The recipe for today’s post is from the land of immense culture and biological diversity, smouldering volcanoes and pristine lush rainforests. We are traversing a cuisine that has not been fully explored by the blogosphere and hardly has any cookbooks available. Today’s recipe is from the land of the unexpected – Papa New Guinea (PNG). We were able to get our hands at one of the few dishes that were easily available. Before we dive in, let’s see a quick overview of the Papuan cuisine, lifestyle and culture.
A large part of the cuisine is based on the native produces and livestock. Papuans are the best exemplary of farm to table concept as most of them in the rural areas still follow subsistence farming. The regional variation of the cuisine can be broadly classified into highland cuisine and coastal (lowland) cuisine. There is a broad distinction between the two cuisines. The coastal region tends to use a lot of coconut and its derivatives products, sago palms, and seafood in their cooking. Coconut milk and cream are predominantly used as a liquid base in most of the recipes whilst it is rare in the highland region. The highland cuisine concentrates more on the green vegetables, root vegetables and livestock.
PNG has a wide range of plant produce naturally available to them. They are a home to numerous crops and highly nutritious edible greens as their soil is rich and fertile which is a huge plus for agriculture. Since many of the greens do not have a name in their native language, outsiders do not even know they exist. The PNG food group is broadly divided into 3 categories – edible greens (kumu), proteins like meat, fish & poultry (abus) and staples (sago, sweet potatoes, taro, etc.)
The common foods in the daily life of a Papuan include mostly the root crops like sago, sweet potatoes, taro, cassava, coconut and other tropical fruits. Their traditional meat is pork and is often consumed only during special occasions. The Papuans are mostly vegetarian. Unlike the rest of the world, they consider dinner as their main meal. It is the largest meal of the day. The locals often eat leftovers for their breakfast, and lunch is often skipped or replaced by something that is quick and convenient.
The traditional cooking in the rural areas is done in an open fire. The food is either wrapped in leaves or placed directly in the fire. In some areas the clay pots or green bamboo are also used for cooking. Cooking is also done in a conventional earth oven called mumu. Usually, these pits are dug to cook for a large group or special events but some rural houses use this for everyday cooking as well. Mumu is filled with hot stones, coal and wood. The food is wrapped or placed in palm leaves, then placed on the hot stones in the pits. Sometimes, the food is left on a slow fire for several hours!
These food habits and practices are slowly changing, especially in the urban cities. Those living in larger cities have more access to imported food items and modern lifestyle.
The dietary lifestyle of the Papuans hardly changed with little influence of the colonists during the colonization. The European colonists, mainly the Spaniards, German and British, brought with them the cash crops like potatoes, wheat and cocoa. These were adapted into the local cuisine. One of the foreign crops, sweet potato, locally known as kaukau has become the key staple of PNG. It is now part and parcel of their life. There are only very few PNG dishes that do not use them in their recipes.
Sweet potato is one of the few veggies that can be treated as an open canvas. You can play with it and try all sorts of combinations. It easily adapts and absorbs any flavor and seasoning we use with it. Even though it is sweet, this is used to create delicious savory and sweet dishes. This coconut kau kau recipe is a wonderful combination of sweet potato, garlic, onions and coconut cream.
This could very well be a substitute for the mashed potatoes that we have during the holidays. This recipe is a definite keeper at my home and I am still enjoying the lingering pleasant aftertaste!
- 2 sweet potatoes (kaukau)
- 4 tablespoons butter , diced
- 3 tablespoons grated fresh coconut (or unsweetened shredded coconut)
- ½ cup coconut cream
- ½ onion , finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic , crushed
- 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger grated
- 2 tablespoons orange juice
- Salt to taste
- Pepper to taste
- Rinse the sweet potatoes, then wrap each of them in aluminum foil and place on a plate.
Bake in preheated 400F/200C oven for 1 hour or until cooked through.
- Cut sweet potatoes in two lengthwise.
- Scoop out about ¾ of the sweet potatoes with a spoon into a bowl.
- Immediately add the butter. Add salt and pepper, and mash with a fork to get a smooth purée.
- Set the skins of the half hollowed sweet potatoes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Add the coconut cream, onion, garlic, ginger and orange juice to the mashed sweet potatoes. Mix well.
- Fill the hollowed half sweet potatoes with the mashed mixture.
- Bake in the oven for another 5 minutes before serving.