Micronesia and Melanesia describes a region consisting of thousands of islands spread out across the Pacific Ocean. The major nations that make up Micronesia are the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Nauru, while Melanesia comprises the countries of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. This is a rich and diverse area, evidenced by over 1300 languages spoken in Melanesia alone, which is by far the densest rate of languages relative to land mass in the world. Over the years, various islands were claimed by the Dutch, British, French, Australians, Germans and Japanese, exerting various linguistic, cultural and culinary influences. The native people occupied this region for the last 40,000 years, during which time they domesticated crops such as sugarcane, yams, taro, sago and pandanus, as well as pigs, using sophisticated systems of swine husbandry. This has been traditionally complemented by other native fruits and vegetables (such as coconut and root vegetables), along with fishing from the rich Pacific Ocean, and hunting of local marsupials and birds. Native food traditions are still predominantly held by people of this region, and many families grow most of their own ingredients, many of which resemble the anciently domesticated crops. In pre-colonial society, “prestige feasting” was a sort of sport, where groups would hold elaborate decadent feasts in attempts to outdo one another, which is thought to have substituted for violent warfare. I doubt my paltry offerings this week would emerge victorious from a competition of prestige feasting, but I must say, I am very taken with the concept!
When I first heard about the dish called kokoda, I instantly thought of the Kokoda track, which is well known in Australia. The Kokoda track is a trail around 100 km long through Papua New Guinea, and was the scene of a battle between Japanese and primarily Australian armies during World War II. The trek is notoriously draining, featuring wild temperature variation between day and night, torrential rain and crippling tropical diseases. In modern times, it’s become a popular “bucket list” goal for Australians to walk the Kokoda trail, some of whom have died tackling the challenge. I have no idea whether or how this trail in Papua New Guinea is linked to the dish of kokoda, but I’m certainly happier to cross the edible kokoda off my bucket list than a month-long trek through unwelcoming tropical jungle. Kokoda is a preparation of fresh fish cooked in acid, rather than heat, like a ceviche. Any fresh white salt water fish is combined with lemon juice, coconut cream, onion, chilli, spring onions, capsicums and tomato to create a bright, fresh combination that also has notes of richness from the coconut. Ceviche is one of my all time favourites, so I welcomed this delicious variation.
Coconut crab and Chamorro red rice
The coconut crab was fresh sand crab cooked in diluted coconut milk. Although this is a traditional preparation of all sorts of different crabs, there is actually a crab called “the coconut crab” when alive, which is a terrestrial hermit crab. It is the largest land-living arthropod, growing up to 1 metre in length. The origin of its name seems to be disputed, possibly arising from the unfounded rumour that they climb trees and pick coconuts, or possible because they have a similar geographical distribution as the coconut palm. I also think they look like they are made of coconuts, sort of like a normal crab who’s spent a bit too much time at the gym, but who knows? This crab is eaten in Micronesia, but of course it is not exported to Australia, so I had to settle for the wimpy sand crab. Chamorro people are indigenous to parts of Micronesia, and their traditional red rice is made with short grained rice and vegetables. It is reddened with achiote seeds (also called annatto), which comes from a tree and is also used in some South American cooking. Achiote is also sometimes used as a substitute for the colourant effects of saffron when it’s unavailable or too expensive. Chamorro red rice is slightly bitter from the achiote, so it went very well with the peas and crab, which are both naturally quite sweet, as well as a squeeze of acidic lemon.
Mumu hails from Papua New Guinea, and is traditionally made by combining locally available foods such as leafy greens, root vegetables, meat (e.g. chicken, pork, cassowary or turtle), fruits such as green banana and pineapple together with spices and coconut milk. This layered mixture is encased in banana leaves and cooked in a ground oven filled with hot stones. I don’t think it would be wise for me to dig a ground oven in the small backyard of my rental property, so I improvised by cooking my mumu in a casserole dish on a low heat in the oven. Some of the recipes I read contained very serious warnings to take care if you use an earth oven, lest some of the local stray dogs uncover the unattended mumu while it’s cooking and ruin the feast. I’ve read a lot of recipes in my time, but that tip is certainly a first!
Chicken kelaguen with tityas and spinach
Chicken kelaguen is perhaps the most famous of Micronesian dishes, consisting of shredded chicken mixed up with grated coconut, green onions, lemon juice, chilli and onion. It’s simple, but quite a spectacular flavour, with all of the fresh spiciness of the onion, lemon and chilli, with the sweetness of the coconut and salty umami of the chicken. This marinade is sometimes compared to those used to prepare ceviche, and being a complete cevichephile, perhaps this is why I liked it so much. The coconut in the photo was a fresh coconut that I bought and then realised with sudden panic I had no idea how to break into. A hammer and a screwdriver were pretty efficient at drilling a hole into the coconut and getting the juice out, but what about the flesh? I watched several youtube videos and spent at least 40 minutes trying to replicate the techniques, which seemed to only take seconds for the talented stars. After my boyfriend got tired of all the banging he came to give it a go, and very annoyingly, opened it in seconds. Apparently my technique was correct, but lacked strength. It was a good workout anyway; maybe this is why the coconut crabs look so strong? The chicken kelguen was great with tityas, which are fried flat-breads made with coconut milk, and cut through all the lemon with some delicious carbs.