Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tastes of Tonga

It’s 7:00pm, the electricity just switched on for the evening, and I pulled out my laptop to type up a blog post. I boiled some water with the electric kettle (really taking advantage of electricity when there is some) to make tea and a snack for a light dinner.

After a bit, a friend comes over bringing food from the neighbor’s house: Fish soup, cassava, and a smoothie-ish traditional Tongan drink. Of course, I accepted the food, throwing my idea of a “light dinner” out the window.

Since coming to Ha’ano, the PTA families have organized people to feed me on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. They’ll bring me copious amounts of food or I’ll go to their homes, eat copious amounts of food, and bring more of it home with me. (“Take the chicken, fish, taro, yam, pork – a snack for later.”)

I really appreciate the gesture, and, of course, the food too. And often my neighbors will call me to eat or bring food over. Since they’ve moved in, I’ve seen how much work goes into preparing food here:

After actually growing the root crops and catching the fish, both are prepared for, let’s say, boiling. Fish is scaled and gutted (a skill which I have had the chance to practice a few times), and the root crops are peeled. Most people cook over an open fire, so they stoke coconut husks and wood under the “grill,” two pieces of rebar propped up on cinder blocks.

Coconut milk is used in the broth for cooking, so that has to be prepared. I can’t describe exactly how impressive this action is, but I’ll try. A piece of rebar with a point on the end that is pointing up from the ground/something it’s mounted on is used to take the outer husk of the old coconut off. The coconut is slammed onto the rebar and twisted to rip a small section of the fibery husk from the inner shell. The process is repeated until the coconut-husker can pull the whole outer husk on his own, leaving the smaller, round coconut we all imagine drinking fruity cocktails out of. The coconut is broken in half with a machete or rock or anything else hard, and the milk is saved in a basin. Then, the insides are scraped out. Using a piece of metal with grating teeth on the end that is nailed to a wooden bench, the husker scrapes out the coconut meat. (It’s not as easy as it looks.) With the meat ready, the coconut milk and maybe some water is poured over the flakes. A thicker cream is made when the husker takes the fibers, pulled from the inside of the outer coconut casing, and uses them as a strainer, wringing the juices from the meat and throwing the meat away.

I don’t think that was a good representation of how impressive it is – and how easy Tongans make it look. Maybe I’ll get a video up.

After putting the cream into the pot with everything else, the food can actually cook. Without refrigeration here, though, nothing can be saved for a longer time, so this goes on for a sizable part of the day.

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