It’s hard to put into words, so much was going on when I arrived at Tuilagi’s house for umu—the traditional meal cooked in a pile of hot stones.
I say this without condescension: it was as if a diorama at the Museum of Natural History came to life—so many traditional activities and tools were in play. Also, the kitchen—a corrugated metal addition to the main fale—was where, as in all cultures, everyone was congregating—adults, kids, cats, and chickens. As the humans prepared the food, not an item was wasted, or didn’t get used to feed the next in line in the food chain: chickens got the coconut scrapings, cats got the fish guts, the fire was fueled by the coconuts husks. At one point, they needed a basket; within minutes, Tuilagi had woven one from a palm frond.
Green bananas and breadfruit were being peeled, coconuts shaved for making the cream for the palusami, and fish gutted. The coconut shavings were wrung by had over a bowl using a mesh fiber from some local plant. The resulting deliciousness is poured into a “cup” of layered young taro leaves, sealed into a ball with a breadfruit leaf, and finally wrapped in a banana leaf.
These flavor grenades are placed in the umu, along with the taro, breadfruit, and bananas, and left to cook for a half hour.
covering umu (oven)
The palusami that emerges is like heavenly coconut-creamed spinach, but the outer layers of taro leaves have steam-baked into an incredible crispy filo-like wrapping. It might be called an umu, but I can tell you it’s “yum-u.” Of course, I was served first, but I insisted that Tuilagi eat at the same time; after we were done, the women fed babies and themselves, then the kids eat, oldest first.
It’s a tough life in the structure of village life, so getting older and acquiring status moves you along in the food chain, literally.