Solomon Islands Food 2

Last summer (2007) I spent a few months in the Solomon Islands, teaching on a remote island with no electricity or running water. See my post here for more.

Part One Here
Part Three Here

Coconut Crabs

Before and after

One thing I was dying to see (and eat) on Lata was a coconut crab. They are strange creatures: the largest land crustacean on earth (only those giant scary deep sea crabs are bigger, and of course they are sea-dwelling), they climb coconut trees and can open up coconut with their giant claws, and they drown in water. They only live on tropical islands and can take 20-40 years to grow to full size. Like I said before, they are only caught during the waning of the moon (natural conservation or strange phenomenon I don’t know). The doctor’s housemaid found a couple at the market for us and bought them. They’re bought fresh (alive!) with rope on them and you tie them up in the house until you want to eat it. We kept ours overnight (:() and the rotten thing escaped and climbed up the mosquito netting outside out room with its giant claws. We heard much commotion at 4am with the girls trying to catch it again without having their fingers chopped off. The coconut crabs absolutely scared me, and when Julie put it on the lawn for me to take a picture of I was terrified it’d come and get me!! They had to be killed, of course, which involved boiling a massive amount of water and pouring the boiling water over the crab. It died fast (if you boiled enough to kill it in one go). I didn’t enjoy seeing its legs slowly seizing up, but I wanted meat and I needed to take responsibility for the fact that whenever I eat meat something has been killed. After a minute the crab was well and truly dead, at which point you grab hold of it, yank off the legs and pincers and throw them and the abdomen/head into the pot with some salt and pepper. You boil, it’s done.

The crabs are so hugely muscular and strong that they have absolutely tons of meat in the claws and legs: it’s like gobbling a crab lollipop, no weedling around with cutlery. Obviously the white meat was amazing, delicious, crabby, musky, juicy… mmmmmm. The other part of the crab was the abdomen/thorax which you cut open with a sharp knife. Inside were the entrails and the all important fat. There is so little fat in the Solomon Islander’s diet that for them this is the best part. I had a little spoonful of the fat/entrails – it’s delicious when you dip one of the charred, dry potatoes in to moisten it up. The fatty entraily bit is extremely strong tasting, and I couldn’t stomach more than a spoonful or two in a sitting. Given the chance, however, the local girls would sit with a spoon and gobble the entire lot.
The meat in the claw, with a spoon to give some scale – A close up of the claw: looks like teeth, no wonder they can have your fingers off

Social Eating

All eating in SI seems to be social. Whenever they cook dinner, they make an enormous surplus as there are always visitors and you should always offer food to visitors. (Likewise, if you go to someone’s house for food, you should always bring something. Traditionally a fish if you were ‘salwater fella’ or sweet potatoes if you were ‘bush fella’, but a melon or papaya went down well from whitefellas) Feasting traditionally consists of pikpik (pig) alone, and it’s a huge faux pas to include vegetables even as a side dish. A Kiwi on the island discovered this when she made a casserole with some pikpik for a ceremony – they locals were mortified! Hehe! The islanders make a big deal of eating: fresh flowers are collected every day for the hut/table, grace is said before each meal, there is a specific order of who should be invited to help themselves (usually us, as we were guests, followed by elder members of the family, and finally children).

The Barbecue

A popular way of social eating, especially of fish when the event isn’t high status enough to merit a pig, is the barbecue! The fish are cooked on a metal table with a fire burning underneath. If only we could recreate this at home – it’s so much better than the charcoal space pods we use to barbecue with. Oh, barbecued reef fish are DELICIOUS!! Pulling away the flaky flesh and gobbling, with the sea they were caught in close by!

The barbecue in full swing

The Buffet

When we first visited the hospital, and on our departure, the hospital put on a wonderful (and very western) buffet for us. The bread alone must have been quite an outlay, not to mention the biscuits! You can see the tuna and spring onion sandwiches, the giant discs of cucumber and the triangles of melon and papaya:

We didn’t eat an awful lot, but we saw people ferreting away sandwiches away for later/family. It was very touching for them to put on such a spread, but so scary being the first to help themselves (especially on the first day).

The Feast

On our final day we went to see a custom dance at a local village and although we were unexpected they, naturally, had food to offer. We were ushered over to a covered area and given some food. The dancers, being even higher status than us, convened in a separated leaf haus (I wouldn’t have been allowed in on account of being a woman!) and I believe they had pig. We were offered baked tuna and potato (silver bowl) and ‘taro pudding’. Taro is greyer than it looks in this picture. It looks like wallpaper paste and it tastes like it too. I couldn’t really get to grips with it, but scooping some up and slapping it on top of a torn off piece of tuna seemed to work. Obviously, we couldn’t have left the taro pudding even if we hated it because it’s quite the delicacy. They make it by baking the taro, then grating it, then binding it with coconut milk. It’s extremely good for you (and Dr Gunter tried to make us eat it more often!)

Above: taro pudding, baked tuna and potato
Below: the dance in motion

In the final installment, I’ll tell you about some of the things we ate on a day-to-day basis and will try and give you a recipe for pumpkin. I have a butternut squash (best I could do) and will be experimenting with it today.

One response to “Solomon Islands Food 2

  1. whatmattatetodayc May 5, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Really interesting blog. I loved reading about the food you tried in the Solomon Islands – those Coconut Crabs are ridiculous – very scary. I’d love to try them though.

    Did the meat taste much different to other crabs? I’ve only recently heard about eating the crab ‘mustard’, your description sounds like what I imagined, certainly going to give it a go next time I have crab.

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