As I have now been in the Pacific for nearly two years, it is long overdue for the obligatory food blog. Any food blog from the Solomon Islands must start with coconuts.
Hail the humble coconut. Honestly. This little gem of a fruit is a WASH specialist and foodie’s dream. Firstly, coconut water is like nature’s Oral Rehydration Solution. It doesn’t need any treatment to make it safe, and it has just enough sweetness to give you a glucose surge without bringing on diabetes – all while having a delicious taste. Plus, it’s the cheapest option out there. A coconut will set you back about AUD$0.70 and provide you with about 700mL of fluid (and you can scoop out and eat the coconut jelly inside when you’re done). Yes, a cold coconut on a hot and humid day – which is every day in Honiara – does wonders for the body and soul.
However, the wonders of coconuts do not end there. The Solomons has taught me that coconut milk can, literally, form the basis of any food your little heart desires. Vegies boiled in coconut milk, coconut smoothies, vegan coconut ice-cream, coconut cakes, fresh coconut sprinkled on your morning granola, coconut and cashew vegan cheesecake.
Coconut is now forming such an integral part of our diet that we (by which I mean Manyoni) have become experts in making our own coconut milk – from scraping to squeezing to eating. Yum! Of course, once you’re done, you can use the coconut shell as a candle or soap holders or use it for your “dip ‘n’ drip” handwashing station. And the coconut husk is the local solution to toilet paper. What is there not to love?
My second favourite food in the Solomons is the bush lime. Round little citrus about the size of a golf ball, these little guys are another refreshing bargain. AUD$0.70 for a heap, they are most commonly squeezed to make delicious, refreshing, equally-tart-and-sweet bush lime juice. They also go great with vegies boiled in coconut milk, ice-cream, cakes….you get the idea.
When you’re speaking of the tropics, though, it is impossible to ignore the fruit. As someone who has never been a huge fruit fan, the Solomons has shown me another side. Pineapples so sweet and juicy that you even eat the core and end up sucking the skin dry. Papaya that doesn’t make you gag (especially when drizzled with a dash of bush lime). Mangoes that are dropping from the skies everywhere you turn (but you have to be quick – the season is very short and the neighbourhood kids are adept at finding the ripe mangoes before you). The Solomons has approximately 189 species of banana to test out, and markets full of watermelons, rambutans, star fruit, jackfruit and soursop. There’s also the new local varieties to keep your taste buds entertained, such as the village “apples”. This place is ripe for an organic dried fruit industry.
Breadfruit is frequently found on the market tables, in its fresh fruity form, as well as cut up and dried to become “Nambo” – a jaw-breaking snack that can be nibbled in combination with dry coconut or, as I do, soaked and added to curries.
Mangrove fruit has become a new favourite in our household, cooked up with a bit of curry powder and served with Zambian nshima.
Seaweed is also on the menu, as we discovered when visiting our friends in West Guadalcanal. The favourite here is seaweed that resembles a string of salty pearls that pop in your mouth, and can be added to salads or cooked with – you guessed it – coconut milk.
There are also a couple of extra nuts to add to our snack portfolio (excluding the hideous Betel nut). ‘Tis the season for cutnut, a hard inedible fruit that holds a large golden nut inside. Or Ngali nuts, which taste a bit like almonds, and can be found wrapped up in banana leaves at every street side stall. Once the hard outer layer is cracked, the nuts can easily be slipped from their skin and eaten raw or roasted.
On the vegetable side, the heat of the Solomons prohibits the availability of some of my faves – carrot, potato, broccoli, cauliflower – and prevents some of my other faves from reaching their full potential – think stunted tomatoes and capsicums.
However, it does put on a pretty good show in the leafy greens department: chard, bok choy, sweet potato leaves, fern, watercress, pumpkin leaves, and slippery cabbage (as the name suggests, it is full of slimy green goodness). There is also an assortment of roots and beans: sweet potato, kumara, cassava, taro, okra, giant beans that look like cucumbers. Cassava is given a new dimension when ground, boiled and made into cassava pudding.
Plus, for a population whose food is very mild, there is a surprising large selection of chilli.
Any blog about the Solomon Islands, though, cannot ignore the seafood. Solomons has a huge tuna industry, but the best of it is exported to the EU. The markets offer a good selection of not-good-enough-for-export-but-still-great yellowfin tuna, coral trout, lobster, prawns, crabs, and a bunch of other seafoody things that I can’t identify.
