An Introduction to Samoan Custom
CHAPTER VII — Food and Meals
Food and Meals
There is something distinctive and interesting about the foods and cooking methods of every people. In the course of centuries, special techniques are evolved and improved which make, according to local taste, the best possible use of the simple things of life provided by nature. Long before the time of European contacts, Samoa had developed its own culinary response to a tropical environment, and now more than a century of experience with another culture has left the basic foodstuffs and methods of preparation substantially unchanged. Some concessions, of course, have been inevitable, and imported food in tins admittedly has its place even in ceremonial life; but the land and sea can always be relied on for their bounty and it is of interest to examine the extent to which the people still depend upon what nature provides, and the ingenuity with which such things are employed for man's nourishment and enjoyment. The subject of food and its preparation is of more than passing interest to us all; it is of special interest in the case of a people whose lives are so different from our own.
The method employed for cooking most Samoan foods involves heating over hot stones; this avoids a good deal of the loss inseparable from European boiling or roasting. The Samoan earth oven is actually not a true oven at all. In the rear of dwelling houses there will usually be seen a roughly thatched shelter, constructed without blinds or a built-up floor, over a heap of well-fired stones. This is the cooking hearth where the daily oven (umu) is prepared and where certain other cooking with European utensils also takes place.
The oven is not constructed in a pit. It is formed either on the level ground or in a very shallow depression. To keep the fuel and stones together, four logs, banana stems or coconut leaf midribs which do not burn readily, are arranged in the form of a square. The fire is lighted and when it is burning well the oven stones are arranged page 70 over the flaming wood, the handling and placing process being facilitated by the use of home-made tongs (i'ofi), a folded section of coconut leaf midrib, which are also useful later in disposing the heated stones about the food. The cooking stones themselves are carefully selected basaltic specimens collected from the beds of streams and beaches,* in size approximately that of a small, closed fist. There are many good firewoods, some like tufaso, toi, lopa and 'o'a which are better than others, and a few woods to be avoided, like moso'oi and pu'a, that will not burn at all. The mangrove, togo, which grows on tidal flats, is a famous hard and hot firewood which may be used as soon as cut; there is no doubt of the efficacy of the cooking process when this fuel is employed. As the only function of the fuel is to heat the stones, the speed with which it burns, wet or dry, and the heat produced, are important. Fuel that is poor or slow burning fails to heat the stones sufficiently, in which case the cooking takes a good deal longer, or may even fail altogether of its purpose. This bad result the boys, who are responsible for oven cooking, naturally try to avoid, because this work is an important part of their service to the matai and the family generally. This method of cooking is untitled men's work and is far from being considered menial. It is a dignified occupation and something of an art.
The collection of firewood or any rubbish that will serve as oven fuel becomes something of a problem to the urban dwellers around Apia. All rubbish suitable for cooking fuel is carefully put aside for that purpose, and children are sent to the beaches and mangrove swamps to collect heavier material. Two rivers, the Vaisigano and the Mulivai, discharge into Apia Harbour, and in times of heavy rains they bring down large logs from the upper reaches of the rivers. These dot the discoloured harbour water in all directions or are cast up by high tides and collected eagerly. Small boys enjoy riding the longs and paddling them ashore.
* Ordinary porous lava stones are unsuitable for this purpose, as they crumble under the influence of heat.
Yams (ufi), taro and ta'amu are tubers, and breadfruit, varying in size with different varieties from a large green cricket-ball to a small football, is the fruit of a tree, of which the reddish timber is highly prized for house-building. All these foods except ta'amu are scraped with utensils ('asi) made from half coconut shells sharpened along the edge, large specimens being divided as required for facility in cooking. The skin of ta'amu is sliced off with a knife. The skins are removed from yams, taro and ta'amu because of irritant or astringent properties in those parts of the tubers. All these foods are placed direct in the oven without wrapping, although there is a method of cooking taro (talo fa'ataisi) in which the root is cut up into a number of smaller portions and cooked in a banana leaf. This produces white cooked taro of good appearance for certain ceremonial purposes.
