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 www.foodlovers.co.nz 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…