Back to the future

ROBERT OLIVER
Last updated 05:00 23/03/2014
Samoa
Shiri Ram/Imagine South Pacific

NATURE'S BOUNTY: Traditional fare from the seas and the trees.

Samoa
Shiri Ram/Imagine South Pacific
SAMOAN HANGI: Serving up an umu feast.

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Samoa: Forever cherished around the world as the South Seas resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson.

His books Treasure Island and Kidnapped seem to typify an age - both the romantic notion of the colonial era and a more personal age: that of all of our childhoods, filled with dreams of thrilling adventure in exotic lands.

And so, through his work, Samoa's own image gathered romance. And even as the acrimonious realities of the colonial period were revealed in shocking corrections of history, Samoa's South Seas mystique endured.

In the 20th century, as tourism developed here, Samoa cautiously ambled from dreamy notion to actual destination. Samoa is well known for its pristine beaches and gorgeous waters.

But what about the food? Is there a cuisine in Samoa?

The story of the food is the story of the people and is a direct reflection of its colonial, post-colonial and pre-colonial history. Samoa is a small nation with a big story.

Don't be fooled by the sleepy villages and relaxed lifestyle. Samoa is in the throes of a culinary, agricultural and nutritional revolution, with organics at the heart of it. With 35,000 hectares of organic land (more than 10 per cent of its entire geography), Samoa is on the move.

However, it is fair to say that Samoan cuisine has not had a clear path. Its original food culture was straightforward but profound. Like many indigenous cuisines all over the world, the diet was based on simple but nourishing preparations, here made largely with fish, root crops, tropical fruit, coconut and leafy greens, the best of the earth and ocean. By default organic, these basic dishes are what traditionally sustained Samoa.

But then a food invasion began. First, cheap meat imports integrated into the traditional Samoan diet with shocking effect. Corned beef, lamb flaps, turkey tails, and chicken backs, all rejected as too fatty in their countries of origin, were offloaded here in what Auckland academic and author Dr Cathie Koa Dunsford labels "food colonialism", quickly creating problems for Samoan health. The foods we eat as a child are our personal building blocks, often bound with nurturing emotion that defies nutritional logic and "knowing better", so weaning a generation of Samoans raised on these fat bombs has been challenging.

Fast food and processed food arrived and it seemed that Samoa was awash with fat, flour, fake foods and Fanta.

When tourism emerged as the economic hope, to cater to tourists' perceived tastes, ever-hospitable Samoa put its own food culture aside in favour of a more European menu. Worse yet, in an ironic madness, this "tourism food", largely devoid of genuine Samoan content, was then deemed by the travelling public, to be "Samoan food".

What happens when local cuisine is dislocated or marginalised? Local health suffers as local cuisine is replaced with inferior imported food. Local economy suffers as food is imported, representing a loss of opportunity for local farmers and producers.

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And most importantly, cultural sense of self suffers: rejecting a nation's food is culturally destructive. One can only imagine the pizza-hurling wrath of Italian grandmothers that would be incurred should a visitor to that nation complain about its cuisine! And the same goes for Samoa - by rejecting Samoa's cuisine, we were essentially rejecting Samoa.

But in the homes and villages of Samoa, its traditional cuisine has always been alive and well. What is really exciting is that chefs in hotels, in restaurants here, are now placing Samoa proudly on the menu. There is a sort of renaissance of Samoan cuisine. Underpinning this is the organic revolution, steered by a local women's group, Women in Business Development, that has swept the nation and is making waves across the whole South Pacific region. Women in Business has fostered a staggering 700 organic family farms in little Samoa.

I was chatting to a GMO (genetically modified organisms) activist friend in New York recently who observed, "How is it that group of women in Samoa are apparently managing to do with their food systems something that world governments cannot?"

It helps that the prime minister, Tuilaepa Malielegaoi, is the head of the Pacific Organic Task Force. Imagine if leaders of larger, more "powerful" nations took a stand like this on their national food systems? What a different world this would be.