There are over twenty local varieties of yams which are not as freely used as other starchy foods but are valuable in periods of shortage of other crops. They are an excellent famine food as they may remain in the ground and continue to grow until required. Propagation is secured by planting portions of the tuber showing eyes or growing shoots. Ta'amu, a large relative of the taro, is very popular and is also a good stand-by food since it may remain in the ground and continue to grow, the tubers perhaps reaching several feet in length. A fair proportion of the growth takes place above ground level. Taro, the most popular tuber of all and important for ceremonial purposes, of which there are between thirty and forty local varieties, comes to maturity page 72 in six to eight months and must then be harvested, as too long in the ground softens the root and destroys its keeping qualities when harvested. It does not exceed a few pounds in weight and grows below ground level, rather like the European swede turnip, although with a much larger crown of leaves. In any case, the tuber cannot be kept unused in the best condition for very much longer than a week or ten days. Both taro and ta'amu are propagated by replanting the severed growing head of the tuber itself; this is trimmed short by cutting off the large green leaves, left lying on the ground in the shade for a few days and then replanted. These crops also develop side shoots alongside the parent tuber and if the shoots are allowed to make growth for a few weeks they may be transplanted.
The breadfruit is a seasonal crop, but the different varieties, of which there are over twenty, come to harvest twice or three times annually in different months of the year. New trees are established by severing and replanting the shoots which develop from the roots of the tree.
Bananas (fa'i) of different varieties are placed whole and green in the oven, either in their skins or after having had the skin split off; old people sometimes like them cooked in their skins. Small wooden or bamboo utensils called fofo'e are always used to peel off the banana skins. There are approximately thirty varieties of banana named by the Samoans, only one of which is preferred for export, although two are actually suitable, but for various purposes most of the local varieties are used by the people. The banana is a large herbaceous plant which when full-grown can attain a height of from ten to twenty or more feet, surmounted by a crown of glossy green leaves six to ten feet long and two or more feet broad. The plant is actually for the most part leaf, for the pillar or stem really consists of leaf-bases enswathing one another. It has a perennial root which produces buds developing into shoots or suckers from which the plant is propagated; growth is so rapid that the fruit under good conditions is usually ripe within ten months of planting the offshoots. The flower bud or spike develops in the base of the plant and passes up the centre of the stem until it emerges from the crown of leaves; the flowers are arranged in whorl-like clusters along the spike, females at the base and males at the apex. When the flower emerges from the crown it droops sideways on a long stalk, and the bunch in most varieties is pendulous, but in three local varieties, the soa'a, soa'ase and puputa or sulasula, the bunches develop upright. In another, similar in appearance to the type that is page 73 exported, the plant throws two or three bunches at once, the fruit being rather smaller than is usually the case with single bunches. When bananas are harvested, the plant is cut down and left lying where it falls to rot back into the ground. This encourages the growth of the young shoots or suckers. The average weight of a good bunch of the export variety, bearing up to 200 bananas, is 40 to 70 pounds, but an exceptional bunch may turn the scales at 90 pounds. The ripe banana is a nutritive treasure of carbohydrates, the energy value per pound being about 480 calories. The Samoan cooking process employs the leaves both for wrapping food and for covering the lower levels of the oven. They are also useful as emergency umbrellas in wet weather. The juicy stem produces a deep ineffaceable brown stain, and sections of the dried leaves are used for rolling Samoan cigarettes of the local tobacco.
Kumeras, of which there are several local varieties, are not especially popular and would never be offered at a formal feast, but some families plant small areas from time to time for personal use. The introduced manioc is not a staple food but is eaten if other tubers are in short supply. There are two principal varieties, the red, coarse root with a thick skin, and the white, palatable type with a thin skin. The white variety is the one more usually consumed; the red is very useful for the manufacture of washing starch. There is also a local arrowroot or starch plant, masoa, from which is prepared the edible starch that is employed in the preparation of dishes to be mentioned later in this chapter.
The coconut palm (niu) of which about ten of the 35 known species are found in Samoa, is one of nature's outstanding contributions to the Samoan way of life; perhaps it would be just as true to say that the tree has played a part in moulding the Samoan way of life. The tall stem is surmounted by a crown of between twenty and thirty pinnate leaves up to sixteen or more feet in length. The butt end is so heavy as to constitute a danger in a high wind and was formerly used in the old sport of club fighting. It is a year-round, not a seasonal crop, and flowers and nuts in all stages of development may be seen on the same palm. Flowers commence to appear about the fifth year. It begins to produce at the age of 6 to 8 years, reaches full commercial production in the ninth year, may ultimately reach a height of up to 60 feet and if growing at a low elevation near the sea, say not above 300 feet or more than two miles inland, it continue producing for upwards of 100 years. Production begins to decline, page 74 however, after 50 years. On an average in favourable circumstances, a tree produces one to two nuts a week, or 20 to 40 pounds of dried copra a year.* Under commercial plantation conditions 48 trees are planted to the acre.† A ripe fallen nut puts out a shoot and takes root under suitable conditions even if it is not deliberately planted. Samoans use every portion of the tree, the trunk, all parts of the leaves, the husk, the kernel, the shell, the milk, the growing head,‡ bark, roots, and flowers for many purposes that cover house-building and other forms of construction, curios, tools, weaving, cooking, planting, fighting, road-building, carrying water, medicine, cleaning, ceremonial purposes, annointing the body, fishing, baits and lures, lighting, heating, fuel, clothes, games, toys, adornments, decorating, equipment and food. The total number of its separate uses extends to something not far short of two hundred.§
* The drying process results in a shrinkage of about 46 per cent. The commercial copra that remains has an oil content of up to 70 per cent.
