Breadfruit and Fruit Bat – Tastes of Micronesia
About 2500 miles west of Hawaii there is a group of islands that is barely visible on most world maps. If you could take the landmass of the state of Rhode Island, break it up into more than a thousand pieces, then scatter the pieces over an area the size of Australia, you would get a close approximation of the configuration of the Micronesian islands.
Farther north than Melanesia, farther west than Polynesia, Micronesia is the lesser known cousin that sprawls widely across the west-central Pacific Ocean. It includes the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Wake Island, the Gilberts, the Marianas Islands (Guam and Saipan), the Western Caroline Islands (Palau), and the Eastern Caroline Islands (Truk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and Yap).
Like many Pacific islands, Micronesia has been through a series of colonizations: Spain, Germany, Japan, and the United States of America have all occupied the islands at various times. There is also a heavy Korean and Philippine presence, both countries having significant communities on many of the islands. All these influences, over the years, have blended with and re-shaped the traditional island culture.
A nation’s cuisine is part of its identity; it reflects age-old customs as well as borrowed and blended influences from visiting and conquering cultures. Micronesian cuisine retains many of the ancient traditions of its tropical island environment, handed down through generations: edibles from the sea, from the dense mangrove swamps, from the sandy beaches, and from the farms in the lush volcanic mountainsides. But today in Micronesia no feast is complete without also including heaps of sashimi and ceviche (raw seafood marinated in citrus juice), pots of turkey-tail soup, huge pans of fried chicken, and platters of roasted dog.
The foods of places that are exotic to us sometimes surprise us, shock us, even disgust us: deep fried grasshoppers, grilled scorpion-on-a-stick, roasted guinea pig, grubs, brains, rotten eggs, raw blood. In Iceland they eat baked whale. Haggis, the national dish of Scotland, is a pudding of sheep innards mixed with oatmeal, onions, and spices and boiled for three hours in the sheep’s stomach. The durian of Southeast Asia is a large spiked fruit that smells like an over-used outhouse; its odor is so pungent it’s banned in elevators and taxis. And in Korea, the Philippines, and several other countries, they eat dog. It’s important to remember that while some foods enjoyed by other countries may be unappealing to us, judgments based on our own cultural biases give us a narrow view of the world. While nobody is saying you have to eat the balut (fertilized duck egg), it’s interesting to know that to some it’s a tasty pub treat.
The practice of eating dog in Micronesia comes from the large influx of Korean and Philippine contract workers since World War II. The fact that the islands are over-run with feral dogs certainly adds to the common-sense factor of this culinary solution.
While fruit bat may no longer be commonly eaten on the larger islands, it is still a treat sometimes enjoyed on the small outer islands. The recipe is simple: As the fruit bat eats only fruit, it need not be gutted prior to cooking. It also doesn’t require skinning, as the fur and wing membrane are edible. The traditional recipe is to scrub the bats clean and boil until the fleshy parts are tender (about 40 minutes, if you’re really interested). Onion and ginger, or coconut milk, can be added to make a soup, and as one local island cookbook notes “…during the boiling a musky odor will be noticed.” It is said the meat is dark and gamey in taste.
The sea cucumber looks like a slimy, gummy cucumber and is found in shallow waters everywhere in Micronesia. There are many varieties and colors; some have bumps and prickles on their backs, and at least four kinds are edible. It is a delicacy in Asia and it is called “beche-de-mer” in France. When the creature is startled, it has the distinctly unsettling practice of shooting out its sticky internal organs from its rear end, thereby entangling its attacker while making a hasty getaway. Typically, the long white muscles inside are removed for cooking and the rest discarded, but in Belau children like to forage the beach at low tide for a particular black variety of sea cucumber which they then scrape and slice and chew like hard gum.
Mangrove crabs are a special treat. They live in the deep black mud of the dark mangrove swamps and are a challenge to trap, usually done at night. They grow to be quite large and are typically boiled like lobsters; the sweet white meat is considered to be among the tastiest in the world.
While pigs are not native to the islands, they have been there so long they have become an essential part of Micronesian life. Some pigs run free in the outer villages, but the largest pigs are kept on farms in pens that are cleaned daily. Highly prized, they are treated well and are slaughtered only for important feasts, most commonly for funerals, for which many days of preparation are needed.
