5-9 How to Make a Fire

I remember making fire starters out of egg cartons, lint and wax as a Father’s Day gift when I was about eight. Those remained the top-of-the-line fire starters in my world for the next ten years or so.

Here in Vanuatu, I have found a superior and more abundant product. Coconut leaves. Dry coconut leaves are high in oil, thin as paper and dry out while remaining intact. They are ideal fire starters.
Chunk of coconut leaves, ready to burn.

Building a fire here goes like this.
You rip off a chunk of coconut leaves and fold them in half. Really the folding is optional, but we do it to keep things tidier. If you don’t fold, you have to tie them together with another coconut leaf.
Apply match.

Most days, it only takes one match to light the end of the coconut leaves. On windy days or when it is raining it can take two.

Ensure leaves light well.

Tip the coconut leaves at about a 45 degree angle to get the fire really caught. When they start to roast your hand, you know you’re good to go.

Place in stove or pit.

Stick the coconut leaves in the smokeless stove (pictured) or in a fire pit. Cover with kindling. Keep stuffing the coconut leaves further in as they burn away. They burn hot enough to light the wood.

Add wood, cook!

Coconut leaves are basically fire magic. When your food isn’t cooking fast enough, stuff some cocnut leaves under it. When your fire won’t light, stuff some coconut leaves in it. When you have nothing but coals, toss on a few coconut leaves. I don’t know that I’ll remember how to make a fire with all the boyscout methods like “teepee” or “log cabin.” (Side note, why are all the methods named after housing? Isn’t that just encouraging arson?)

23-4 Dumplings with the Dudes

I made Chinese dumplings.  Sort of.  I made something that tastes a whole lot like Chinese dumplings, using locally-available ingredients. 

The short recipe is:
pumpkin, boiled and mashed
green and white onions, chopped
island cabbage, chopped
garlic, chopped

Sautee all the not-cooked ingredients together then mix them into the pumpkin mash.  That’s the filling.


Mix them all together until they make dough.  Roll the dough really, really thin.  Fill with filling.  Drop in boiling water for about 5 minutes.

I don’t have better measurements because I no longer use them.  I don’t have a measuring cup and the lines have rubbed off my nalgene.  I just throw things in pots until it looks like what I think it ought to look like.

The first time I made these, my volunteer neighbor Hannah was visiting.  The guys at the nakamal spotted us walking in and out of the kitchen over and over.  They’ve learned that when I keep going and coming from the kitchen, it means I’m cooking something bizarre. 

Danny has sat and watched me cook before, usually with comments like, “That’s going in there, too??”  He came down to see what I’d throw in the pot this time.  Because he was there, it was safe for Kipsom to come, too.  (They only travel in packs.)  I started stuffing the dumplings about the same time that Wata stopped by, just to say hi.

My kitchen is not large.  It is maybe eight feet by twelve feet with a roof that slopes down to waist height at the walls.  There were five of us, the food and a fire in that room.  It was smoky.  The guys were still more interested in watching me than going back up and storying in the nakamal.  This is whiteman TV at its finest.
While I was cooking the dumplings, they were busy telling me how to cook them.  This is classic ni-Van.  When I do things they have never seen before, they will spend the whole time telling me how to do it.  This time, they were telling me how to build the fire, how many dumplings to put in, how long to cook them for and how to tell if they were done.  None of them even know what dumplings are.  Sigh.

I pulled out the first batch and put them on a plate to cool.  I put the next batch in and grabbed one to try it.  All three of them stared at me.  I dipped it in soy sauce.  They stared.  I took a bite.  They stared.  I ate my bite.  They stared.  I dipped it back in the soy sauce.  They stared.  I took another bite.  They stared.  I finished the dumpling.  They stared.  Then I passed the plate over to them.

I don’t understand a lot of local language, but I didn’t need words to understand the ensuing game of “you first” that happened.  The three of them spent a good five minutes arguing about who was going to try them first.  I ate another dumpling.  Hannah had a dumpling.  We waited for them to finish their game of not it.