† Lines are laid out with thirty feet between each tree. The Germans planted blocks with 25 trees to a line. Fallen nuts were collected in donkey baskets which held 25, with the intention in theory that one collection along each line once a week would fill one to two baskets.
‡ This is the so-called “million-dollar” salad, enjoyment of which involves the death of the tree.
§ The author is indebted to Mr. D. R. Eden, General Manager of the New Zealand Reparation Estates, for statistical information relating to the coconut printed in this chapter. The following figures averaged from a number of nuts are also of interest. The weight of a nut as it dropped from the tree was 43.01 ozs, of the husk and shell, 31.475 ozs and of the green copra extracted, 11.625 ozs. The thickness of the meat adhering to the shell was .50 inches. The longitudinal diameter inside the shell was 4.015 inches and the transverse diameter 3.57 inches. Allowing for a shrinkage of 46 per cent, these figures would require 5,709 nuts for the production of one ton of dried copra but from a young plantation in good production, only 4,556 nuts are required. Experiments to take out these figures were conducted by Mr. Alistair Stewart of Vailele Plantation.
The first such dish that warrants description is the greatly esteemed palusami, which includes the only green vegetable consumed by Samoans. This is stated by Krämer to have been invented by Malietoa Vaiinupo, who died in 1841, so that if this is so, the dish is not much more than a hundred years old. It is compounded of young taro leaf shoots, salt water and coconut cream, and there is a growing habit in these days of adding lemon juice or sliced onions. The coconut cream, into which a hot stone may have been dropped to bring out the flavour, is mixed with salt water and then the young taro shoots or tender ends of the leaves are added. Portions of the mixture are placed in not too mature taro leaves, termed a “dress” ('ofu), and then the dress itself is wrapped in sections of heated banana leaf which is impervious to liquids. Finally, the whole bundle is folded into a breadfruit leaf. The 'ofu are placed in a cooler part of the oven as it does not require a fierce heat to reduce the taro shoots and leaves to a soft, pulpy mass. The coconut cream sets like a custard under the influence of the heat of the oven. A simpler preparation of the taro leaf shoots, without coconut cream, may be cooked in the same way. This is not so well liked as palusami.
* Young octopus, well cooked, especially the portion round the head, tastes a good deal better than it sounds to Europeans unused to such delicacies. The tentacles are perhaps a little rubbery unless well cooked. Canned octopus, especially the smaller varieties, may be purchased in Mediterranean countries; it is surprisingly good. Both men and women catch the octopus, but by different methods. Men operate from canoes in deep water alongside the reef and entice the victim to take hold of a lure which is lowered into the water. Women wade about the lagoon and reef at low tide and induce the octopus to take hold of a stick twirled about in the crevices of rocks and coral. But both men and women kill the catch by the same method—a quick bite in the region of the eyes. This is more entertaining to watch than to emulate. The octopus, it may be added, occupies a position of some importance in the mythology of the country.
A different method of Samoan cooking is that which employs hot stones dropped into liquids in wooden bowls. Starch is mixed in a bowl with water and glowing hot stones from the oven added and stirred about. When the starch is sufficiently heated, coconut cream is mixed in. When the whole is cooked together the stones are removed and the fairly solid mixture cut into pieces. This is called piasua.
Vaisalo is a starch soup that is served hot in coconut shell cups. The juice or water from young nuts is placed in a bowl. The soft half-ripe coconut meat from the same nuts is rubbed small with strips of the skin of a coconut leaf midrib (alava) and a liquid is then wrung out of the meat with the alava into the bowl. The small solid particles of coconut that may remain are rejected or not, as desired. Hot stones are added until the mixture boils, and last of all starch is stirred in until it is well cooked. The dish is palatable and nourishing, and is regarded as especially suitable for sick people and nursing mothers.
Fa'ausi is the term for hot taro dumplings served in individual woven baskets or platters. Raw taro is grated and cooked in banana leaves in the oven. Coconut cream is heated in a wooden bowl with hot stones until an oil separates from the solidified mass; the taro is then cut into cubes and served in the woven platters with the coconut cream oil poured over it.
