Pacific Traditional Food Diary: Papua New Guinea

On the shore there were big waves breaking, lots of coconut trees. And offshore, there were many unblemished reefs and corals, very rich marine life. Hours would pass unnoticed in this little coastal village of Maiom, in the province of New Ireland.

“As a child, the oceanside was my playground- – white sand gleaming far down the coast”, says our friend Ling Yvonne Ainui, a 50-year-old former schoolteacher. ” My toys were the little stones and rocks on the beach. And we little children would pretend to be doing the work that mommy and daddy were doing in the vegetable garden- digging, planting, harvesting”, she says.

On the shore there were big waves breaking, lots of coconut trees. And offshore, there were many unblemished reefs and corals, very rich marine life. Hours would pass unnoticed in this little coastal village of Maiom, in the province of New Ireland. Ling and her little friends would simply be happy swimming and playing all day long on this side of the Bismarck Sea, facing the Pacific Ocean. Until in the early evening, an incredibly beautiful sunset- – one that seems to set the sky over the horizon on fire – – greeted them. Then it would be time to go home.

…offshore, there were many unblemished reefs and corals, very rich marine life.

Preserving the land and culture

Today, Ling as an ambassador’s wife is engaged in various diplomatic duties. But her heart is aching to soon go back home to her beautiful Papua New Guinea Island. The intelligent and strong-willed Ling says rather indignantly, “I would like to go home to fight for environmental rights to preserve at least my home village. Right now people from different places come and they just do what they want to do, destroying the land, the ocean, the trees, the forest, and the food. The local people are not doing anything about it. So if they’re not going to do anything, I will do it!”

It also makes Ling very sad that a lot of her people’s cultures, for example her native Malangan culture, are being shown for public display without proper respects.

“These are all very sacred to us- – our festivals, cultural dances, funeral ceremonies, wedding ceremonies, ancestor carvings and all that. They must not be shown publicly so that the tourists can take pictures or shoot video cameras. There should at least be a proper museum where the cultural significance of our culture can be explained to the audience”

There are as many different cultures in Papua New Guinea as there are tribes. Each tribe speaks a different dialect. And there are about 800 different dialects! Ling says, ” I can’t speak my husband’s dialect and he can’t speak my native Tigak dialect either but there are two main common dialects- – Pidgin and Motu. And both of us speak English which is the main language spoken. My husband also speaks French and Chinese.”

Each tribe speaks a different dialect. And there are about 800 different dialects!

A Colorful Past

Perhaps the reason why there are so many dialects and languages is the fact that the country is made up of so many islands and has a very colorful past. Papua New Guinea is a collection of over 600 islands of varying sizes and a mainland that lies within the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia. The earliest recorded references to Papua New Guinea were in the 16th century when Portuguese and Spanish navigators first saw the islands and gave them new names. Our friend Ling says, “But Papua New Guinea is at least 50,000 years old, inhabited by wild hunters and gatherers. They lived in caves and ate wild leaves and fruits. These people were believed to have come from Southeast Asia. At that time, the islands were connected by land bridges. It is said in those days, the people from Papua New Guinea could walk over to Australia and the people from Australia could walk over to Papua New Guinea.” So although today Papua New Guinea is considered a new nation with a vast area of virgin land for tourist exploration, it is actually an ancient culture.

“There were many colonizers who came- – Dutch, French, English, German, Japanese and Australians. They chartered the main islands”, says Ling, “but they never settled. They just got a quick look and they traveled through.” In 1526, Jorge de Meneses called the island “Ilhas dos Papuas” which means ‘the islands of the fuzzy-haired people’. The natives he saw in that island were black, naked and painted with different colors, with kinky hair, thick lips and flat nose. The name ‘Papuas’ was a Portuguese corruption of the Malay term for curly hair. A few years later, in 1545, Ynigo Ortiz de Rexex, a Spanish navigator renamed the island “New Guinea” because it reminded him of Guinea in West Africa. Derived from these two early names, Papua New Guinea became the Anglicized name of that same island nation which gained its independence in 1975.

The natives seen on the island were black, naked and painted with different colors, with kinky hair, thick lips and flat noses.

Land of the Wigmen

In the 19th century, there were explorers, merchants, slave traders who came. “They too never settled”, says Ling.

“The colonizers and merchants could only get to colonize the villages along the coastlines of our small islands. But the mainland, specially the Highlands – – land of the what is known as the ‘Wigmen’ (because they wear huge wigs made out of their own kinky hair)- – that they could not penetrate at all because the people there were vicious and ferocious, specially the men. I’m afraid of my own people more than the foreigners. That is why a large portion of Papua New Guinea is still untouched, because of the ferocity of these native people”
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In the mainland, there are tribal wars all the time. They’d fight over women, land- – there’d be arrows and spears shooting everywhere. “My husband was a police deputy for 27 years before he became an ambassador. And when there are tribal wars in these places- especially in the evenings, he would tell his men, ” Don’t go- – we’ll just go there in the morning and we’ll pick up the pieces!” In the daytime, at least you see where the arrows are shooting! So it’s very dangerous even for fellow Papua New Guineans. But at least they don’t touch my husband. They respect him because he is a very honest man”, Ling says.

