In May and June many people have taken on the Live Below The Line challenge. 1.2 billion people live on the equivalent of £1 a day for all their needs – food, clean water, shelter, education, health – everything. Living on £1 a day (K4) for the majority of Papua New Guinea’s population is a generous amount. Many unskilled workers live on far less than £100 (K400) a month with large proportions of this total going to paying school fees.
Malnutrition is a major problem in PNG. In 1996 a study showed that almost half of rural children had stunted growth. Low height-for-age of children commonly reflects malnutrition due to the effect of extended periods of poor food intake and past episodes of infection and sickness. It is highly likely that rural children suffer a greater risk of infection because they have poorer access to primary health care facilities. The average rural person has to travel for over an hour to the nearest health care facility, compared with urban people who are typically only 15 minutes away. In rural settings there is less access to protein, and calorie content per gram is much lower meaning that people living in these communities are more likely to be under weight.
Where Papua New Guineans live has a considerable impact on diet, nutrition outcomes and food preparation techniques. Urban Papua New Guineans may have access to electricity, gas and other modern conveniences whereas a large proportion of those living in rural areas and remote villages continue to live a very traditional lifestyle. 85% of people living in PNG are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Traditional lifestyle involves living in huts, practicing subsistence farming, hunting for game, fishing and gathering wild fruits and vegetables. In these areas it is also usual to cook food directly over hot coals, in pots over open fires, or in ground ovens. When cash is available, food such as rice, canned fish and canned meat may also be purchased to supplement the diet.
Staples of the traditional PNG diet include fish, seafood, sago, sweet potato (kaukau), taro, taro leaf, cassava, cassava leaf, breadfruit, edible leafy greens (kumu), coconut and fruits. The traditional meat is pork, which is eaten on special occasions. Coconut milk is used in cooking but was traditionally used only in coastal regions. Snacks usually comprise fresh fruits, nuts and berries but there has been a big move towards fast food fixes in urban settings with soft drinks and fatty, fried foods being consumed from kai bars (similar to greasy spoons cafes).
In rural settings, people generally only eat two meals a day as people are away from their homes during this time. Food is prepared daily; the morning meal often consists of cooked foods such as corn or kaukau that are cooked over hot coals and the evening meal is the main meal.
In support of Live Below The Line I have teamed up with two poros (friends) to show what can be conjured up with £5 (K20), combining the LBTL weekly budget for a PNG kaikai dinner party. We invited seven people to join us for our PNG feast.
We headed out to the Madang market at lunchtime and managed to get an amazing array of fresh and fragrant fruit and veggies from the friendly market sellers. From our K20 we managed to buy pumpkin, sweet potato, pit-pit, aibika, cooking bananas, pineapple, pawpaw, sugar fruit, peanuts, onion, garlic, ginger and most importantly coconut.
For our dinner party we tempted our guests with fresh peanuts and then rustled up a banquet of roasted pumpkin and sweet potato, pit-pit, aibika and bananas all cooked in the traditional PNG coconut milk and then finished off with a beautiful fruit salad of pineapple, pawpaw and sugar fruit.
Pit-pit is the edible flower of wild cane that grows rampantly in PNG. It looks like lemongrass on steroids and has a really unusual spongey texture which is perfect for absorbing the coconut milk that it is most commonly cooked in. It is rich, tasty and filling and takes on the flavour of whatever it is soaked in.
Aibika is a tropical green leafy vegetable commonly known as Pacific cabbage. Greens cooked in coconut milk are a big favourite in PNG cuisine. The aibika is steamed in coconut milk for a wholesome, wilted, health kick.
Cooking in coconut cream is the biggest signifier of PNG cuisine. Dry coconuts are cut in half and then scraped by hand using a scraping stool, this takes about half an hour and for an inexperienced scrapper it can be an even longer job! The coconut scrapings are then soaked in water and you squeeze the cream out. This light, fragrant, creamy liquid is usually combined with onion, garlic and ginger to infuse into whatever you are cooking with it.
Our dinner party guests, which included the VSO UK story gathering team, were really impressed with this yummy evening meal and there were generous portions to go around. PNG market food is quite expensive compared to other countries but it is amazing what beautiful, fresh, bountiful fruit and vegetables you can pick up. I always like the fact that each day there is a set cost for each item being sold so if the seller says broccoli costs K3 that’s what it costs, there is no bargaining like you find in other parts of the world.
Pretty much everything is consumed in PNG cuisine from root to flower which makes it even starker that 30% of food produced worldwide is never consumed. It is not waste that is the issue here. There is more than enough food to feed everyone in the world, and yet over 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger worldwide. With the challenges faced by PNG in regard to health and nutrition, VSO is just about to embark on a new project to combat the effects of malnutrition, obesity and poor health in the population through placing nutritionists in hospitals around the country. It will be really interesting to see the positive effects when the new volunteers arrive in July.
Cooking up our tasty PNG kaikai certainly reminded me of how tasty and filling simple food can be. I ate my plate of wholesome food knowing how lucky I am that I am never hungry and that I am blessed with having the choice to ensure that I have a healthy, balanced diet.