Traditional Foods and Cooking in Papua New Guinea

The role of living, location and conditions: Where ethnic Papua New Guineans (PNG) live has a considerable impact on their diets, nutrition outcomes and food preparation techniques. Urban Papua New Guineans may have access to electricity, gas and other modern conveniences whereas a large proportion of those living in rural areas and remote villages continue to live a very traditional lifestyle. The traditional lifestyle involves living in huts, practicing subsistence farming, hunting for game, fishing and gathering wild fruits and vegetables. In these areas it is also usual to cook food directly over hot coals, in pots over open fires, or in ground ovens (mumu). When cash is available, food such as rice, canned fish and canned meat may also be purchased to supplement the diet. Eighty-five percent of ethnic Papua New Guineans are engaged in subsistence agriculture.

Factors thought to influence food practices and intake

  • Living location and its accessibility, topography, soil and climate
  • Economic status
  • Degree of adoption of ‘Western’ vs. traditional lifestyle
  • Access to government assistance.

Common Foods

Staples of the traditional PNG diet include fish, seafood, sago, sweet potato (kaukau), taro, taro leaf, cassava, cassava leaf, breadfruit, edible leafy greens (kumu), coconut and fruits. The traditional meat is pork, which is often eaten on special occasions. It is also a form of currency, with a number of pigs an individual, family or clan owns determining their wealth and status in the community. Coconut milk is the predominant liquid cooking medium but was traditionally used only in coastal regions. Snacks usually comprise fresh fruits, nuts and berries.

In most villages, the main foods eaten today are still those noted by Europeans at first contact: root vegetables (taro, yam and sweet potato), bananas and plantains, sago, green leafy vegetables, marsupials, birds, fish and shellfish. These are frequently supplemented by imported canned fish and rice. Many new fruits and vegetables have been introduced in the last 100 years and are widely grown and liked, but cassava is the only important addition to the list of starchy staples. In many regions most protein is supplied by green leafy vegetables. Pork is mainly reserved for feasts. In towns and adjacent villages bread, chicken and pork are added to the basic diet of canned fish, rice and vegetables in the better-off households. Beer and soft drinks are popular and produced locally. PNG is not self-sufficient in food. In 1988 an estimated 20 percent of food consumed was imported. Poor transport and marketing facilities make it difficult for highland producers to supply coastal towns. In 1989 food imports accounted for 15 percent of the value of total imports.

Until after World War II an estimated 95 percent of the population was entirely dependent for food upon subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering and, where possible, fishing. In 1992 an estimated 85 percent of the population were wholly, or partly, dependent upon subistence activities. Seasonal crops such as yams and taro are cultivated in gardens, tree crops such as sago and coconuts either grow wild or are planted near villages where they are tended. Men usually clear and prepare the ground, build fences (to keep out pigs) and, in some areas, help in planting and harvesting. Women and girls plant, harvest and tend the gardens during the growing period.

Until the introduction of metal, the main tools were stone axes and wooden digging sticks. Today, digging sticks are often tipped with metal, such as pieces of piping; stone axes have been replaced by imported steel axes; and bush knives (machetes) and other imported metal tools are used occasionally. Land use depends on the terrain, soil, climate and population density of the area. In the lowlands, a system of shifting agriculture and bush fallow is mostly used. In the highlands, where the density of population puts greater pressure on usable land, more intensive systems are needed and in some places imported artificial fertilizers are used. Traditional rituals still accompany planting and harvesting in most parts of PNG.

Regional Variations

There are distinct regional variations in cuisine, especially between the highlands regions and the coastal regions. Coastal regions traditionally use coconut milk/cream as a cooking liquid whilst those from the Highlands regions do not. Whilst access to fish and seafood is lower in the Highlands compared with the Coastal regions, the Highlands’ rich, fertile soils produce green vegetables, root vegetables and support game animals which form a significant part of the Highland people’s diets. The soil in Coastal regions is not as fertile and therefore the major nutrition sources are coconut and sago palms, as well as fish and seafood. In the Gulf region, meat is often not available and therefore the diet consists largely of coconut and vegetables.

Sources of Food

Westernised/modern/urban lifestyle: Papua New Guineans who are more affluent or employed may have adequate income to purchase food rather than relying on subsistence agriculture. In urban areas imported food products are available for those with money to purchase and fresh local produce may be purchased daily from the markets.

Traditional/’village’/primitive lifestyle: People living a traditional lifestyle tend to eat traditional foods. Men hunt for meat and fish, gather firewood and women are responsible for gathering the edible greens, fruit, seafood and starchy components of the meal, such as yams and taro from their gardens and sago from their family plots. In remote areas where there is minimal outside influence and no commerce or job prospects bartering food is a common practice.

