned last week that it is Phonoegraphy month for the Weekly Photo Challenge —meaning photos taken using the camera phones. I seldom use my phone in taking photos….usually I do phonoegraphy only of myself or with my friends and family for fun shots. However, I often use my iPhone camera for food photography.
So when I saw this week’s challenge, I was excited to learn that the theme is LUNCHTIME — photos that show what you actually had for lunch, where you have eaten, with whom or what happened during your lunchtime. Looking at my collections of my Food photos on my iPhone, I realized that there was nothing uniquely interesting to feature. I wanted to show rare cuisines I have eaten and the most memorable lunchtime I had during my travels. Good thing, Daily Post welcomes non-phoneographers to join this week’s challenge using their equipment of choice. Yehey!!!
Hence, this week, I am featuring one of the unique international cuisines I’ve ever eaten which gave me a different kind of foodgasm — the Pacific Island’s Aelan Kakai (local food).
Small island countries in South Pacific are geographically close, hence, you will find a lot of similarities in their local cuisines. The coconut, for instance, is a main ingredient in most of the local dishes while root crops like taro and yam are the main dietary staple food of Pacific Islanders.
Food for feasts is usually wrapped in banana leaf and cooked in a large pit dug in the ground filled with heated stones called earth oven.
During mealtime, baskets of food are often laid out on mats or on banana leaves instead on a table.
Here are some examples of my Aelan Kakai experience during my South Pacific travels:
First stop…Vanuatu. The main staple food of Ni-Vanuatu people includes yam, taro, banana, pumpkin, papaya, coconut and island cabbage supplemented by processed food considered as the ‘luxury food’ like tinned fish and instant noodles. During my stay in Port Vila in 2006-2008, there was no local fish market despite being surrounded by sea (mostly, expatriates own fish shops which are separate from the public local market). One will find only a few Ni-Vanuatu vendors selling a dozen or so fresh fishes in town.
I learned that they only use a local bamboo fishing rod made of string and small hook that is why they only have a small catch per day. One old man I met said that he often gets a fish or two a day and sell it to buy a tinned fish. This is very typical among Pacific Islanders where traditional methods of hunting, planting and cooking traditional foods have all but disappeared. Many locals sell their fresh produce/catch (vegetables, fruits, fishes etc) to purchase imported processed food. On many Pacific Small Island countries (particularly in Vanuatu), the ability to purchase imported foods has become a status symbol. Interesting, isn’t it?!!!
Back to the Aelan Kakai, most food in Vanuatu is cooked using hot stones or through boiling, steaming, barbecuing or frying.
They rarely use many spices but often add coconut milk and cream to flavor many dishes.
One of the most famous dishes (and my favorite traditional lunch) is called Lap-Lap made of grated root crops like yam or taro roots mixed with coconut milk.
Slices of chicken, pork or fish are added on top before grilling on an earth oven.
The cooking varies from one island to another. Some adds island cabbage on top.
Often, the mixture is wrapped in banana leaves…
…then covered with more layers of banana leaves before being cooked on the pit.
Lap-Lap is difficult to cook alone and consumes a lot of time. But the good thing nowadays, is that you can find a whole row of stalls at the local market selling various types of ready to eat Lap-Lap!
Another interesting (and something new to me!) is how Pacific Islanders combine a mixture of local and imported or canned foods. In one of the islands in Vanuatu, the community prepared lunch made of instant noodles mixed with corned beef eaten with boiled taro instead of rice.
However, it was in Samoa where I had eaten an odd combination during lunchtime with a local Samoan family.
They prepared uncooked tinned corned beef, boiled banana with fresh coconut milk poured on top, uncooked tinned spaghetti and sandwiches made of combination of tinned corned beef and tinned spaghetti and of course an unlimited bottles of Coca-Cola. Oh boy, they do love Coca-Cola!
However, my favorite was the Samoan breakfast that I had in one of the private resorts: the chocolate rice pudding with slices of fruits and coconut, boiled egg, toasted bread and the local pancake as side dish.
Samoans love to eat. They often take food with them when meeting their friends or relatives.
Sharing of food is a central element of Pacific Islander’s culture whether it is a formal or informal gathering.
Often, as a prelude to ceremonial gatherings or informal meetings, they drink Ava or Kava, a beverage made from powdered Kava roots that has a mild tranquilizing effect.
My favorite lunchtime experience in South Pacific was eating with the Hogokama Tribe in an island outside Honiara in Solomon Islands. I was attending a conference in one of the island resorts. During the break, I decided to explore the island.
I got lost (as usual!) and ended up in a community of the Hogokama Tribe. I decided to stay until lunchtime to interact with them and get to know their culture.
They were very friendly even if most of them cannot speak in English. The women showed me how to cook using the earth oven.
At that time, they were roasting a small wild pig wrapped in several layers of banana leaf.
The resort is owned and run by the community to provide for their basic needs. Since they were hosting a conference, they have rice to share and eat with their families.
Most of them prefer to eat only the rice adding a pinch of salt as it is considered as another ‘luxury food’.
It was interesting how they ate and shared their food.
I noticed that instead of using the regular spoon and fork, they use a big shell as spoon….
….or eat with their bare hands!
Foodgasm in South Pacific is not about eating a particular mouth-watering, drool inducing, finger licking, enticing food. It is about the experience of eating in a traditional ambiance while sharing a meal with the locals. The warm smiles and the genuine hospitality of the Pacific Islander people is what make my LUNCHTIME memorable, fun….and extraordinarily meaningful!