Wata lost.  He very, very hesitantly tried a nibble off of a corner.  It didn’t kill him so he tried a bigger bite.  Two bites later he declared it tasty.  Danny screwed up his courage and tried it, doing almost exactly the same thing.  Finally, Kipsom had to.  It took him another two minutes of sitting there thinking about it to do it.  Once he started, he finished the whole thing.

I think that was my goal 2 work for the month.  (Goal 2 of the Peace Corps is sharing American culture with host country nationals.)  Even if they were Chinese dumplings, getting them to try food that was so far out of their comfort zone was enough.  They even liked it, I think.

10-24 How to Skin a Coconut

I like coconut milk. I’m going to have a really expensive coconut milk habit when I move away from the tropics. Until then, I spend a lot of time with a bushknife and a coconut trying to get good strong milek kokonas!

Here’s the basics:

Step 0: “Up” is the part that was attached to the tree. It usually has a little hat or at the very least is less pointy than the “down” bit.

Step 1: Remove the bottom. A skilled (read ni-Van) individual can do this in four or five pieces, it takes me more like eight to ten. The idea is to hit the coconut below the midline and at about a 45 degree angle to the husk. The coconut itself is somewhere around the midline and you should be following the curve of the shell down towards the tip of the husk.

Step 2: Remove the excess. Again, a skilled (read ni-Van) doesn’t need this step. I do. They can take off the whole thing in a few nice clean strokes but I get it open then turn the coconut on its side and whack at the connecting bit until it comes off.

Step 3: Section the husk. (Please note, this is how I cut my hand in February and I have re-thought the tactics for this section. The improved tactics are what follows.) Place the coconut on the ground, sitting at an angle. The part you just cut off should be about the right angle. Hit the coconut as hard as you can just below the top. Pull your knife out. Rotate ten degrees and repeat. If you do this while holding the coconut at the right angle, be sure the knife doesn’t bounce.

Step 4: Pry off the husk. Slide the tip of the bushknife into the left-most slit you just made. The tip should go in as deep as the space between the two slits is wide. Use the bushknife like a crowbar and pry the section out. It should (eventually) tear away from the rest of the coconut. Stab the bushknife back in slightly more than an inch to the left of the torn section. Pry again. Repeat until all the way around.

Step 5: Tear off the husk. Grab and pull. If you didn’t pry hard enough, this step is really difficult. If you pried and sectioned correctly, the husk should tear away, leaving a hairy cocnut.

Step 6: Buzz the coconut. Use the bushknife to clean the hairy bits off the coconut. Think about peeling a potato or a carrot. It’s like that, except more fiberous.

Now, you have a coconut that is ready to milk. I watch my ni-Van friends do this whole process in under two minutes. I have it under four and I am proud of that. I’ve come a long way since a medevac to Australia!

5-18 Gardening on Pentecost

First off, let me clarify the term “garden.” In the US, I had a nice little garden. It was about twenty feet square. This was acceptable. Here, that is laughable. When they say “garden” here, what they actually mean is “multi-acre subsistence farm.” When they say “kava garden” what they mean is “multi-acre hand cultivated cash crop.”
I have a very small garden. It is less than an acre. They tease me about it, but I consider it good integration, a claim to my independence and just fun.
I cut the garden out of the bush in mid-April. That was a solid morning’s work with a bush knife. The trick is to get the knife at an angle to hit the dirt just below dirt level. If you do it right, you sever the plant from its roots and make pulling it away easy. If you do it wrong, you fight with the stupid vines for hours and wave your knife around a lot. I’ll let you guess which way my day went.
I’ve been planting things little bit by little bit. The first day, we planted island cabbage and bananas. Since those are the absolute staples around here, it was appropriate. The next week, I went back and planted corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelon. Those are just tasty. On my last visit, I planted sutsut, navisso, wild ginger, bok choi and more cucumbers.
Because I’ve done much of the planting on my own without the input of a Ni-Van, I apparently am planting things “wrong.” Some people here do rows of plants, but not many. Mostly, they just plant all about. I planted my corn in close packed rows, like you’d see in the Midwest. I have since been informed, that corn is to be planted all about. When I asked about the navisso, the little girl helping me promptly planted it in rows. The same thing happened with the manioc. I don’t understand.
Jason has just informed me that when we go to the garden alone, he gets teased. In a society where personal space is non-existent and privacy is totally optional for the person impinging on you, the garden is one of the few places not crowded with friends and family. Planting manioc is a euphemism. I chose not to point out to them that we have a perfectly good house, bed and door with an internal lock. It is more fun to have them tease Jason.