Cooking Methods

  • Westernised/modern/urban lifestyle: When electricity or gas is available, cooking may take place on a western-style stove or on a portable gas stove.
  • Traditional/’village’/primitive lifestyle: Food may be cooked directly over an open fire, in a pot over an open fire, in ground ovens (mumu’s) or when available, over a portable gas stove. Frying food is not traditional as oil is not readily available.

Access to Clean Water

Access to treated/safe drinking water is greater in urban areas (87% of households) compared to rural areas (33% of households). In village areas, where people still live primitively with no electricity or running water, rain water is sometimes collected in tanks or large drums. Some villages have access to natural spring drinking water which they fetch daily.

Access to Modern Appliances

In the past, food was cooked in clay pots over an open fire, but this custom died out generations ago, now when pots and pans and other cooking utensils are often used. As noted above, in urban areas, those in Western-style houses may have electric stoves.

Eating Style

  • Westernised/modern/urban lifestyle: Eating utensils such as those used in the west may be used, but elders and children may continue to eat with their hands. Many people sit on chairs at tables to eat whereas elders may prefer to sit on the floor to eat.
  • Traditional/’village’/primitive lifestyle: Communal eating is an integral part of PNG society and, at mealtimes, food is shared amongst neighboring households. Sharing of food and not overeating are considered important social conduct. Whilst modern utensils are used to a certain extent it is very common for people to eat with their hands. Meals are eaten sitting around the fireplace in the centre of the hut. A hierarchy exists relating to the distribution of food. For example, it is customary for males, father/head of the household, firstborn male, firstborn female, then other members in order of age, to be served first and also receive larger portions. Guests and VIPs are also given preferential treatment. Whilst men and women eat together, men and boys go first. The mother gets the least or goes without if needed.

Frequency of Meals

  • Westernised/modern/urban lifestyle: Three meals a day.
  • Traditional/’village’/primitive lifestyle: Two meals per day are eaten as people are away from their homes during the day, tending to animals, hunting and foraging for food in the forest. Food is prepared daily and snacks such as raw cucumber, raw sugarcane, fruits and berries serve as snacks throughout the day. The morning meal often consists of cooked foods such as corn or sweet potato (kaukau) that are cooked over hot coals. The evening meal is the main meal.

Main Meal

  • Coastal/Island Regions: Both morning and evening meals contained similar foods. Eating starchy foods such as rice, root vegetables or possibly fried sago in the morning was common, and still is for those who continue with traditional work, as this is digested slowly to lead to satiation over the day. These are often served with meat if it is available. A similar meal is eaten at dinner.
  • Highlands/Inland Regions: The main meal is eaten in the evening and consists of cooked food such as green vegetables, gourd vegetables, starchy vegetables such as tapioca, kaukau and meat which are boiled in pots or in traditional bamboo.

Cooking For Special Events

  • Different regions and islands have different special foods.
  • In coastal/island regions, foods for special events often consist of the same foods that are usually available and eaten but they are prepared in different ways. For example, on special occasions, taro will be pounded, which involves more preparation, before being mixed with coconut oil.
  • Pork and taro are considered to be special foods used in ceremonies in some PNG regions. These may have been exchanged between families from different tribes from neighbouring villages.
  • Mumus (steam cooking in a ground oven) are generally prepared at special celebrations however, sometimes a family may have a mumu on occasion when food is plentiful.
  • A mumu can take up a full day from beginning to end and it involves a lot of work and preparation.
  • In the highlands/inland region, mumu’s are prepared for special occasions. Although women predominantly do the cooking, a mumu is a much larger scale form of preparing and cooking, and often requires the cooperation of other adult family members, where men collect the stones, prepare the firewood, heat the stones, and kill and prepare the animal, while the women collect, wash and prepare the food ready for placing in the mumu.
  • At big feasts, extended families and close friends share the same mumu to cook their food. When the food, and the meat in particular, is ready, it is allocated according to social customs as noted above in ‘eating style’.
  • Coconut oil (more commonly used in coastal/island regions) is very special – used only on special occasions.
  • Yams – in some parts of PNG these are used as a special food eg in marriage, death. Some cultures within PNG celebrate harvest festivals of yams, such as on Manus Island and the Trobriand Islands.

Meal Preparation Responsibilities

  • Westernised/modern/urban lifestyle: Women make daily trips to the open/wet markets to source fresh produce. Supermarkets may also be used. Women prepare the meals. The husband is usually the breadwinner however when both work, domestic assistance (‘house meri’ or ‘house boy’) is usually hired to carry out domestic chores and sometimes prepare meals.
  • Traditional/’village’/primitive lifestyle: Women then to gather fruits, vegetables and small firewood. Foods may be gathered from the wild (eg ‘mareta’ (red or edible seeds of pandanas plants growing wild), wild ferns, wichetti grubs, frogs, berries, fruits and edible plants and flowers) or from crops grown in clan/family plots. They also care for small children and smaller domesticated animals. Men gather large firewood, huntand care for larger animals such as pigs or cows (if wealthy enough to own any). Women do most of the cooking but men assist on special occasions.

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