Melanesia comprises the countries of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, spread across the Pacific Ocean to the north and east of Australia. This is a rich and diverse area, evidenced by over 1300 languages spoken throughout the region, which is by far the densest rate of languages relative to land mass in the world. Over the years, parts of Melanesia were claimed by the Dutch, British, French, Australians, Germans and Japanese, exerting various linguistic, cultural and culinary influences during this time. 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 fishing from the rich Pacific Ocean, as well as hunting of local marsupials and birds. Native food traditions are still held by many people of Melanesia, 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.
OK, I’m going to level with you. I was struggling to find a fourth meal this week during my planning. There are a lot of meat, coconut and root vegetable stews in this part of the world, and to be completely honest, they aren’t my favourite. My friends and boyfriend like those sort of stews, so I’m certainly not saying they are objectively bad, they are just a rare example of a dish that isn’t my cup of tea. However, it’s been a while since I’ve eaten oysters, and oysters are prevalent in Melanesia, particularly Vanuatu, which even contains a land mass named “Oyster Island”. Also, I haven’t been able to fit fresh, raw oysters into any of my meals thus far, and I haven’t eaten any in a while, so I was easy to convince to eat them instead of yet another coconut stew. Oysters are salt water bivalve molluscs, eaten either raw or cooked by many cultures of the world for at least 10,000 years, if archaeological middens of Australia are to be believed. They are filter feeders, and can be particularly useful in removing pollutants from water, such as algae and sediment, although this also has made people more wary of eating them, given the rise in pollution in recent times. Oysters as a foodstuff are notoriously divisive – some adore them and others cannot abide the mere thought of eating them. Jonathan Swift apparently once remarked “he was a bold man that first ate an oyster”. There’s an old wives’ tale in the northern hemisphere that oysters should only be eaten in months that contain a letter “r”, presumably to avoid the summer months when oysters were more likely to spoil during transportation. Another old wives’ tale purports that oysters are a powerful aphrodisiac, and indeed recent research has shown that it may hold some truth, given that they are rich in compounds that can trigger levels of sex hormones. Those old wives might know best after all!
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!
Lap lap is a preparation from Vanuatu involving a combination of grated green bananas and manioc root, flavoured with coconut milk, onions, garlic and herbs, wrapped in tight packages of banana leaves and cooked on coals to create a starchy, smoky and comforting taste sensation. Variations can involve adding some meat into the package, for which I chose chicken wings, although a more traditional option would be flying fox. Apparently in Vanuatu the locals commonly eat straight from a communal pot, using their right hand to scoop out portions with flatbread. This concept sounds fantastic to me – if it’s cooked outside in banana leaves, that means zero washing up! Maybe I’ll start experimenting with the zero cutlery/crockery/cookware concept as my next project?