That is why a large portion of Papua New Guinea is still untouched, because of the ferocity of these native people.

Simple Vegetarian Food: Boiled or Steamed

Ling then went on to describe to us the traditional food of her country. She says, “The traditional Papua New Guinea diet is very simple. There’s hardly any spices or condiments. In the morning, my mother would cook in the open fire, Bananas (many varieties of cooking bananas), Camote (sweet potatoes), Gabi (taro), Yam, Sago (cassava) or sometimes Kawul (like potatoes but purple inside and it’s not a root crop)”. These things would be thrown on the fire and when done would be eaten straight- – steaming hot, no sugar, no salt. For drinks, we’d have coconut water or else we’d be chewing on sugar cane sticks. “We have strong teeth, you see!” she smiles showing white strong teeth. In Papua New Guinea, there’s no scarcity of these traditional food because people are simply hardworking. They plant them continuously. Each family has their own little garden. After breakfast, Ling’s parents would be off to the vegetable garden, working on the land the whole day.

When asked who prepares lunch or what food the family eats for lunch, Ling blurts out, “Lunch! There is no lunch! Lunch is not a sit-down meal like breakfast or dinner. People would be so busy working on the land, that during the day they would simply have an open fire there on the side. Then again they just throw into the fire pieces of Camote, Bananas, Gabi and so on, and when they’re done, they would eat them. Lunch also means fresh fruits gathered from the field- – Papayas, Pineapples, Watermelons, Guavas, Bananas. Papua New Guineans eat fruits separately. Fruits are never eaten with meals. “It is only nowadays that fruits are served on trays or plates. Traditionally, fruits are eaten right off the tree!”

says Ling. In the late afternoon, Ling’s parents would walk back home from the garden, across the green pathways. And then dinner will be prepared. “Dinner is the big meal”, says Ling.

“Although now I realize, health wise, this really shouldn’t be. But in those days, dinner was the time to properly cook the meal. There would still be Camote, Gabi, Yam or Kawul but this time, garden leaves and coconut milk were added – – pumpkin leaves, aibika, camote, chili, watercress or lemon leaves.”

Then on special occasions or Sunday lunch after church, there will be Mumu – -a traditional way of cooking with heated stones. Mumu is like a family cookout. In a Mumu, Camote, Sago (cassava), Pumpkin, Gabi, Ripe Bananas and Taro are wrapped in banana leaves. Coconut milk, a variety of green leaves, seawater (instead of salt) a little chili and ginger is added to it. Then they are steamed in the hot stones. So it’s a giant all-in-one meal. The flavor is very nice because of the smell of banana leaves cooking on hot stones. “For me the best diet is the traditional Papua New Guinea diet that I grew up on. It contains no cholesterol or fatty animal substances. It is nutrient-rich. It is not oily because it is just steamed or boiled. It is all-natural and yet complete in the necessary elements needed by the body.”

For me the best diet is the traditional Papua New Guinea diet that I grew up on.

Losing Native Traditions

After high school, Ling’s mother didn’t want to let her study a teaching course at far-away Port Morseby. Being the only girl in a family of 9 brothers, her mother wanted her to grow up retaining her native tradition. Her mother says, “The government will ruin her. She will loose her native tradition.” Ling’s brother had to fight for her right to leave and study. “But in a sense my mother was right”, Ling now realizes, “At Port Morseby, I didn’t get to eat my traditional healthy village food anymore. I started drinking colas (3 cans a day!) and got addicted to it. That’s when I started getting fat. And sandwiches were all I’d eat at the school canteen”, she says. Ling says she used to be tall and slim. Now she is beset with diabetes and rheumatism. She’s also much overweight.

“In the Papua New Guinea villages, there are no fat people. And people live up to a very ripe old age. People are generally stress-free. They are not affected by what’s happening in the world. They simply work hard in their garden and eat good healthy vegetarian food and live simple lives. Now, my parents are both gone and I’ve lost most of my native tradition. Now I want to go back home to fight to regain it!”

Papua New Guinea is rich in artistic culture- – village men and women are experts in age-old bag weaving (called bilum bags), wood carving, cloth weaving, clay pot making, making beautifully decorative bowls and ornately painted canoes, making artifacts such as necklaces made from cut shells and threaded in rolled bark twines. This tropical island is also considered nature’s perfect orchid greenhouse- -there are so many beautiful varieties of orchids. It is also the home of hundreds of endemic species of magnificent birds – – a birdwatcher’s heaven, so they say. And it has extensive reserves of natural gas and oil. And because of these, Papua New Guinea is considered as the last bastion of hope for many, including Ling, who work for the preservation of its culture.

Because of her busy schedule, Ling could now only get to go home to Papua New Guinea for a visit once in every two or three years and even then, for only about 2 weeks. But she always makes sure to visit good old Maiom village by walking the 6 km distance to the ocean side. But each time she does, it leaves a sad note in her heart. She says, “On the shore there are still big waves breaking but the coconut trees are getting fewer and fewer. They are being cut down at an enormous rate. Offshore, the unblemished reefs and corals are now very rare to find. They are either blown up or destroyed. And the oceanside of my childhood is not anymore gleaming with white sand far down the coast. There are now aluminum cans along the way!”

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  1. Jorjette C Damon

What you have in your mind?