From the days of sitting on top of a high stool at the kitchen work surface in my Nan’s picture postcard cottage, with my hands encrusted in flour and butter in a mixing bowl making cakes, cooking has been a big part of my life. I’ve always enjoyed making things from scratch, learning about food from other countries and experimenting with unusual ingredients to re-create dishes. But the bountiful choices and taste adventures that are on offer to us are certainly one of the many luxuries that we take for granted.
I find the ritual of eating in different countries and cultures really interesting. From different ways of cooking, to the food people use to celebrate, to the way people sit down as a family; people’s relationship with food differs dramatically around the world and it can reflect upon the dynamic of family and values.
In Papua New Guinea (PNG), gardens are filled with bountiful fresh fruit and vegetables. Cuisine here is simple and very many of the home cooked meals are cooked in coconut milk. A major part of the food preparation process is making the coconut milk that everything is stewed in. The older coconuts are scraped laboriously using a stool with a fixed scraper, then water is added and the flaked coconut is squeezed again and again to get the milk. The liquid will then be used as a sauce for green vegetables, sweet potato, sago, yam, or taro and in the coastal areas fish and highlands chicken. Other than salt there is no other seasoning.
Sago is one of the staple sources of sustenance for people in PNG. It is the starch extracted from the spongy centre of tropical palm stems. The spongy pith can be made into flour to form dense pancakes or it can be mixed with water and rolled into gloopy balls. Sago palm is nearly pure carbohydrate and it is no wonder why this dense, filling substance is a PNG favourite as it fills you to the brim but what it lacks is nutritional value. To my palette, it is flavourless and heavy but it is a good example of how food is used to fuel the hot, hard work that people do here.
A difference in cooking between regions and provinces is evident and based around time old traditions and what is available on people’s land and in gardens. In the coastal area of Madang people cook a lot with coconut milk in a clay pot, in the island region of East New Britain they cook using hot stones that glow red in the fire (Aigir) and in the highlands sweet potato is cooked in the ashes of the fire which makes it sweeter.
For celebrations the focus is on quantity and this is the time when a pig will be killed to be used for a mumu. A pit is dug in the ground and the whole pig is cooked on hot stones. Once cooked people gorge themselves on protein. This relationship between quantity and celebration is also evident when you eat out, as in most restaurants portion size is vast. In contrast on a daily basis I’ve observed that people often only eat one or two meals and if people do eat lunch it is a quick packet of dry crackers, a two-minute noodle fix or fried flour balls. This is often to do with the time that it takes to prepare food traditionally but it can be because of the cost of food. Again carbs are king. For breakfast, boiled bananas are washed down with sweet tea (Papuans average around three sugars in their hot drinks!)
A sad reality is that despite the fabulous, fresh produce that grows in abundance, food habits are changing with people moving to rice, noodles and bread for quick fixes. It is almost a sign of wealth to be able to eat these imported carbohydrates and a whole generation of children is being raised on ‘Maggie’ noodles. Similarly branded soft drinks have also taken a firm hold and are a luxury, sought after item. My colleagues often seem far more pleased to be offered a can of coke than a freshly baked muffin. And a favourite treat for lik lik pikinini (little children) are the huge cream and jam filled buns called ‘Big Boys’ that they cram happily in their mouths!
The consequence of this shift in eating is really serious and many illnesses are related to diet – cases of anemia are really high and maternal health is extremely poor. But despite PNG having many struggles, I must say that on my travels I rarely see the stereotypical image of starving children. Because of the strong family networks the young are relatively well fed. I do think though that as a result of the need for filling food that can be made cheaply from what is on offer in the bush, PNG cuisine provides much needed fuel with little nutritional value rather than the intricate tapestry of choice and fusion that we have come to know in the West.