5-18 We are Going to Rock at Camping

Our gas gave out sometime in the beginning of April, about a week after the bush kitchen was finished. We got another bottle of gas this week (mid-May). In the middle, we’ve drastically improved our cooking skills. The summation is that I am still a better cook but Jason is better at frying things.

A normal meal is cooked like this: find the root crop or banana of choice and peel it accordingly. Chop it up to whatever size you need. Chop up any flavoring items like onions, spring onions, garlic, or peppers. Go build a fire. Dump all of the ingredients in a pot. Fan the fire and add more fuel. Put the pot on the fire. Fan the fire again. Grab a coconut and start skinning. Fan the fire again. Finish skinning the coconut. Fan the fire. Go find a bowl to scratch the coconut into and a spoon to stir the food with. Come back and fan the fire again. Scratch the coconut. Milk it into the pot on the stove. Try not to inhale too much smoke and have to leave the bush kitchen, because this risks the fire going out in that instant of inattention. Once the food is boiling (or frying) merrily, you can let the fire burn down a little, or at least become a little less attentive.
This is what baking looks like here
If I am planning on baking banana bread, I go back into the house and dump flour, sugar, bananas, cinnamon and vanilla in a bowl.

Hopefully the stones are heating on the same fire that I’ve been fanning. Then I go back out and skin another coconut. The coconut milk joins the rest of the ingredients just as the food is getting finished. Too early and the baking soda reacts before it bakes; too late and my fire is too low to bake well. Mash all the ingredients together and dump it in the baking dish. I use a silicon dish that fits perfectly inside one of my cast iron sauce pans. The bottom of the pan is covered in sand and then then the silicon dish goes in. The whole thing is snuggled down in the coals and covered with hot rocks and burning coconut husks. After eating the food, I go back out and build the fire up again. The best baking seems to require two or three re-builds of the fire.

Cooking takes up probably half the day if we cook three meals. Because I think I have better things to do with my time, I often don’t cook three meals. We bake at night and eat the bread for breakfast. Then I’ll cook one meal that we eat for two. If it involves frying, I’ll help Jason prep, but he is in charge of frying it. Mine just don’t turn out as well. I think I’m categorically opposed to using that much palm oil. On days in which we are both lazy and lack the forethought to cook ahead, we go beg food from other people. We eat a lot of laplap that way.

We also make banana tarts.
Same ingredients but the bananas are layered inside a crust
I expect that at the end of two years, I will be a camping rockstar. Though, there aren’t coconuts which save any meal. Coconut milk is like ambrosia. That will be an expensive habit.

5-8 Banana Bread or Wonderous Whiteman Food

We eat a lot of bananas. Most food here is seasonal and we have no imports, so during pineapple season we get almost one a day but since mid-January, I’ve seen exactly one pineapple. Bananas are not seasonal. Bananas grow all the time. There are always bananas.

I never knew that bananas came in so many forms, but it turns out they do. I’ve never disliked bananas. I’ve never be overwhelmingly fond of them either. They were useful to toss in a smoothie or if the smoothie didn’t happen for a few days, they made good bread. I think I will go on an anti-banana diet for a few years when I get home, just to try to balance out the amount of bananas in my life.

To deal with this quantity of bananas, I have been forced to become creative in my approach to cooking. It turns out that slightly green bananas make a good curry and the really green bananas are more like a potato than you would think possible. This includes the possibility of being boiled and mashed with garlic.

I’ve started making banana bread. I make a lot of banana bread. I make banana bread probably four times a week. We have that many bananas.

The current recipe is: a pile of self-rising flour, a dash of cinnamon, a smaller pile of sugar, two to five ripe bananas depending on size, and the milk of one coconut. If the bananas aren’t really ripe, they are just kind of ripe, it works best to scratch them with a fork to make mush. The squeezing method just isn’t as effective on the barely ripe ones. I get a good fire going, usually same one I cooked my dinner of banana curry on, and stack on a few stones. When the fire is starting to die out and the stones are good and hot, I dig a hole in the embers and nestle the pot into it. Then I cover it up with hot stones and coconut husks. The bread turns out the best if I stoke the fire a few times during baking. That lesson has been slow to learn, but I’m catching on now.

