Sunday, February 3, 2008

Samoa Part 7: Food

No discussion of Samoa would be complete without mentioning the food. When I arrived to my area in Salelologa, Savaii, it didn't take long before I was acquainted with the local fare. Not long after I unpacked my bags in Elder Seumalii's and my 15x15 foot "house", a local youth appeared at our doorstep to see the new palagi, white, missionary. With him came a few freshly baked breadfruit which we presently consumed.

Traditionally, Samoans' diet consisted of starchy foods, meat, and tropical fruits. The starches consist of five main types: breadfruit, taro and its cousin taamu, yam, boiled green banana, and sweet potato. Since post-European contact, rice has found its way into many Samoan meals. Initially, except for the rice, most Westerners won't really like the Samoan starches. They're usually perceived as too bland. But in time, the palate adjusts and each of the five types is as delectable a morsel as any that can be found in the States.

Meat is also a dominant theme in every Samoan meal. Many are locally produced, while others are imported. Samoans raise their own pigs and chickens, catch fish in the reefs and the deep sea, and use imported meats like canned corned beef, salt beef, sausages, mutton, chicken leg and thigh pieces, and turkey tail.

Turkey tail deserves special mention. If you have ever cooked a turkey in the states, then chances are that you have never actually seen a turkey tail. There is a reason for that; up until 2007, turkey tails were sent to Samoa where they are considered a real treat. Despite the Samoan enthusiasm about this particular "choice" meat, I must confess that it was with great effort that I ever was able to eat a single one. The reason for my distaste of turkey tail was two-fold: it has a token amount of meat, and it has chewy "sheaths" that housed the tail feathers of the live turkey. Fortunately, Samoa awoke from its culinary slumber and banned the importing of turkey tails due to their high fat content and negative impact on health.

Bananas and the ubiquitous coconut are two of the most common fruits used in Samoa. Mangoes, papaya, guavas, oranges, limes, pineapples, and Tahitian apples are also important, and delicious, fruits, many of them non-native, however. Occasionally, one will run across some family with an avocado tree.

I quickly adjusted to the food in Samoa. So quickly, in fact, that within a couple of months I packed on about 25 pounds. I mentioned once that Samoans are naturally hospitable; well, that trait is taken to a near extreme with missionaries. Because missionaries of any faith are highest in the social hierarchy, they receive the best that Samoan hospitality has to offer.

In addition, the Samoan members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fiercely vied for opportunities to feed the missionaries. Accordingly, our meals were kindly provided for us: one in the morning and one in the evening. In truth the meals we ate, by Western standards, were feasts. And the word that I came to detest the most during the course of my stay in Samoa was tausami, eat.

Furthermore, we not only ate our morning and evening meals; most families that we visited during the day, whether Mormon or not--it did not matter, fed us something. Feeding guests is the most fundamental means of being hospitable in Samoa. In fact, the Samoans are so good to guests and each other as a matter of social policy that I am certain that if anyone in the whole of Samoa goes to bed hungry, it is his or her own darn fault.

In time, I became so adept at eating that some of my later American companions relied on my prowess at the table (or on the floor, whichever we ate at) to divert our hosts' attention away from their meager dining efforts.

Not all Samoan foods suited me, however. Over time I developed a policy that if a food item consisted of "non-fish, slimy, raw things from the ocean," I would not touch it. For example, in Samoa, one can readily find Coke bottles filled with pale-colored, ribbon-like things and sea water. These are sea. In other words: sea cucumber entrails. I managed to make it out of Samoa without offending anyone by refusing sea. How did I manage such an escape? I quickly discovered, and subsequently used to my advantage, the fact that many Samoans don't even touch sea. That and the gusto with which I devoured more appetizing foods like fish, and lobster, and taro, kept me from any undue embarrassment.

I was not so lucky when it came to tuitui: raw sea urchin guts. While visiting a family, my fellow American companion and I were offered tuitui, an offer we couldn't rightly refuse. I watched as a child took a golf ball-sized urchin in his hand and swiftly applied to its underside a firm whack with a spoon. Then, after scooping out the orangish, purplish ooze, he gleefully presented me with the spoon and its prized contents, intent that I eat them. It took all the guts I had to eat the guts of my late urchin friend; and even then, I almost lost my unfortunate lunch right onto the mat that I sat upon.

But apart from the tuitui, I fared quite well with the Samoan fare. I highly recommend to any who read this that you find some Samoans, befriend them, and go eat with them. You will never forget the wonderful experience it is to share a meal with the Samoan people.


Anonymous said...

Nate . . . I don't think most people in the U.S. find yams and sweet potatoes to be too bland: these foods have been a "staple" in the south for many years, and also seem to have enjoyed a renewed popularity recently with restaurants. My family really enjoys a "sweet-potato hash" that we cook occasionally. However, I do not enjoy eating yams or sweet-potatoes raw, as my friend from Burundi does!

Nate said...

It's true that many Americans enjoy sweet potatoes and yams; but when American and Samoan preparation styles are compared, the Samoan versions will not immediately suit the American palate.

Of course, I am by no means a sweet potato and yam connoisseur. Where I grew up these starches are prepared to be quite sweet. Samoans do not have the sweet tooths that Americans do so our "candied" yams and sweet potatoes would not initially suit them well.