Micronesia is a region consisting of thousands of islands spread out across the western Pacific Ocean. The major nations that make up Micronesia are the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Nauru. Being largely isolated islands, the majority of Micronesian cuisines before Western contact relied on native fruits and vegetables (such as coconut, and root vegetables), as well as seafood. There were apparently pigs and chickens in Micronesia prior to Western contact, which means some traditional dishes also have these meats.
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.
Ulkoy with kale and carrot salad
Ulkoy are prawn fritters. Is there anyone who doesn’t like fritters? They’re a delicious vehicle for any combination of ingredients under the sun. I put some mixed vegetables in mine, including onion, pumpkin, corn, carrot and peas, and made the batter with eggs, flour and milk and then shallow-fried them. I put in some cayenne pepper to give them a bit of a kick. I bought precooked prawns, and they were great in the fritters – just warm but not overcooked. I served the Ulkoy with a kale and carrot salad. Despite its burgeoning popularity, I really like kale. Blanched and/or stir-fried, it’s great for keeping its form and not disintegrating into mush like other leafy greens, and also taking up the flavours around it. If you’ve been put off by kale, you might not have had it cooked well, so give it another go. One of the simplest preparations is stir-frying it with oil, garlic and salt after a quick blanch – I think even kids would eat it like that!
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.
Tinola is a chicken soup made in Palau, with green papaya, ginger, fish sauce, squash, and spinach. This is a great variation of the ubiquitous “chicken soup” that so many parts of the world seems to have. Maybe I could do a special cooking series on chicken soup of the world when I’m finished? Or maybe I’ll just experiment with variations of eggs on toast for a little while first… Regardless, the rumoured healing properties of chicken soup were recently evidenced by scientific research, giving you even more reason to cook some. The squash made this chicken soup extra hearty, dissolving slightly during cooking and giving the broth a little bit of thick sweetness. The papaya and ginger were great exotic elements, and worked really well. I think Grandmas from various cultures also say that ginger is good for various ailments, so perhaps I have stumbled across the ultimate panacea with tinola? Even if it’s not effective, it’s delicious, and you should never underestimate the power of the placebo effect.