Today, I made three loaves of banana bread. It takes about an hour to bake each one and probably half an hour of prep time. I made them to sell to the community as a fundraiser for the Aid Post. This afternoon, my papa stopped by to see how the baking was going. I cut the loaf into eight pieces. He ate five of them. I think I may have found a good money maker for the Aid Post. I might not tell anyone how to make it until the Aid Post has made all the money it needs.

5-2 Snack foods of Pentecost

Our snack shelf. From left to right: garlic, cucumber and avocado you can recognize. The green things are sutsut, the yellow is grapefruit and the green thing in the corner is makot. The long thin one is sugar cane.

I keep coming back to the topic of food, but it takes up a disproportionate amount of my mental energy. I think about it a lot, in lots of forms. Everything from what can I pull out of the bush, to my garden to cooking island style or using the local ingredients to make whiteman food. I just like food.

The other day I looked over at my shelf and saw snacks. Then I realized that the snacks I saw I mostly didn’t know English names for. So, here is a run down of the things we munch on.

The more normal ones include mandarin oranges and sweet grapefruits. It is avocado season now, which is delicious.

We also eat sugar cane, which is less eating and more chewing and spitting out. To eat sugar cane, you peel the skin off with a knife then slice chunks of it off. You chew the chunks like gum until they lose flavor, then you spit them out and start with a new piece.

Passion fruit

Passion fruit doesn’t seem to have a season, but it is always kind of hard to come by. It grows on a vine up in the bush. People tell me to mix it with sugar and water and make juice. I just like to eat it straight, though it does have an odd texture.

Makot looks like grapefruit but is not. It is a citrus, though not strongly citrus flavored. It tastes slightly like a sweet, mellow grapefruit with an almost spicy after taste. If you know the Celestial Seasonings “spice” teas, it has that kind of an after taste. So good. Made even better by not having seeds.

Naus or Barus is unlike anything I have eaten the fruit family before. It is hard, like a carrot hard, but slightly sweet. The skin is bitter, so you have to peel it off or smash it against a hard object to break it open. I’m no good at the smashing, though chucking it against my cement floor works pretty well. I told you, they are hard. The pit looks likes a cross between a tumbleweed and a caltrop.


Nakapol is not my favorite. People keep telling me it is sweet, but to me it has the consistency of boiled leather and only marginally more flavor. I eat it when I’m bored because it takes so long to chew.

They have something they call ceres, but that is the French name. They are sort of wild cherries, but not really. They are incredibly sweet, almost like cough syrup, and very small. The guys use them to wash the taste of kava out of their mouths if the kids leave any on the trees.

(only the flower, the fruit wasn’t in season)

Nakavika is currently out of season. It is called a Vanuatu apple, which I guess is accurate. The skin is red and the flesh is white. It has one giant pit in the center that rattles when it is ready to eat. It is sweeter than most fruits I’ve tasted and has a vaguely apple-like taste, though it is a lot softer and doesn’t give that satisfying crunch that apples do.

Ngai is a not that is a lot like an almond including the slight buttery or oily feel. These are among my favorites. Unfortunately, they have a season which is not now.

Nahvel is ready all the time, it just depends on the tree. These are crunchy and very slightly sweet. They can also be boiled or roasted. They get a bit greasy that way, but are still delicious.

Namambe has been called the Vanuatu chestnut. Raw, they are starchy and not too tasty, but boiled they are really good. If they are boiled long enough, they reminded me of a slightly crunchy potato. Apparently that’s about what their nutritional value is, too.

Natapoa is the tree most commonly used for building houses, but the nut from it is also edible. The husk on the nut is bright red and the nut itself is made of tons of thin layers that wrap around and around. They sell dried ones in Vila, which I’m trying to get my area to start exporting.

Cacao grows wild here. Though it takes a lot of work to make chocolate, it doesn’t take any work to cut a pod in half and suck on the seeds. They don’t taste like chocolate but they are sweet. They do have a texture roughly equivalent to snot, which puts some people off. I think they are tasty.

