Niue Adventures: Part 2 – Traditional Food

There is a prevailing narrative in many foodie circles that Indigenous people have access to huge variety of plant and animal foods. Interestingly, the conventional nutritional recommendations also frequently lament the fact that nowadays we eat too few vegetables and fruit compared to the good ol’ times. Add to that a popular culture belief that any tropical island living involves feasting on huge quantities of fruit – and here you have a whole heap of misconceptions bundled into one big fairy tale.


QUICK OBSERVATIONS:

  • Not all tropical islands grow a lot of fruit and not all populations prize fruit as a valuable resource.
  • Food access is determined by the environment. Drawing conclusions on ancestral diets based on one group of people is rather ludicrous.
  • Variety in the way we understand it (as demonstrated at a typical supermarket fruit’n’veg aisle) is not a feature of many, if any, traditional food systems.

Niueans, like many other Polynesian cultures, see starchy root vegetables like taro, sweet potato and yams, as their diet staple. Taro, in particular, is highly valued. It is easy to grow: plant, walk away for 5-6 months, dig the root out (it can grow up to a human height), cook, eat, share with family. There were several taro plantations on the island, with families growing their own and some leftovers for the village market.  Sweet potato, as we were told, was “peasant food” but it is still grown, although in much smaller quantities.

Taro typically served with, well, anything.
Taro typically served with, well, anything.

I managed to upset quite a few people on the interwebz by the following tweet sent from the island on a good reception day.

TweetWhen I managed to log back into Twitter the following day there were a lot of outraged people who took it rather personally as if I have attempted to shove the above-mentioned starches into their mouths and mess up their blood sugar control.

My point, summarised in an imperfect world of 140 characters, was that Niuean people took their starches very seriously and have done so for several hundreds of years. I am not entirely sure why the supporters of the “very low carb diet for all” and “every gram of glucose takes you closer to an early grave” and “the only source of carbohydrates in Indigenous diets is occasional berries” only look at the populations like the Inuit to support their theory. It is clearly from epidemiological evidence that traditional diets are characterised by a wide variety of macronutrient ratios.

HGFunny, one commenter declared that all starch-eating traditional populations tend to be short is stature. Once again, a very typical short-sighted view from behind the computer screen from a person who clearly never met any Polynesian people.

But I digress.

The protein sources in Niuean diet are fish, shellfish collected off the reef, wild pigs, coconut crab, native birds (their hunting is increasingly discouraged due to low numbers), and chickens. Fish like wahoo and ahi tuna is frequently eaten raw or incorporated into ota, a popular Pacific ceviche-like dish. Chickens are everywhere, the island is basically overrun with them. They fearlessly cross the road (WHY?) right in front of your car and we naturally assumed that they will be a frequent item on the menu. Not so. All these free range chickens apparently don’t compare with the fatty meat of Tegel chickens delivered from NZ by boat. Sigh.

Ota in the bowl, cooked banana and taro, corned beef prepared in umu.
Ota in the bowl, cooked banana and taro, fish and corned beef prepared in umu.

Coconut crab, known as uga (pronounced unga) has long been considered a delicacy in a Niuean diet. Families have different ways of hunting uga with traditions passed down to younger generations. They are spectacular specimens and can live up to 60 years. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to establish whether uga now are becoming endangered. With the introduction of new predators in dogs, wild pigs, and, increasingly, hungry for something exotic tourists, the locals report seeing less uga in the bush. We were absolutely mortified after running over one in our rental car on the dark moon-less night. Thankfully, the customs regulations now prohibit uga export out of Niue however more study into uga populations and the health of this unique species.

Uga - how keep your fingers away from those claws.
Uga – how keep your fingers away from those claws.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to some beautiful fresh fruit on our arrival. We didn’t see any at the supermarket and the island doesn’t have a tradition of produce stalls on the road. So when we had our first papaya sprinkled with fresh grated coconut given to us by Misa we were understandably excited.

“Mmmmm… Delicious…”, – we enthused through our full mouths.

“We only feed this food to pigs and tourists”, – Misa declared as we dropped our jaws.

Pig food
Pig food

As it turns out, Niueans do not eat fresh fruit the way we do (or imagine that all Islanders do). Papaya and bananas are used in cooking but not as a snack or a dessert. According to Misa, if you were desperate enough to eat a fresh papaya you would hide yourself in the bush to avoid public humiliation.

We finished our papaya anyway.

The only other fruit I saw on the island was watermelon and it is too apparently pig and chicken food.

We can’t talk about food in the Pacific and not mention coconuts. Coconuts were brought to Niue from Samoa, possibly around 1400s. (The word “Niue” is derived from “niu” – coconut, and “e” – behold, and was by legend what the visitors told the locals when presenting with a gift of coconut). Coconut trees were initially grown on family land and fiercely guarded. However, they took surprisingly well to the poor soils and can now be found growing all over the island. It deservedly has the reputation of “tree of life”. Young coconuts are used for coconut water (more on this later), mature coconuts are grated and the coconut thread, copra, is used to squeeze coconut cream for use in cooking. Coconut oil was traditionally prepared by leaving the grated coconut out in the sun but nowadays by boiling. We were introduced to the mysterious “green coconuts” with medicinal properties which were planted away from the road to prevent enterprising neighbours from stealing them in the night. Apparently their juice is used for constipation treatment for babies and children with a near-immediate effect! Coconut palm hearts are used in cooking as well.

From a point of view of a Westerner (I guess that’s what we would call ourselves) the traditional Niuean diet is rather repetitive on a day to day basis. Rather the variety is seasonal, depending on crop availability. This is comparable to many other populations that live off the land: after harvesting a crop you end up eating that particular plant for days to weeks until the next crop is ready to harvest. This does not mean that day-to-day variety when available is detrimental, purely that daily food variety is a modern construct enabled by effective food storage and long haul transfers regardless of the season.

From our conversations with many locals it seems that many stick with traditional meals like fish with taro in coconut milk for their dinner meals. Umu (see previous post) is saved for the weekend when you can share the food with your extended family. Increasingly though, the traditional food is being replaced by the PPP (packaged, processed, plastic) food bought at the supermarket.

To be continued…

Next up – Niue Adventures: Part 3. Industrial food

Worthy read: The Diet and Lifestyle of The People of Vanuatu by Jamie who visited Vanuatu a few years ago.

Top image: Local fisherman on the outer reef at sunset.

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