Samoa, Baby…

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Virgil Evetts

Did I mention I was going to Samoa? Well anyway I went, a few weeks back. Actually I should really say WE went because Charlotte and Olive were there too. It was our very first ‘family holiday’ and a fine time was had by all. The flight was mercifully brief, the weather perfect all week and the resort lovely -if a little befuddled at times. I’d like to say we traversed the islands and did this and that, but in truth, we did very little.  We played with our baby, we swam in the sea, we slept and we ate. It was relentless bliss.

But you don’t want need to hear about that. It’ll only make you jealous. This is,  after all and despite all those days of beautiful nothing, I still found plenty of time to eat. Don’t I always?

I’ve never understood why Samoan food isn’t more widely appreciated in New Zealand, especially in Auckland where we have such a large Samoan community. I suspect there are two main reasons. Number one is pretty simple: bigotry (remember the dawn raids?); and number two: the absence of a genuine Samoan restaurant culture. Even in Apia, restaurants offering genuine local fare are pretty thin on the ground. Samoan cuisine is most firmly based in the home or village and is inseparably linked to family. When Samoans eat out they’d rather have Chinese, Indian etc, and fair enough too. I certainly don’t go to restaurants looking for my own home cooking.

Samoans enjoy a bit of meat and in the home, fish, pork and chicken rule supreme- with a substantial top-up in the form of impossibly fatty tinned corned beef and New Zealand lamb flaps .I had ample opportunities to eat a great deal of all of these, but at almost every meal I only had eyes for the fish. You see, the word ‘fish’ in Samoa almost always means (Yellow-finned) tuna. Ludicrously fresh, shamelessly sexy and most importantly line-caught tuna.

Over seven short l days, I ate more of this fish than I’d eaten in my life combined: tuna fish and chips, Samoan tuna curry, tuna baked in banana leaves, grilled tuna with palusami and breadfruit, tuna oka (cerviche)… The only pork I ended up eating was in the form of the shatteringly crisp crackling and meltingly tender flesh of an umu-baked piglet.  It was predictably excellent too – smoky, rich and fall -apart tender, but it was still just pork. I can have that any day, but tuna is a rare treat (not to mention an ethical dilemma) at home, and never so outlandishly fresh. If there is one stand-out ingredient to try whilst in Samoa, it is surely the tuna. You won’t have to look far, in fact you’ll have a hard time avoiding it.

Coconut cream is an important source of fat and carbohydrates in the traditional Samoan diet. It is used widely in both sweet and savoury cooking, and represents an important export commodity. Not so long ago Samoa brand coconut cream was the only one readily available in New Zealand, and it remains among the best.

Taro, yams (a large, starchy root, unrelated to ‘New Zealand’ yams), cassava and breadfruit are the main starches, and like rice or pasta elsewhere, they make up the bulk of most meals. Taro leaves are a widely consumed green vegetable, but because of their  high oxalic acid content, they require careful cooking.  Poorly cooked or raw taro leaves (and tubers) can cause extreme irritation to the mouth and digestive tract. Fortunately all Samoan cooks are (literally) painfully aware of this quirk, so you are very unlikely to be afflicted with “taro tongue”.

Modern Samoan cuisine has been pushed and pulled by the various influences of Chinese, German and to lesser degree English settlement, but at its’ heart is still staunchly Samoan. Spices and seasoning are minimal, and ingredients few, but everything is brought together with a deft touch, allowing the outstanding island produce to shine. This is perfectly illustrated in the classic dish palusami, a simple mixture of lightly salted coconut cream, chopped onions and taro leaves, slowly baked until thick, buttery and curd-like.  Whether mopped up with baked breadfruit, served with grilled fish or eaten on its own, palusami exemplifies the virtues of simplicity, and deserves a place on any list of great dishes of the world.

Samoan food is sometimes dismissed as overly fatty or heavy, but this is only true if you view certain dishes in isolation. Meals in Samoa are traditionally communal affairs, involving lots of people and lots of different dishes. Rich and heavy items are tempered with light and fresh flavours elsewhere, and everybody eats a bit of everything.  When eaten communally as is intended, the Samoan cuisine is as balanced and varied as any other.

The best place on Upolu (the most populated island) to acquaint oneself with Samoan food and produce is the Apia markets. Here you will find the very best of the local fruit, including the much loved ‘hard apple’ (actually a relative of the mango), star fruit, guava, myriad bananas and plantains, enormous, pink-blushed tropical avocados and untold varieties of mango. Cocoa farmers sell fresh pods by the case-full, as well as local speciality Cocoa-Samoa. Resembling solid cylinders of chocolate, Cocoa Samoa is a pure, semi-refined cocoa. It can be grated and dissolved in hot water or milk, then sweetened with sugar to produce an ultra chocolaty, and wonderfully smoky drink. It might just be Samoa’s best-kept culinary secret, and sooner or later is bound to be the next big thing in food. Nearby hawker stalls sell jamen/German  buns (coconut or jam filled doughnuts), Samoan pork buns-(a sublime take on the classic dim-sum), Sapasui (corned beef, soy sauce, ginger, onions and vermicelli) and many other tasty local favourites. Elsewhere the umu hawkers sell smoky baked breadfruit, taro, palusami and yams. Cleanliness is next to Godliness to Samoans, so your chances of suffering from food poisoning are extremely slim indeed.