However, this is no match for the freshness and cheapness of seafood in the Provinces. I always relish my trips to the Province, where I can pick up a fresh fish – by which I mean, it was caught a few minutes before I bought it – for AUD$0.50. A huge, fresh mud crab will set you back $2, and lobster will cost about $1. Just listen for the sound of the conch shell in the early morning signalling the fishermen’s’ return, or put in an order before you go to work.
Friends have also come back with eskies full of giant squid, mud crab, endangered coconut crabs, and megapod eggs. The traditional way to cook all of this up is in a “motu” – wrapped in banana leaves and placed in amongst the hot rocks. Yum! Sadly, my colleagues prefer to just boil the hell out of it with salt, which I find most devastating.
This probably explains why, despite all this delicious fresh seafood on offer, locals seem to love their meat canned or processed to within a whisker of it still resembling meat. Taiyo (canned tuna) is a hot favourite here. But just to be clear, we’re not talking the white tuna flakes that we find in Aus. No, it is a dark brown sludge that, I assume, is formed from the ground-up dark meat that’s left over once all the good stuff has been removed.
At work luncheons, one can expect to be greeted with mounds of plain white rice, boiled sweet potato, curry chicken wings (wings are the only part of the chicken that is available here – goodness knows what happens to the rest of the bird), ground mincemeat, and “sausage” (think bright red weiners). Any vegetable dishes will be made inedible to vegetarians by a garnish of taiyo because, you know, fish isn’t meat.
The food on the street is even less appetising, and mostly deep fried. Street stalls offer fish & chips, with the fish battered, deep-fried and ruined, served with fried sweet potato chunks. You can also buy an assortment of carb-heavy snacks for SBD$1 (AUD$0.20) – deep-fried balls of rice, deep-fried balls of dough (doughnuts minus the sugar-cinnamon coating), sweet bread rolls, and dense cake.
With all this food on offer, it has made me stop and think about “poverty” in the Solomon Islands. It is meant to be one of the poorest countries in the world, but when I compare it to other places I’ve lived in Africa, well, there is no comparison. In the villages around Chipata, or Swaziland, if you want food you need to toil hard, walk kilometres for water, and pray hard for the right amount of rain at the right time. In (rural) Solomons, food is literally dropping from the trees.*
While visiting a friend, I casually mentioned I was hungry and within five minutes they had gone to the sea, speared a fish, collected some seaweed, climbed a coconut tree, scraped the milk, and was cooking it on an open fire with freshly dug cassava. Even my colleagues won’t pack any lunch for field trips, because they just snack on fruit and coconuts picked up along the way.
I once heard someone describe this lifestyle / economy so aptly as “affluent subsistence”. There may not be much cash, but it doesn’t take much effort to get a good feed and some shelter. Perhaps this explains the apathy, lack of entrepreneurialism among many Solomon Islanders – Why would you spend your life working hard in a formal economy, when in five minutes you can collect all the basics for survival?
As you ponder that, I will leave you with two of my favourite island recipes – one vegan, and one for the fish eaters out there. Enjoy!
* That doesn’t mean that everyone is well nourished – stunting is rife due to diarrhoea and infectious diseases, and non-communicable diseases are striking a terrible blow as “modern” foods like packet noodles, white rice, sugary drinks and processed meat become the diet of choice for many.
Jilly’s Papaya Bake
Spread a small amount of coconut oil over the bottom and sides of a casserole dish.
Layer the bottom of the dish with slices of sweet potato (the thinner the slices, the quicker to cook). On top of that, layer it with slices of papaya (ripe, but not super ripe). Sprinkle with some garlic, onion, and chilli if desired.
Repeat 2-3 times until the dish is full. Then pour coconut milk over it all (1 fresh coconut or 1-2 cans).
Pop in the oven for around 45 minutes, or until cooked through. Yum!
Cut some fish into cubes (eg. king fish or yellow fin tuna).
Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, then soak in ½ cup bushlime juice. Cover and chill for 2 hours or overnight, or until the fish whitens – stirring occasionally.
Mix in finely chopped shallots, grated ginger, coconut cream, tomatoes and cucumber. Add chilli if desired.
Serve chilled. So refreshing!