Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Vegan Papua New Guinea

So this post is three months late. It was one of those things that I kept meaning to do, but I just kept not doing. Better late than never?

I had an easy time in PNG, because 98% of the time Andy or I did the cooking. We were staying in a house at the Mahonia na Dari conservation centre; it had three bedrooms, a bathroom, a laundry room, a big lounge area, and this kitchen.

We went shopping weekly. It meant waking up early and catching a ride on the van that brought the kids to school. After we dropped them off, we would visit the market and then a few grocery stores in Kimbe. The market was the place to get produce. A huge pavilion was set up with row after row of tables underneath it, and people set up shop on blankets outside as well. They sold kau kau (sweet potato) in colours and flavours I didn't even know existed--a bunch of 8 or so big ones for 2 kina (AU$1). There were juicy and flavourful bush tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, pumpkins, coconuts, taro roots, green beans, avocadoes, papayas, pineapples, and various other fruit and vege from time to time. The vast variety of bananas was mind-blowing--from cooking bananas to little ladyfinger bananas to long skinny sweet bananas, and everything in between. The other thing in high diversity and abundance was the greens. It looked like people would just walk through the jungle hacking off whatever they found with their machete (a must-have accessory for any New Guinean), though I'm sure they grew them. Pumpkin greens, spicy pepper green, leaves with small radishy roots on them, greens that tasted like celery, greens with crunchy hollow stems... Our main criteria in picking greens was that the stem wasn't too woody, as we didn't like to waste time at dinner cutting them off.

This is just some of the stuff that we ate regularly. There are 3 green (slightly sour) oranges at the back, next to some kau kau. In front of the oranges are some carrot mangoes that Andy picked (more about that in a sec), then 4 creamy avocadoes, some bush tomatoes, a cashew (picked by us as well), a coconut, and a big papaya. And that was just the stuff we didn't store in the fridge.

The market was clearly the centre of our shopping universe. But, for things like rice, bread, noodles, peanut butter, and dried beans, we had to go to a few different shops in town. Papindos was always the first stop, and then Kimbe Mart (aka K-Mart). Coffee and tea were better from K-Mart, pb & j and vegemite from Papindo--we learned to shop around. Processed food was really expensive, even when you converted from Kina into AUD; think AU$15 for a frozen pizza. So we stuck to the basics, because they were cheaper, yummier, and easier. (The real shock came when we returned to Australia and converted grocery store prices into kina. K10 for a stupid bunch of potatoes, I don't think so!)

Most days we had some version of a stir-fry, usually featuring either green stuff on rice, or kau kau on rice. Sometimes noodles. When we got sick of that we would make pasta or something with dried beans, or a curry or satay. Those require coconut milk, which you could buy dried or make from a coconut.

We borrowed the coconut scraper from the neighbours, and then Andy or I would sit and scrape the white flesh from the coconut shell. The first time I tried it, I was struggling on the porch with a coconut half, and one of the Mahonia gardeners saw me. He asked if he could help, and of course I said yes. I expected him to show me how to do it for a minute and then leave me to it. But, in about 5 minutes, he had scraped both halves clean. I managed a stunned "Tenkyoutru" as he wandered off.

After the flesh was scraped, you had to turn it into milk.

We covered it with a bit of water, and then took a handful and squeeeeezed the milk out of it into another pot. The flesh went back into the wok, and when all the water was gone the process was repeated. Hypothetically, you should do this until the water getting squeezed out is no longer milky looking, but usually we got bored and tired long before then. Either way, the result was delicious creamy coconut milk (good on cereal and in coffee!), plus some shredded coconut that made a yummy addition to oatmeal or cookies.

When we weren't diving (1 and 1/2 days out of every 14), we had free-range of the Mahonia grounds. Being situated in a tropical rainforest meant that fruit trees were abundant. There were two guava trees just outside our house, and the kids were out there every day knocking down the ripe ones with a big stick. Behind the office was a mango tree that Andy watched every day.

It wasn't a variety either of us had seen before. We think it's called a carrot mango. They stay green on the outside even when they're ripe, and they're orange and quite tart on the inside. These ones were probably about 8 or 9 inches long, so they were quite a substantial feast.

Near the mango tree was a cashew tree. The red fruit in the middle of the bottom photo is a cashew apple. At the bottom of each fruit is a cashew nut. You can eat the cashew apple (if you can get to it before the fruit bats do), and the nut if you have the time to process it. It's a very complex job, that. First you soak the nut, because under the shell is a caustic liquid that makes your mouth go numb (don't ask me how I found out...). After it's been soaked, you can open the shell, dry the nut, and then toast it in a frying pan. It's a lot of work, and it makes me appreciate how expensive they are. We didn't have many cashews over there.

Banana plants like this were everywhere, too.

This is what the bungalows look like. The walls are made from woven coconut leaves, and the roofs were thatch. The design was brilliant for the tropics--high roofs and no individual ceilings on the rooms meant lots of ventilation and breeze.

My 22nd birthday happened when we were in New Guinea, and Andy made me a cake. He doesn't like to follow recipes, and he gets, shall we say, creative ideas. This time, his idea was for a tri-colored cake.We didn't have any food colouring, so he used plum jam for the purple section; cocoa powder for the brown section; and lime cordial (liquid kool aid mix) for the green. I'm not sure how he did it, but the texture was more like fudge than cake. In between the layers he put crunchy peanut butter, and then the whole creation was topped with a light dusting of icing sugar. The first day, it tasted really yummy, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It got denser as the days wore on, however, so by the last day I was ready to be finished with it.

Our friend Sophie was adopted by this dog, Blackie. She was lucky to be looked after by a white person, because locals eat dogs. When Sophie wasn't around in the evenings Blackie would come hang out on our porch and we would give her snacks of peanut butter and left-over stir-fry (she picked out the cabbage but loved the carrots).

Now, onto the mumu. Our boat driver and the other researcher's boat driver decided to host a traditional feast for us. They invited us up to Kilu village, where they lived.

We walked up to the village through the expansive taro gardens, punctuated by the occasional betel nut tree (the really tall, skinny palms). The day before, they had a big fire with stones in it.

When the fire died down they took the white-hot stones and made a little oven out of them.

Into this oven they put an earthenware pot filled with taro, coconut milk, greens, cooking bananas, tomatoes, and ginger. Normally there would be chicken or pork in there as well, but since I'm vegan they cooked the chicken separately. They also served noodles and rice, and the juice of fresh green coconuts to drink.

Before dinner, though, it was time to chew the betel nut, or buai. Andy and Joe were the only two white people to partake; I'd tried it earlier that week and wasn't impressed. This picture shows Andy and Joe trying to spit the red buai spit, but mostly they're getting it on their chins. Blasius, in the foreground, was our boat driver--the bright red lips are a result of buai. This picture shows the fresh green bamboo seat and table that the mumu hosts made for the occasion as well.
After the buai was chewed, we all ate too much. Even the baby had some noodles, from the looks of things.

And the pigs wandered around, too skittish to be patted, but happy to eat up people scraps.

After dinner, we all sat around chatting as the sun went down over the garden.


Urban Vegan said...

You have sure packed a lot of living and experiences into your 22 years. Good for you!

PNG looks like a sort of paradise. Thanks so much for sharing.

bazu said...

I love this post. I came, I saw, I learned. What an experience. =)

KleoPatra said...

i love your blog, i love this post. GREAT photos!!! Thank you for sharing all of this stuff. I want to add you to my Veg Lynx... Fascinating and fun stuff here!

Alex Dyer said...

These are truly amongst the wonderful informative blogs.Thanks for sharing such informative blog article with us.

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