Samoa is still routinely overlooked by many New Zealanders as a holiday destination, in favour of Fiji, Queensland or places further afield like Thailand. This is a real shame. We left saying it was our favourite holiday destination ever, and that feeling has only grown.  We ate so very well, found the people warm and friendly and the beaches clean and lovely.  What more does one need in a tropical island getaway?

Click here to some edible highlights from our Samoa trip over at my Facebook page…

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9 thoughts on “Samoa, Baby…

  1. What an adorable picture of a child. Samoan cuisines seem interesting and it sound delicious. I might try the modern cuisines but I think I’ll pass with the dishes with coconut cream since I am kind of allergic to it. And I wish I could visit Samoa to enjoy the beaches and other stuff.

    /Kristen B.
    Magnavox MDR515H Reviewer

  2. I have been studying of late, ethnic groups defined by their foodways…and it has been interesting that in most countries it is becoming more and more blurred with other foods creeping into the local cuisine.

    So is that the same in Samoa, the different islands, towns/village differences? Or are they more or less the same all over?

    • Very interesting question Cathy
      I think the answer is yes and no. Like everywhere, there is a degree of generic ‘international food available in Samoa’, and certainly this is making its way into day to day food. Chinese and German foods have certainly become part of the Samoan repertoire, rather as Southern Indian food has in Fiji. However, because of the way Christianity overlaid original beliefs but appropriated and therefore preserved many of the associated traditions, a good deal of traditional food remains as it was 100 or more years ago. Although I’m no expert, I do not think there is a huge variation in cuisines across the Samoan islands, mainly because when humans arrived (as with New Zealand) there were few suitable food plants and animals present. In other words most staples (apart from seafood and coconuts) were brought with the waves of settlers. What I would like to know is how the original cuisines of the ethnic Taiwanese people who are now accepted as the ancestors of all pacific (but not Melanesian) people compared to traditional foods of the pacific today.

  3. OK Extremely jealous. Stayed in Samoa in 2004 for a month and went everywhere on both Islands. The people are fantastic and so friendly and the markets are full of fresh wonderful produce as are the clothes and the fish market. Nothing better than to wander down to the fish market early in the morning, or to awake on a Sunday to smell the umus cooking. Go to a church on a Sunday and experience the friendliness of the people and get5invited to villages for lunch. Oh Im saving hard to return for another holiday

  4. Her hair isn’t quite as red as it appears in the pic (which was taken at sunset), but it will def be a sort of strawberry blond I think.
    Thanks Megan, we stayed At Aggie Greys resort (NOT the hotel in Apia). They’ve had some bad press lately for cancelling bookings because of Survivor series booking them out, but we had a wonderful time and would go back in a flash. There were some small issues with forgotten or chronically late food orders, but nothing serious considering Survivor crew (all 250 of them) had checked out after an apparently hellish four months the day before we arrived and most of the permanent staff had gone on leave.
    Yes, Ray I agree, the Samoan people we met were by far the most welcoming and friendly we have encountered on our travels- more so even than the Thais, who pretty much define hospitality and warmth.The worst would be a toss up between Londoners and New Zealanders with anti Auckland issues.

  5. I spent 10 days on Savaii a couple of years ago. Just stunning. Empty beaches lined with palm trees (coconut on the head danger), getting up with the sun and just leaping into the warm sea, lots of fresh fruit (I tried taro in coconut milk – yuck), chaotic ferry crossing from Upolu. Some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Talofa lava (the only Samoan that I know).

  6. Love this blog entry Virgil and it has really made me think about going to Samoa which sounds like a fantastic alternative to Fiji. You are right about the food though…often it is overlooked. Island food can be totally delicious and the more fatty stuff can be avoided to a point. But then again so is the traditional Maori food like Hangi and boil-up. Both are delicious and I think, looked down upon but I think those who do that are the ones missing out…just leaves more for us!

  7. OMG Olive is beautifukl Virgil, she has her mothers gorgeous hair colour…

    Anyhoo, I love Samoan food. My uncle is from there and we were raised on Umus and bananas wrapped in leaves, served with coconut cream.
    I would rather go to Samoa any day for a holiday. Dounds like you had a great time away.