Breadfruit is poked with a stick until it falls down

Sour sop is another very sweet fruit that grows wild. The outside is green and spiky and the inside is white and very fibrous. To eat it, you peel strips of the fiber off and chew on them until they won’t choke you when you swallow. The wife of our country director makes amazing sour spo juice but running it through a blender.

2-27 How to Open a Nahvel or This is how we get our Food

As you all may have figured out by now, we spend a lot of time playing with bush knives. The bush knife is the essential tool in any Vanuatu toolbox. It can be used for such varied purposes as gardening, opening coconuts, husking coconuts, opening nahvel nuts, building a fence, disciplining children, cutting down timber and skinning a pineapple. We spend a lot of time with our bush knives.

We decided to try some video footage. On the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words and I don’t have that much time to write while in Vila, here is Jason opening a nahvel.

They taste a little like an almond, except you eat them raw which makes them crisper and less crunchy. They come into season every few months. There seems to be some kind of nut in season pretty much all year, at the moment it is this one. In a few weeks, I’m hoping the ngaiy will come back in season. They are my favorite.

3-1 Ol Kakae blo Pentecost

I’ve gotten a number of questions about what we eat on the island. So, let me try to answer that, at least a little.

Food here is seasonal. There is no refrigeration or freezing abilities on the island and it is pretty minimal in Vila. Things like canning and drying don’t really happen. There are some volunteers who make jams or pickles, but for the most part it just isn’t done. Drying requires a consistent heat as well as a low humidity, neither of those exist here. So, we eat what is falling off the trees at any given moment.

The big starch staples include taro which comes in three varieties, kumala which comes in more varieties than I can count, yam, manioc and bananas which have more varieties than I have words for.

The taro is a favorite on Pentecost. Some variety is ready year round. There is water taro, Fijian taro and wild taro. Curiously enough, Fijian taro is apparently called Vanuatu taro in Fiji. Go figure. They all have about as much taste as chalk, though they take well to curry. Not that anyone here uses curry, but when I cook it it isn’t half bad.

The kumala is basically what I know as a yam or sweet potato. They are delicious. Unfortunately, they do seem to have a season, though I don’t know when it is. There are some now and have been a few since we got to Pentecost, but not a lot. They come in red, white, purple and orange and the skin doesn’t necessarily match the meat. Some of them are multi-toned. They make for pretty food. I love them fried into chips with salt and vinegar but they are pretty good mashed up with garlic, too.

It isn’t yam season yet. I’ve had maybe two yams. They are huge, like two to three feet long. I was given a young one that came up to my knee. My papa said it was still too small to eat. I ate it. It was tasty. They are not like the yams I’m use to in the states, more like a potato, except grainy. They are good once you get past the texture.

It is definitely banana season. I’m not sure bananas will ever be out of season. I’m not talking about the sweet yellow things you buy at the store. There are small sweet bananas, there are big sweet bananas, there are strong bananas that taste like a potato when cooked, there are ripe bananas, there are long skinny green bananas, there are tiny little bananas they refer to as lollies. There are more than that. I could bore you with types of bananas. The favorites so far are the sweet ones that go well with nutella and peanut butter and the strong ones that taste like a potato and are quite good boiled and mashed with garlic.

The standard ways of preparing any of these is boiling, tossing on the coals and roasting, stuffing in bamboo and roasting it or covering in leaves and hot stones and baking. That is, aside from the laplap and simboro.

The standard side dish to the starch is island cabbage. Island cabbage is a slimy green leaf that is more like spinach than cabbage. If a day goes by and I don’t eat cabbage, I am shocked.

Cabbage can be cooked in any number of ways, as long as it involves boiling it in coconut milk. You can shred the cabbage then boil it in coconut milk. You can tie the cabbage in knots, then boil it in coconut milk. You can toss it stem and all in the boiling coconut milk. Technically, I suppose you could boil it in water, but that is just a waste of the potential to use coconut milk. I have had it baked once. I have had it fried once. (That is of course discounting the ways that I find to cook it. I find myself inspired to new heights of creativity some nights. It is amazing what I kind find to entertain myself some days.)