Micronesians traditionally cook their meals over open fires or in ground ovens called “ums.” Variations of the um are found all over the Pacific. The basic idea is to cook large cuts of meat (usually pig) under ground for many hours. A fire is lit at the bottom of a large pit; a layer of rocks is then placed on top of the red-hot coals, and sometimes a layer of wet, green vegetation is also added to create steam. After the meat is placed in the pit, everything is covered over with earth and left to bake and steam for several hours, usually overnight. This slow cooking produces moist, succulent meat with a smoky flavor and an aroma that permeates an entire village. It’s a long, involved process and is normally done only for a large feast where 50 or more people will be fed.
More modern cooking techniques are in daily use, and many of these techniques come from other countries. In the late 19th century, when the island of Kosrae was over-run by American whalers and missionaries, the islanders took a particular liking to the delicious foods prepared in the big cast iron pots and frying pans the Americans had brought with them. Fried foods are now very popular. Over the years, the words “fry” and “ainpot” (iron pot) have become part of the Kosraean language and are often used to describe an attractive man or woman.
A Micronesian meal inevitably includes a big pot of sticky rice, a legacy of the Japanese who occupied the islands prior to WWII. There is always a pot of rice sitting on the stove, and many times a guest will be invited in from the heat of the day to “eat some rice” and have a chat while sitting on a cool concrete floor. Another legacy from the Japanese is that such a guest will politely remove his or her shoes before entering a Micronesian home.
Micronesia consists of flat atolls, which are not much more than sand bars and coral, and lush, high volcanic islands with dense rainforests and fertile soil. These mountainous islands get an abundance of rain (Pohnpei regularly records about 400 inches per year), which comes in an almost daily shower amid otherwise hot, sunny weather. Fruits and vegetables grow abundantly, and there is a large variety of both indigenous and non-native plants: banana, breadfruit, papaya, pandanus, taro, cassava, soursop, yams, mangoes, tangerines, limes, okra, lettuce, cucumbers, and on and on. Many of the root vegetables also have edible leaves that can be stewed alone or used in soups.
Banana trees are not only used for their fruit but also their leaves, their flowers, and their fiber. The flower of the banana tree is a large purple teardrop that is sliced, boiled, and used to make salad. Plantain (cooking bananas) are fried into savory fritters, but yellow bananas can also be fried for a sweet snack or dessert. To make, simply slice a ripe banana lengthwise and sauté in oil, turning when browned. You can cook the bananas until just slightly browned, in which case they will still be soft and gooey, but if you continue to cook the bananas the natural sugars will caramelize; they will turn very dark and become like hard candy on the outside but remain soft on the inside. Slightly press and flatten the bananas while they cook to help bring out the sugars. Variations include sprinkling with orange or lime juice, or season with a bit of sea salt.
Breadfruit is another mainstay of the Micronesian diet. It’s a large green fruit that grows on enormous, beautiful trees that can reach heights of 80 feet or more. The breadfruit can be boiled, baked, or fried, and each preparation produces significantly different results. Boiled breadfruit can be served in chunks or mashed liked potatoes; the taste is then much like a potato crossed with a squash. Sliced into fingers and fried, it tastes like a mild plantain. When baked, it has a stiffer texture and takes on a distinctly chestnut flavor.
The coconut tree is plentiful on all of the islands. The green fibrous husk protects the inner dark nut, which is actually the seed; it can be carried hundreds of miles on ocean currents and can sprout and grow just about anywhere, even on the sandy beaches of the atolls. Various parts of the tree are used for drinking, eating, cooking, housing, toys, utensils, tools, clothing, farming, and fuel. The water in the green coconuts is not only delicious and nutritious, but it is also sterile. The dark, mature nut, which is what we see in our supermarkets, is used for cooking; the thick white meat is grated, then squeezed to extract the coconut milk used in many Micronesian dishes. The younger green coconuts are for drinking. They are sold on the islands by street vendors who lop off the tops with sharp machetes, leaving a hole from which to drink the slightly sweet, clean water. After drinking the water you can stick a spoon inside to scrape off the thin layer of soft white flesh that has not yet hardened into the meat that we are more familiar with.
First published February 2014