The change in our food system could probably be classed as one of the most powerful social and cultural changes of our time. The shift experienced by a Western country like New Zealand or the USA has been fairly gradual and, in consequence, somewhat invisible to the populations exposed to it. We have, if you like, a generational awareness of it: your disapproving Grandma grumbling that they didn’t have those convenience foods in her days and she had to dig her spuds out of the frozen ground not out of a shiny foil packet. However, the overwhelming reality is that we are now looking at several generations of Western children who grew up with colourful cereal boxes instead of bacon and eggs, fizzy drinks instead of homemade lemonade, and who turn their noses at the texture and taste of full fat milk while preferring the bland and watery trim (skim) variety.
Personally, I experienced a slightly different transition. Having been born in the Soviet Union prior to the collapse of the Berlin wall and the Russian “putsch”, I was deprived of sheltered from the industrial food culture until my teens when it flooded our stores and our lives with abrupt colourful plastic abundance.
Niue, at our recent visit, seemed to be undergoing a similar fast shift and its inhabitants are greeting the change with a similar mixture of delight and weariness.
Finding “real food” on Niue as a tourist is no easy feat. Being used to fending for ourselves, we headed off to a supermarket the day we landed hoping to procure some supplies for cooking at our self-contained cottage. The “supermarket” was a larger version of your corner dairy/convenience store. Rows and rows of colourful soft drinks (“fizzy”), juice drinks, chocolates, packaged biscuits, and bread greeted us there. The freezers were full of processed meat, sausages, crumbed chicken, frozen pies, and other delights, all courtesy of a monthly NZ shipment. Tubs and tubs of ice-cream and margarine were clearly well frequented.
Now here is an interesting contradiction. A few locals we spoke to declared that the supermarket is indeed for tourists and they only shop there occasionally. On the other hand, we visited the supermarket almost every day during our stay and we mostly saw local people buying what we would call “junk food” with an occasional dazed tourist browsing the aisles and clearly unable to find what they need. I think this speaks to how easily the convenience foods have infiltrated this traditional food system. An occasional fizzy turns into a daily bottle of Coke, then into a bottle with every meal. Bread of the worst variety (I call it “plastic bread” – comes in plastic, tastes like plastic, has the same nutritional content) turned into a dietary staple within a period of a few years in a culture which has not been exposed to any grains previously (with a possible exception of rice prior to migration from South East Asia).
One small corner of one of the freezers had a few Niuean items: frozen takihi, bags of cassava and a small packet of coconut milk. That was to be our haul and the majority of our lunches through the week.
The fresh produce available for purchase was limited to 2 shelves in a small upright fridge and included tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce from NIOFA (Niue Island Organic Farmers Association). Other crops include cabbage, taro, yam, tapioca and vanilla. We didn’t see any substantial contribution of this produce to the island food supply but I suspect that some of this produce ends up in restaurants judging by the unexpected amount of fresh lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers accompanying most dishes. It is certainly a start.
Occasionally we saw bananas, cassava and yams either at the supermarket or a small garage store. A few other small stores would occasionally sell fresh produce in the mornings. Our customary reliance on “the store” to get any fresh produce we wanted at any time of the day was clearly unrealistic. You had to learn to slam on the brakes and quickly stop the car if you spotted a bunch of yellow bananas outside a little shop because they’d be gone on your way back.
For an island where you couldn’t walk 10 metres without stumbling upon a chicken, it was surprising to see imported eggs. Apparently some families do keep chickens for own use but we had to content ourselves with eggs from New Zealand. Our questions why the chickens themselves do not end up on the dinner table were met with scornful looks: “too tough” compared to fatty moist meat of Tegel imported chickens. Not surprising perhaps, since the NZ chickens would be of a grain-fed caged variety compared to the sprightly bug- and grass-eating specimens we saw in the villages. We couldn’t help thinking that an overnight in a slow-cooker will soften even the toughest rooster but we never saw any slow-cookers available (if you don’t count the umu oven).
Another unexpected stumbling block to our plans was difficulty finding cooking oil. We naturally assumed that coconut oil will be easily available however it turned out that coconut oil was only sold as cosmetic product for body and hair and only sold as a niche product in specialist tourist shops for a pretty penny. As it was also mixed with vanilla or herbs it was also quite unsuitable for cooking.
Does this mean that The NZ Heart Foundation is correct and coconut oil is an industrial product and not commonly used for cooking on the islands? Not so fast. The locals acknowledged that coconut oil had been widely used as recently as in the previous generation as the primary cooking oil. However, it was rather labour intensive (husking, grating, leaving copra out in the sun, etc.) and nowadays the primary cooking oil on the island is the cheap and easy “vegetable oil”. Yep, we all know it’s not made out of vegetables. To be fair, the majority of traditional foods are not fried but steamed or baked, so the contribution of coconut oil to the overall diet was probably minimal. It was certainly not added to a coffee or any drink for that matter to make it “bulletproof” or some such rubbish.
Soft drinks were everywhere: in every corner shop, on every table, in the hands of men, women, and small children, empty cans littering the roads and fields. When we asked Amanda why they drink them and let their children drink them on a daily basis, she confusedly said: “It’s just easier”. I pointed out that coconut water was free and coconuts are easily available, although admittedly not as easy to open as a can. We were flabbergasted. Fresh coconut water was incredibly delicious and a darn sight more nutritious than the gawdy-coloured bottles. We could not comprehend spending money from what cannot be more than a very basic income on something less satisfying, infinitely more harmful to health, and contributing to the pollution of the island.
Many opponents of tax on sugar-sweetened beverages will see this as incontrovertible proof that the tax won’t work. It is not the price that drives consumption choices, after all coconut water is free but Niueans choose to buy “fizzy’. I see it more as confirmation that our decision-making is complex and influenced by multiple factors, not the least of which is the social acceptance and cultural drivers. In small islands, such as Niue, with an aspirational population, the consumption of processed foods from a rich Westernised country, such as New Zealand, is a strong signal to say you’ve made it.
And from the land of the bizarre: some of the “fizzy” bottles were in fact COCONUT WATER IMPORTED FROM THAILAND. Let it sink in for a moment. On an island awash with coconuts and where you have to be careful not to park your car underneath a coconut palm, coconut water in plastic bottles is being shipped from Thailand via New Zealand. Think of the carbon footprint of that for a moment.
Sadly, most restaurants pander to your usual tourist crowd. Lots of beige in form of breads, pastas, deep fried fish and chips, spring rolls, cakes and the like. Even “traditional feasts” included clearly very non-traditional foods which have sneaked the way into the everyday vernacular and dietary patterns of Niueans.
We frankly did not expect to have any problems eating gluten-free on an island which has no grain production, somewhat naively declaring that we’ll “eat like the locals”. Unfortunately, the locals, especially of a younger generation, rely almost exclusively on imported goods which represent the worst that Western food culture has to offer.
To be continued…
Top image: Sunset over the only wharf on the island. The very place which receives the monthly shipment of foods and other goods from New Zealand.