The prime minister envisages a Samoa that is 100 per cent organic in as few as 10 years.

"Food is the gateway into all cultures. For Samoa, our food expresses our intimate relationship with the land, the sea and our ancestors. We are blessed with an ocean so abundant in marine life that if we only take what we need, generations after us will also be fed from this blue food basket.

We are also blessed with fertile, volcanic soil that is capable of recovering from the worst of natural disasters. In Samoa, most of our farmers are organic by default. It has been our tradition to work with nature rather than to oppress it . . . I see organic farming as not just our past but our future."

Organics has taken hold here for a simple but profound reason: the practices and protocols of organic farming are exactly the same as those of traditional Samoan farming. For Samoan farmers, it just feels right. As Adi Tafuna'i, the executive director of Women in Business Development, says: "By going organic, we are remaining Samoan."

And tourism has changed. Gone are the days when tourists only want more of what they had at home. Today's tourist is looking for a fuller engagement with the country they are visiting, and food provides just that window to culture.

Everyone wins when you put local food into tourism: the tourist, the local cooks and chefs, the nation's economy, and the benefits keep trickling down all the way into the village where the local farmers and fishermen, coconut oil makers, jam and jelly makers, and vanilla growers have a vibrant domestic market to sustain their families.

Chefs and cooks here are realising with great pride that their cuisine - their rustic home dishes, their lovely way of sharing, their superb farmers and markets - is not only world class, it is in a class all of its own. And with the emergence of the organics movement, Samoa's professional chefs have a competitive advantage over their global peers.

I ate brilliant dishes in restaurants all over Samoa. I loved the misiluki (dried local banana) pudding at chef Dora Rossi's Paddles restaurant in Apia, Joe Lutovio Lam's innovative Polynesian cuisine at his restaurant Scalinis, the upscale Samoan fare at Apia's Bistro Tatau, hearty local pork chops smothered in koko Samoa (extraordinary local cocoa) sauce served at Horace Evans' Home Cafe.

I loved the "poke" (spiced raw tuna with sesame) at Amanaki Hotel served with crunchy seaweed and creamy coconut wedges, and the oka (raw fish and coconut) at any number of eateries here. I wolfed down the soulful watercress and shin-bone soup at E & T Sip 'n Surf Cafe in Apia, and the earth-baked umu lunch at Daphne's on Fridays. Go down to Apia's fish market early Sunday morning and join the locals as they slurp on freshly brewed kokoaraisa (a soupy rice and coconut soup flavoured with the terrific local cocoa).

Eat Lance Afoa's outstanding cuisine at Sinalei Resort - all of their supplies are sourced from organic village farmers - and the chic Samoan dishes of chef Kit Foe at Aga Reef Resort. You can't miss Pinati's in Apia - this is where the locals eat and their sapasui (Samoan chop suey) is scandalously good.

It seems to me that with its chefs bringing Samoa's own food into its primary economic driver - tourism - Samoa is proudly shaking off the last vestiges of colonialism.

So keep an eye on Samoa, folks. It's only going to get better. As the organic farms grow, you'll likely find an emerging Samoan cuisine that is healthy, likely organic and definitely Samoan.

In October, the United Nations is holding their massive SIDS conference here, and Samoa will have the eye of the world. Samoa's cuisine, its chefs and markets are poised to be its big story.

In a small island states whose chief industry is tourism, the menus are the business plan of the nation. Realise that behind the menu, there is a backstory. Samoa, a small yet determined Pacific Island nation, is stepping into the spotlight.

New Zealand chef Robert Oliver, who was raised in Samoa and Fiji, is the author of Mea'ai Samoa: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Polynesia (Random House, $50). His book Me'a Kai, The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific (Random House, $75) won Best Cookbook in the World 2010 in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.

- Sunday Star Times

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