The diet here is generally vegetarian. Meat is reserved for special occasions. Of course, there is a special occasion about once a week if you know enough people. The occasions that are worth slaughtering something include weddings, funerals, holidays and “special occasions” like having a Peace Corps Volunteer arrive in the village. The meat is usually roasted or baked, though chicken is often boiled as well. I’ve heard from the more omnivorous people in my life that the chicken is meatless and tough but the beef is rich, beefy and delicious. The pig seems to vary.

The access to fish depends on the village. Vansemakul doesn’t have a lot of fishermen. We have a reef which is home to a lot of fish, but some of them carry cinqueterra, which is a nasty kind of sick. That is the excuse my village uses for not fishing. The next village over has several men who fish and they eat fish about once a week. Go figure. It was crab season over Christmas and we ate a fair amount of crab. To catch the crabs, they go out at night with a flashlight and wait for something to run across their path in the bush. Then they either catch them or follow them to their burrow and dig out anyone who happens to be home.

The “white man kakae” (pronounced kaka-ee) that is available on Pentecost is mostly rice, flour and canned fish. Though rice is popular and not terribly expensive, it still costs cash money which is a big deal. It is used a lot, but looked down on as being an inferior food to the root crops while at the same time being praised for being easy to cook and tasting good. People like bread and make a taste fry bread/donut thing called gato from imported flour. It is cheap enough to be a “standard” in most houses and just about everyone can turn out a decent load of bread. (Except me. I’m still working on that.) The canned fish is what I would consider cat food grade. It is everyone’s favorite. Eww.

The last protein possibility is eggs. Though there are chickens everywhere, eggs are hard to come by. The hens are surprisingly wily about laying. For birds that get trapped in boxes, they know where to hide their eggs. Also, people tend to leave them alone because eggs mean more chicks, which means more meat. I prefer the egg form.

Other foods that we’ve eaten include: corn, white onion, spring onion, pineapple, mango, papaya, watermelon, pema peppers, capsicum peppers and green beans. All of those are seasonal and we get them when they are in season. When they go out of season, we got nothing.

2-1 The Big City

Vila’s current population is somewhere around 12,000. This is now the Big City. I find this funny, in an overstimulated kind of way. I don’t think the number of vehicles on the road or people on the street has changed, I think it is just me that has changed.

The first night I was in Vila, I was in shock. I went to dinner with a few other PCVs. There were enough of us around the dinner table to make for a few little conversation pockets. I was unable to participate in any of them because I couldn’t keep track of any single conversation. I have lost my ability to track a conversation if more than one is going on in English. I’ve gotten better over the last week, but I still find myself trailing off in the middle of sentences and being distracted by what someone the next table over is saying. I’ve lost my ear filters.

Going to the Mama’s Market was pretty intense, too. The Mama’s Market is a sort of busy place anyway. Last time I was there, my eye kept sticking on the stacks of live crabs, the piles of coconuts, the nangi on a skewer. This time, I found myself struck by the sheer number of people walking around and how many of them were white. The crabs barely registered a second glance, the coconuts weren’t even worth the first glance. I still look at the nangi because they are tasty. They are like buttery almonds. So good! The avocados the size of my head were pretty exciting, too.

I think the hardest part about being in Vila is looking at all the possibilities of food and only being able to eat four times a day. As Jake said after his first meal back from the island, “I can’t wait until I’m hungry again.” I ended up repeating restaurants, not because there aren’t enough restaurants but because I was so overwhelmed I didn’t know where to go. There are also some Peace Corps favorites that we just keep going back to. Jill’s Cafe has awesome ice cream. Chill does a good lunch special that includes a glass of wine or beer. The Port is pricey but worth it as a treat. La Casa has the best pizza in town. I’m not a fan of Olympic Burger, but that is just my vegetarianism speaking. Deli Cafe does French-ish type food and has an all9day pancake menu. There are options, but really, it is all too overwhelming when the only option I’ve had for the last 3 months has been “which house should I eat breadfruit in today?”

I’m heading back to my island now. There will be too much peace and quiet by comparison and not enough friends or family around. That’s ok, I’ll re-adjust in time to come back to Vila and do it again!