Large sections of taro may also be cooked with coconut cream. Raw slices of the tuber are wrapped in banana leaves with a dressing of cream and are often allowed to cook in an oven all night. This dish is called loloitalo, and is frequently prepared to mark the completion of a village fishing net and before it is used for the first time.
Grated or whole, skinned bananas may be placed in wrappings of banana leaves with coconut cream and cooked in the oven. This is termed loloifa'i.
Grilled or roasted breadfruit cooked direct over the hot stones without any covering of leaves may also be specially prepared with coconut cream or eaten simply after being dipped into the cream. Hot breadfruit straight from the oven is skinned and pounded or mashed in a bowl. Sea water for flavouring may be added or not as desired, but if not, hot stones are often placed in the bowl for flavouring purposes after coconut cream has been added generously. Two forms of this dish are therefore distinguished, the first, page 77 taufolo sami, to which sea water is added and in which the lumps of the breadfruit are pinched off with the fingers, and second, taufolo niu, to which hot stones have been added, in which the portions of breadfruit are divided off with stiff sections of alava used as tongs. Both forms of the dish are served hot on breadfruit leaves, well garnished with the cream. It is very popular when chiefs and orators are assembled, and when visitors are being entertained. It is always offered as a special refreshment between meals and not as part of a regular meal.
Some of these dishes may be prepared also with yam but they are not so common.
Banana poi is very popular with gat erings of chiefs (being frequently called Samoan ice cream). Ripe bananas are peeled and crushed in a bowl until reduced to a smooth pulp. Lemon juice and fresh water are added and mixed well, and finally coconut cream. It is a rich and nourishing dish which is consumed in large quantities between regular meals, either from coconut cups or glasses. Samoans who live near Apia add ice whenever it can be obtained.
There are two other fruit dishes, suafa'i and suaesi, made respectively with bananas and papaya, or mummy apple. Either ripe bananas or papaya are cut up small and boiled in a cooking pot with water. Starch flour is stirred in and finally coconut cream is added. It may be served hot or cold.
A process of ripening certain varieties of bananas by artificial means for use at Samoan feasts is termed fa'avevela and has a respectful significance because of the trouble and preparation involved. A pit is dug some three or more feet in depth, lined with banana leaves, and the bunches of bananas which are sometimes dipped first in sea water are then arranged in such a manner as to leave a space for heating material in one corner. Coconut husks and other materials that smoulder well are then lighted and deposited in the space provided. Sticks and leaves are arranged over the bananas and finally a covering of earth seals off the ripening chamber. The process is complete in approximately five days, and produces ripe ceremonial fruit at exactly the time required.
* In these days cabin bread or biscuit is also called masi.
Fresh fruits are consumed casually rather than at regular meals. Pineapples, mangoes, nonu (the Samoan apple) and vi are all eaten in season. Bananas and esi (papaya) are eaten casually, especially by young people working in plantations; but the ceremonial banana referred to above is important on more formal occasions. Sugar cane often has a place in feasts and at other times is eaten particularly by children who tear off the rough, outer skin with their teeth. Samoan children are much addicted to eating mangoes and vi in their green state, a practice that is due in part at least to the fact that flying-foxes attack the ripe or nearly ripe fruit. Lemon, lime and orange drinks and prepared cordials are all coming into increasing use, especially in entertaining visitors, Samoan taste in this matter, as in regard to the use of tea, cocoa and coffee, leaning towards heavily sweetened liquids. The Samoan diet contains more than a sufficiency of carbohydrates without sweet drinks and it is perhaps significant that the people are beginning to recognise an illness that they correctly term ma'i suka, the sugar sickness, or diabetes.
Pigs are usually killed by strangling immediately before preparation for cooking by the pressure of a wooden bar across the throat. The blood and abdominal and intestinal fat are carefully collected and cooked in banana leaves over hot stones, and are greatly prized as a delicacy. Other internal organs such as the heart, liver or kidneys, are sometimes chopped up, dressed in banana leaves and cooked similarly. There is a common but incorrect impression among page 79 Europeans that Samoans prefer pork poorly cooked but this overlooks the fact that large animals are partly cooked for presentation and facility in ceremonial division with the intention that the distributed portions should receive additional cooking later. After killing, the pig is scalded with hot water and scraped clean of hair. The insides are then removed and the whole carcase placed in the oven after the abdominal cavity has been filled with mango, fau or 'o'a leaves and hot stones to assist the cooking process.
