I’m borrowing a title from a popular TV show on Food Network for this blog. I wanted to call it ‘Fast food of PNG’, but that doesn’t really exist here. There are no McDonalds or Pizza Hut or Starbucks or any of the fast food chains (sort of funny because of the joke in the USA about how they exist on every street corner and maybe even on the moon - ha- not here in PNG). There are a few Chinese restaurants that try cooking fast food, but I got sick the first time I tried it and that was it. Now I will attempt to describe a few of the more popular cooking techniques used here in Papua New Guinea.
The most popular cooking technique in PNG is the MUMU, but first I’ll introduce the AIGIR cooking technique - often described as PNG’s “fast food” method, then I’ll share how they ‘bake’ in a remote village and I will finally end with the most popular one of all, the mumu. Now, let’s get started:
AIGIR: Cooking Bananas and Greens:
We begin in the PNG ‘kitchen’ making bananas. These are not the sweet Chiquita type bananas, but a more savory cooking type banana. They might be compared to plantains, but PNG has a rich genetic diversity of edible banana species and is home to about 10 wild banana species that range anywhere from the sweet to the savory cooking bananas.
The AIGIR technique (‘fast food‘) begins with coconuts. Coconuts are first husked using a spear type knife and the outside skin is tossed aside to be used for other purposes. Secondly, the milk is poured out and the meat of the coconut is scraped using a special stool with a knife type scraper at the end. (I kept hearing people scraping coconuts, but it can sound like a washing machine- so the first time I actually saw what they were doing and heard the sound, I had to laugh to myself- nope, they are definitely not washing clothes, but instead- scraping coconuts.)
As you can see in the video, Hendricka is scrapping the coconuts while Sr Bernadette prepares a fire inside the ‘kitchen’. The whole process is fascinating to watch, especially when they call it ‘fast’ food cooking. I guess fast is a relative term when it comes to the different cooking methods found in PNG.
The coconuts are husked, then scraped. The ‘meat’ of the coconut is separated from the milk. The greens and the coconut are then boiled together on the outside fire - located outside the inside ‘kitchen’.
Greens called iaibica and another called Kumu Mosum in pidgin are first rolled by hand to soften them. The stones from the outdoor ‘kitchen’ are brought inside and put into water to release the steam, then the hot stones are placed in the coconut milk. The iaibica is placed on top of the hot stones that ends up cooking them- then more coconut milk is poured on top. Canned fish (or any protein- fresh of course is better, but canned if there is nothing else) is stirred inside the greens.
When the stones cool, they are replaced by hot ones. The greens are then covered for about 5 minutes or so- then the bananas are put on a plate or in a dish, topped with the greens, the coconut cream is poured over all of it and it is ready to eat.
It is a savory dish despite the bananas and coconut- the greens are similar to spinach and the entire combination is just plain Yum!
In ‘my’ village of Vavua, Fr Bennet began two projects that should assist his parish to survive financially. He built a shelter for pigs and it’s the parishioners’ job to take care of them. He then bought special outdoor ovens and converted one of his buildings on the parish grounds as the ‘baking’ house.
In the morning of the designated baking day (at this point it’s either Tuesday or Saturday), Pricilla, his cook, will mix the flour and yeast and let it rise on a baking table. Each village in his parish is assigned either a Tuesday or Saturday. These women come to the baking house in the morning and roll the dough into individual rolls, put them on large baking sheets and then they are ready to bake. They are put inside the outdoor ovens until baked, then sold for K2 (2 kina) each. Some are taken to the small stores within the village and all the money earned is given to the parish. People look forward to buying these rolls, especially when they are still warm right out of the oven.
I had the opportunity to join the bakers on Tuesday and met some beautiful women who introduced themselves and shared stories of their lives in the village. One woman was from the Island of Bougainville. I showed her a video of me dancing with the Buka students during cultural day at Caritas and it brought tears to her eyes. The stories and the friendly conversation made the time fly and soon the rolls were baked and ready to sell. The baking house and tables were cleaned and made ready for the next baking day. I felt honored to join them as a baker for a day.
A mumu is when a protein (pig, chicken, fish, etc.) and vegetables such as taro, potatoes - both white and sweet, bananas, etc. are roasted in a ground oven. It is a traditional method of cooking large quantities of food for celebrations in Papua New Guinea. It involves digging a pit, filling it with hot rocks, adding food, then burying the whole lot for hours so it can cook and be ready to eat.
The mumu is similar to roasting, but that is where the similarities end. The food can either be mumued dry or soaked in coconut milk.
While the hot stones are heated, the food can be prepared with coconut cream scraped from coconuts, once again by using the special stool with the scraping knife at the end, and the food is then wrapped in large banana leaves that are usually prepared over the same fire that is heating the stones. The banana wrapped food is placed on top of a few hot stones, then the remaining stones are placed on top and covered with more banana leaves. The mumu is usually left for about four hours or, depending on what’s cooking, may sometimes be left overnight. All the food is cooked together while the steam helps keeps the leaves and food moist.
Mumu is a rich and cherished part of the culture in PNG. 'Mumurised' food is rich in flavor and this makes it preferable to food baked in a conventional oven. Cooking food using the mumu technique seems convenient to the people of PNG, but can be labor intensive, especially to someone like me, but the flavor is unbelievably delicious.
As you can see, the Good Eats of PNG is something quite different than what we are used to in America, but the results are yummy and I look forward to the next occasion to have a mumu.
I had my students put on the board their favorite foods. Look at the picture and enlarge it. How many can you recognize and how is it different than what you might see on an American chalkboard. No McDonalds here and because I baked a few cakes for my class- it was written on the board. Interesting!
I want to thank you again for your prayers and support. Please know that I will be leaving Caritas and venturing out to the villages for the next school year. More details of my new assignment will come in my next blog - so stay tuned till next time and feel free to leave comments. I’ll pray for you as I hope you are praying for me. Happy Thanksgiving back home. No such thing as turkey here, but I’ll you pass you the greens and bananas soaked in coconut- yum...