Tag Archives: food

A Taste of Papua!

One of the most enjoyable experiences of my crossing cultures from the U.S. to visit Indonesia and the jungles of Papua includes sampling local foods. I recently traveled to Papua for a three week trek through the interior with only 30 packets of oatmeal, 30 protein bars and 60 electrolyte drink mixes, intending to procure the remainder of my foods in the villages I visited. I admit I was a bit intimidated by the “taro in the morning and sweet potato at night” diet stories I had heard, so I also brought four freeze-dried dinner meals just in case!

Broad-leafed taro in a garden.

Broad-leafed taro in a garden.

White taro, marbled taro & sweet potato: staples of the Papuan diet.

White taro, marbled taro & sweet potato: staples of the Papuan diet.

Hoga (a general term used for greens) with chunks of wogo (pig, a precious protein resource for Papuans) and rice (a relatively recent import to the island).

Hoga (a general term used for greens) with chunks of wogo (pig, a precious protein resource for Papuans) and rice (a relatively recent import to the island).

As it turned out, I didn’t need most of what I brought with the exception of the electrolyte drink mixes (the jungle is so hot & humid and I was vigilant regarding hyponatremia!) I was able to eat local, native, traditional and indigenous foods throughout my entire stay.

We buy some fruit from a child along the trail.

We buy some fruit from a child along the trail.

Stripping a sugar cane stalk.

Stripping a sugar cane stalk. The raw cane immediately rewards you with a burst of sweet, wet sugar when bitten.

Phineas enjoying sugar cane.

Phineas enjoying sugar cane.

That said, I am by no means hyper-adventurous when it comes to ingesting strange foods. Neither am I careless with regards to food & water safety protocols for travelers. I also realize, however, that almost all diarrheal illnesses are caused by infectious microorganisms which are ingested and are more common in parts of the world where food or agricultural hygienic practices are compromised or not reliably safe. So I definitely watch what I put in my mouth & where it’s been before I put it there!

Sage tree: "Sage" is pronounced with a short "a" and a long "e"

Sage tree: “Sage” is pronounced with a short “a” and a long “e”

About the size of a plump radish, sage grows on a tree, can be found in either red or white, and has a sweetish initial taste.

About the size of a plump radish, sage grows on a tree, can be found in either red or white, and has a sweetish initial taste.

Plus, contrary to popular belief, traveler’s diarrhea is not caused by food or drink to which the gut is “unaccustomed.” It is also true that most Americans have grown up with pretty good sanitation & food handling practices, and so have little or no immunity to help protect against what might in other places be considered “normal” practices.

Rabbit, chicken & pig comprise the principle meat sources for Highland Papuans. This particular rabbit earned the name "yummy bunny" from a 14-month old child who was given a little bit of leg to eat!

Rabbit, chicken & pig comprise the principle meat sources for Highland Papuans. This particular rabbit earned the name “yummy bunny” from a 14-month old child who was given a little bit of leg to eat!

The reddish tinge seen in the hair of some of these tekah (kindergarten) children has been cited as an indicator that their diets lack sufficient protein.

The reddish tinge seen in the hair of some of these tekah (kindergarten) children has been cited as an indicator that their diets lack sufficient protein.

Fishing in Lake Sentani adds a healthy protein source for people living there. Fish was abundant in the markets.

Fishing in Lake Sentani adds a healthy protein source for people living there. Fish was abundant in the markets.

This beautiful old avocado tree bore an enormous amount of fruit.

This beautiful old avocado tree bore an enormous amount of fruit.

Finally, it would without a doubt be exceedingly cumbersome to import a full menu from home. Practically speaking, with the severe weight restrictions on flights into New Guinea (often a 20 kg max) or the associated exorbitant costs of additional baggage to do so, and the limited variety of familiar foods, even if one shops at commissaries preferred by the expat community, eating at least some local foods becomes a necessity. Let’s be real, though, it’s just plain tasty, interesting and fun to do so.

Papua is rich in its variety of fruits. This grapefruit-like fruit (called a pamalo) tasted sweet like a succulent orange.

Papua is rich in its variety of fruits. This grapefruit-like fruit (called a pamalo) tasted sweet like a succulent orange.

Deserts ... Papuan style!

Deserts … Papuan style!

Rice squares packaged in a bamboo sheath & a tasty mixed vegetable soup served as part of a dinner meal.

Rice squares packaged in a bamboo sheath & a tasty mixed vegetable soup served as part of a dinner meal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a taste of Papua!

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So Wogo Saigia

Being invited to an afternoon wogo saigia (pig roast) demonstrated to me the second of two extremely hospitable Moni cultural practices.

The first practice involved welcoming travelers into an nduni (men’s hut; seen in my last post). Each village or clan enclave provides an opportunity for travelers to rest or spend an evening in an nduni prior to continuing their travels. No cost is incurred by the traveler, but the customary expectation for reciprocation exists; that is, everyone is expected to offer respite for a traveler.

The second practice reflects a similar generosity and involves welcoming a visitor to a meal. If a guest joins a meal, whether invited (as in our case) or not (a “walk-in,” if you will), the expectation to extend an invitation and share that meal exists.

I am curious how these practices originated, but I might venture a guess that in terrain as rough as the highlands of Papua, a little generosity goes a long way in building alliances. I welcome your thoughts & comments.

The wogo saigia I experienced was primarily a celebration honoring a visiting missionary family (the folks who hosted me) who had spent much of their life and energy in this village. Such roasts are reserved for great occasions and typically become an all-day and extremely social event. A recent epidemic, however, had decimated a large part of the local pig population, so our wogo saigia wisely morphed into a saigia of veggies, hoga, and so wogo, rabbit. Super tasty as well!

Start by digging a hole in the ground large enough to hold all the veggies and meats that you wish to cook, as well as banana leaf linings and hot rocks needed to make this oven functional. Our host was serving approximately 20 people, so our hole was about a foot deep and 3 feet in diameter.

Gathering all the veggies and preparing the animals took a couple of hours. Of course, a healthy amount of friendly socializing & play kept the work of cooking festive, not unlike the outdoor bbqs of my childhood.

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Everybody joined in to help prepare the rabbit, chicken, sweet potatoes, taro, corn, squash, and a variety of tasty greens.

A little bonfire heated the cooking rocks. Those rocks, transported via forked sticks into the waiting hands of someone who would wrap them in banana leaves, were then carefully placed into the oven.

Cover it all up with additional greens and roughly three hours later … voilà! …. a tasty celebration with plenty for all … including two uninvited, but welcomed – as per hospitable culture – guests.

Enjoy!