The culinary delights
I had a friend that we used to call ‘gourmet’ because he had very epicurean tastes. La rouse gastronomique was his cook book of choice. After his meals it was always advisable to avoid washing up because every pan in the house would be waiting for the one who drew that short straw. Gulf cooking is, in many respects, the polar opposite of ‘gourmet’. For Gulf people food is fuel for survival, not a creative expression.
Gulf province has no major industry to speak of. It is isolated and lacks any significant infrastructure. It is hot, humid, costal and its people are subsistence gardeners as they have been since the stone age, ie since last century. The 6th graders I have been teaching, delight in way food grows easily in the Gulf, and mention it frequently in their writing. Indeed, if you’re physically well you’re unlikely to starve here. Most people live out their days in their remote villages tending to their gardens, fishing and beating sago. There is little else to do here. Many older people never travel out of their district so life continues on as it always has, growing what grows, catching what can be caught and eating it.
Every day except Sunday the local market is open. Sellers, always women, from the next door villages or sometimes further afield, gather to sell their produce. They carry them on their heads or in bundles on their backs down the back paths, or paddling them up in the dugout canoes. Commercially produced items are banned from sale at our market- our own store has the monopoly and uses its profits for some of the hospital’s running costs. Careful consideration is given to what items should and should not be sold at the store. Only items that offer overall benefit the community are sold in the store. There is no coca cola at Kapuna. Never mind, it is entirely possible to live forever only on locally produced food, as many do.
The market place itself is due for a major upgrade, being both significantly too small and in a poor state of repair with uneven muddy floor that gets boggy in the rain especially at the entrance. Here I come, almost daily, to buy great bunches of sweet bananas in an astounding variety of sizes, shapes and flavours. Here are 5 varieties of leafy greens only 2 of which I personally find edible. There are long gourd pumpkins and short fat ones. Enormous watermelons are a perpetual favourite and not only in my family. For 7 kina I can have the whole enormous melon to pop into my freezer and devour for ‘desert’ later in the day, or for a delicious snack we all love the chopped watermelon pieces for 50 toea each. There are snake beans that look like tiny snakes, or enormous big beans sold individually for 50 toea each that make a fantastic side dish when fried with a bit of ‘all purpose seasoning’ imported by yours truly from Port Moreseby. There are kau kaus (kumera) sized from babies through to giants, and tapioca that makes a tolerable substitute for potatoes which are impossible to grow in the perpetually waterlogged earth. On the ground in large bags woven quickly from coconut leaves are enormous shellfish gathered from I’m not quite sure where. Down the back are piles of live crabs, pincers tucked under their shells and individually tied with coconut leaves. Some days there are fish at the market, lying on beds of banana leaves, occasionally they are still flapping and gasping for breath. Some sellers are vigilant at waving a small branch over the fish to shoo away the flies, others less so. If you purchase one, the seller will thread a coconut frond through its gill and out its mouth so you can carry it home without having to dirty your shopping bilum.
It’s the end of the dry season and that means guavas. I don’t have to buy any as we have our own tree and ours are enormous and juicy, with a flavour I have not found rivalled in any other guava so far. Our friends also have a tree and their supply is similarly plentiful. I made guava jam once after a another volunteer inspired me. If you can avoid comparing it to delicious blackberry jam while eating it is a nice addition to the diet. There are also still paw paw around, the soft delicately flavoured fruit that boasts medicinal properties. Regrettably, it quickly disintegrates if your children are picky eaters and cannot be persuaded that this is a fruit worth digesting, or so I hear. A tiny pineapple can be yours for just 1 kina, but for K3.50 you can take home a large ripe juicy one with unbeatable flavour.
Then there are the coconuts. Coconut palms are called the plant of a thousand uses. So far I have become aware of its usefulness for making brooms, mats, thatching, rope and kindling, but the Gulf diet would be very impoverished without their contribution. Sometimes you can buy a bottle of coconut oil constituting many hours of labour for 8 kina or so. Or there are green coconuts for drinking on the spot or brown ones to take home and scrape for coconut cream to add to the boiled starchy veges and greens to make a meal. I don’t have to buy coconuts, however, as Kapuna houses come with their own coconut trees, so essential are they to life here. A coconut scraper is similar to a medieval torture device in that it inevitably scrapes the fingers of the uninitiated as you wield it against the coconut. Nevertheless it is as essential piece of kitchen equipment and the sound of coconuts being scraped bookend the daylight. Vegetables, fish and greens are all boiled in coconut milk as part of a traditional Gulf diet and the coconut adds essential fatty acids and calories to the diet
The central tables in the market are reserved for great slabs of sago, Queen of Gulf food. The sago is carved into pieces sold on small trays of sago bark topped with a banana leaf – no plastic packaging here in the market! The prices are carved into the glutinous starch with a twig. I usually go for the smallest piece, having not yet become proficient in the variety of sago cooking techniques that my neighbours consider standard. The tradition tells that sago, made from the bark of the plentiful sago palm, was first discovered by local people who observed wild pigs eating from the trunks of fallen palms. The people decided that what was good enough for their porcine friends was likely good enough for them, and so it has proved to be.
If I were translating the New Testament into the local dialect I would render Jesus words at the Last Supper “I am the Sago of Life”, such is the importance of the food to sustaining life in this region. As a Kiwi of Scottish decent, no matter what food I may have in the house, I feel the lack of bread here most acutely. Gulf people feel about the same about sago. It is consumed as a porridge for breakfast, a stick cooked in bamboo or coconut leaves for lunch and potentially again at dinner time. It is mixed with fish, banana or coconut, can be cooked as a pancake or added to soup. Similar to cornflour in consistency, it forms a surprising jelly-like food when cooked with moist ingredients, but can also be cooked to form dry, powdery cakes. It has a non-descript slightly earthy flavour and it oxidises when left in the air, drying out and changing from a light beige colour to a deep rust brown.
I am coming, slowly, to appreciate the virtues of sago, but for all of these it is very labour intensive to produce. It takes a whole family labouring in the bush most of a day to produce a quantity of sago. First the palm is felled, usually by the men of the family. Then its outer bark is stripped away and the fibrous inner layers are dug out and shredded. These are then mixed with water and the resulting pulp is beaten with long polls by the women of the family. More water is added throughout the beating process and then everything is filtered through a series of sieves set along a hollow piece of sago bark until a stiff sediment forms at the bottom. While not high in calories, it contains a variety of nutrients and is readily available all year round, growing in places that are totally unsuitable for wheat, corn and rice. It may yet prove to be an unexpected contributor to the enormous challenge of feeding the world in the 21st century.
It is entirely possible to achieve a balanced diet by eating only food produced within a 5km radius of this place and there is even a reasonable amount of seasonal variety. Mercy and Isaiah have done remarkably well adapting to a way of eating completely devoid of all convenience foods with the exceptions of God’s perfect snack, the banana. We eat three reasonable meals a day, but rarely in between times. Necessity is the mother of invention and I have made marmalade from kalamansis, a local citrus fruit like a kumquat, a fermented guava drink of my discovery, and steamed bread made on the gas cooker. I can make donuts and scones on the pan, pancakes and toast, I can combine precious foods carried in by friends from other worlds like Port Moresby and Brisbane with local ingredients in ways that would make even some of my culinary friends proud. In the end, though, when it all gets too much, as it sometimes does, there are always two minute noodles and spam. Some days that is a pretty big relief.