Friday, January 21, 2011

Simboro bakagen. Sigh

This post is doomed from the start to be mundane and uninteresting because it is about my diet here in Quatamwele, and that varies about as much as the weather during rainy season – which is not at all. It rains every day. Seriously . . . every day. But I’ve had some questions posed, and like any good blogger, I listen to my audience (however small it might be). So, without further ado, here is the explanation of simboro, lap-lap, and the other bland “kakae” that make up my daily meals.

Up on my hill we are mainly subsistence farmers, so with some exceptions we eat almost exclusively what we grow. Our main foods are bananas, taro and manioc (starchy root crops), and aelan cabbage (which is a large, dark green leaf that’s actually more like spinach than cabbage). The funny thing about taro is that if it is peeled wrong, not cooked long enough, or just too old, it causes great pain to eat it. When I first arrived people would warn me that taro can “kakae man” (it can eat you). I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant until I had a bad piece of taro, and then it became all too clear. It’s an awful stinging, burning sensation that feels like a hundred little bee stings in your mouth. Even after you spit the offending piece on the ground for some unlucky faol to eat, the pain continues for another 20 or 30 minutes. As you gaze at the people you thought were your friends in horror, your eyes asking the question: “Why would you give me this food and put me through such torment?” people just laugh and say: “Curry blo black man!” Yeah right. And why do people make this temperamental root one of our main foods? It’s hard to tell. Probably because it grows like crazy. Or maybe because living without electricity and running water just isn’t hard enough and people like to punish themselves. Another great mystery of Quatamwele.

In the villages klosap to the solwater people tend to eat rice a lot, but since that would involve lugging huge bags of rice up the hill (which I’ve done, NOT fun!) I don’t often see rice on my plate. I get to eat meat about once a month when someone kills a faol, or if there’s a celebration someone might kill a buluk (cow) or a pig. When I first arrived I would turn up my nose at the occasional canned meat (basically spam) or canned tuna (NOT like tuna in the U.S. This stuff is brown and still has bones in it. Kinda looks like cat food). However, I now consider myself extremely lucky when I hear the magical sound of a can opener. I guess that’s what three months in the bush will do to you.

Although sometimes you might just boil all your food in one big pot, it is more usual to make simboro or lap-lap. Both of these culinary masterpieces start with “ras-rasing” your starch of choice (for simboro – usually green bananas, for lap-lap – taro, manioc, or green bananas). This involves skinning the food, and rubbing it up and down on a stick with little sticky-outy things (I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a plant that grows in the bush and can serve as nature’s cheese grater) until a gelatinous mess falls down on the plate in front of you. Then, if you’re making simboro, you plop a glob of the mushy substance onto a leaf of aelan cabbage, wrap it up, and put it in the saucepan. Once you have a whole mess of gooey little parcels, you fill the pan with water and put it on the fire to boil. When it’s almost done you dump some coconut milk in for flavoring, boil smol more and then hemia nao: your feast is ready. For lap-lap, you dump the whole half solid, half liquid result of your ras-rasing onto a banana leaf, cover with other banana leaves, and bake it by putting it on a bed of hot stones and covering the package with more hot stones. In a few hours when it’s done, you cut it up and eat the rubbery squares with aelan cabbage, coconut cream, or if you’re lucky some faol or tin meat.

So that’s it. That’s basically the extent of my culinary excursions in Quatamwele. When I first got here I hated the food: it has no flavor, texture, or really any redeeming qualities at all. But it’s amazing how adaptable humans are, and I have quickly grown to relish the thought of a big plate of simboro or get excited when I smell burning banana leaves because I know someone has made a lap-lap. I have learned to appreciate the little additions my mom might make – throwing some ginger or basil in the pot or including ripe tomatoes or green peppers, and on rare occasions when we do eat rice it’s a significant treat, even though it’s usually just a huge plate of white rice with a little aelan cabbage on it and maybe some tin tuna. It’s a good thing that I have developed a taste for aelan kakae since I rarely see a deviation from this menu. I might go weeks at a time eating banana simboro for lunch and dinner. Breakfast is my one break and the one meal I make and eat on my own. I brought a French press so I have coffee every morning and eat oatmeal with coconut milk or breakfast crackers with peanut butter and bananas. Sometimes I crave protein so much I just eat spoonfuls and spoonfuls of peanut butter.

The bright side of living here though, is that there is always something delicious in season. First it was mango season. Fresh, sweet, juicy mangos are everywhere and you eat them morning, noon, and night until you feel like if you saw another mango you might traot. Then, mangos are finished and before you’re too sad about it, breadfruit is in season, then it might be grapefruits (they’re amazing here. They have the flavor of a grapefruit, but they’re sweet!), mandarins, papayas, avocados, raspberries, and a variety of nuts (nangae, natafoa, namambe, navel, and probably some other “n’s” I’m forgetting). Plus if you can get someone to refrain from cutting down every green banana in sight, you can eat ripe bananas year round.

I have adjusted to the food here and even like it, but that doesn’t prevent me from having detailed food fantasies. I dream of pasta, chocolate, ice cream, cheese, big steaks, cold drinks, and spicy, flavorful Indian food. So next time you cook a meal, put an extra little shake of hot sauce in there, throw in some garlic, chili powder, lemon pepper, or oregano, and most importantly sprinkle cheese on everything. Flavor your food and think of me, and somewhere in the dense jungles of a tiny South Pacific island, I think my simboro that night will taste just a little more exciting.

1 comment:

  1. I also live somewhere in the dense jungles of a tiny South Pacific Island named Vanuatu. And the food isn't all that bad once you get used to the suttle (very suttle) flavors, its quite bearable, and sometimes even nice.
    My favorite foods here are:
    Tuluk - Maniok we oli melekem, mo oli putum mit mo anian insaed, ale oli kukum long hot ston. (Grated manioc or tapioka with coconut milk with a meat and onion filling)
    Bunya - Root vegetables, chicken and other meats baked underground with coconut milk, resulting in a smoky creamy taste.
    Hope your life on the remote island gradually changes for the better. And you're right, when you are slightly limited with resources, you appreciate the little things much more.