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.