Samoans eat poultry but not the eggs, although there is a growing practice of eating the latter, which are used freely enough in any case for the baking of cakes. Fowls may be boiled in the European fashion, cooked in a Samoan oven, or grilled direct over the hot stones. Pigeons are extremely popular in season and are cooked in the same way as fowls, except that many portions of the entrails are cooked with the bird and consumed, being considered to be “clean”. Pigeons in a good season can become so fat that on hitting the ground after being shot, they frequently burst.
* The turtle is, of course, a lung-breathing animal belonging to a sub-class of reptiles, the meat rather resembling a coarse beef. The choice portions for Europeans, if they are properly cooked, are fillets from the fore-flippers. The well known turtle-shell of commerce is taken from sections of the carapace of a particular species, the hawk-billed turtle (Chelone imbricata). The commoner variety is the green-back, but both are edible. Turtle eggs, which are laid only in a few localities, are deposited some hundreds at a laying, and resemble soft greyish-white billiard balls. A peculiarity of the turtle egg is that the white, or albumen, does not solidify on boiling. The heart of the turtle continues to beat for some hours after it is taken from the body, even against the pressure of a closed fist. Turtles are caught in large nets, generally as the common effort of an entire village or village section, working with a considerable number of canoes.
The sea-foods are very popular with Samoans, fresh fish being that form of flesh which is most inexpensively obtained and commonly consumed. Small fish, unscaled and ungutted, are wrapped in banana or breadfruit leaves, and the bundles termed afi, while large fish in the same condition are plaited into coconut leaf dressings termed laui'a; both are placed in the oven in that form. Afi may also have coconut cream added to prepare fai'ai i'a or fish fai'ai. These words, afi and laui'a, are the terms employed in describing the fish in any ceremonial presentation. Certain varieties such as the bonito, the mullet, the flying fish and the atule are enjoyed in a raw state, sections of the fish being served in coconut cups of sea water mixed with a little blood, coconut cream or lemon juice, and then consumed. Fish that are consumed raw may also be cooked if desired, and the miti sauce, pe'epe'e, to which sea water or perhaps lemon juice has been added, is also a favourite flavouring for foods other than raw fish. Fish are cooked ungutted because certain of the cleaner parts of the entrails are also consumed. Octopus, crayfish, lobsters, shrimps, fresh-water and sea eels, oysters, many kinds of crabs, faisua, (a variety of Tridacna), smaller shell-fish and cockies are all popular. The entrails of other marine animals are greatly relished, particularly sea. Octopus, lobsters, crayfish and crabs are cooked but other sea-foods are consumed in the raw state. Sea-eggs and an edible mud worm (ipo) are eaten raw, and the famous palolo, a coral worm that rises to the surface for breeding purposes on only a few mornings in the year, is cooked in leaf “dresses.” Crabs, lobsters and crayfish may be boiled in European fashion but may also be placed in a Samoan oven in the upper levels of the leaf coverings, not too near the hot stones.
The palolo (Eunice viridis) is an edible annelid, a segmented sea worm that lives in the crevices of coral reefs. At dawn eight days after full moon, in October or November, the rear portion of the worm, perhaps three quarters of its length, breaks off from the head, and, full of egg-cells or sperm-cells, bursts or breaks into fragments in the water. The swarming is therefore a wedding journey during which the cells are fertilised; the male is reddish brown in colour and the female bluish green. The head portion, of which the average diameter is about one-sixth of an inch, remains in page 81 the coral and grows a new body which is much finer, not exceeding in diameter one third or one quarter that of the head. The total length of the worm before it divides and bursts is from 9 to 18 inches. The body is cylindrical, tapering slightly at both ends, divided into many hundreds of nearly equal joints, each of which has a small tuft of gills on either side. There is a periodical internal change in the worm when it becomes reproductive and restless, and in a manner that is not yet clearly understood, this is somehow connected with external changes, especially the time of year, the phase of the moon, and the sunrise. Each segment in the rear free-swimming portion of the worm bears on its abdominal surface a prominent pigmented spot, an abdominal eye, and it has been suggested that the swarming may be due to thermotrophic or heliotrophic influences on that organ.
The palolo is not peculiar to Samoa; it is known also in Fiji, Tonga, the Solomons, Gilberts, New Hebrides, Moluccas, Banks Islands, New Britain, New Ireland, the Trobriand Islands, Bermuda, the Malay Straits and Japan. It may be found other than at the prophesied times in Samoa by breaking off sections of the coral rock in places where it normally swarms, and it is a local peculiarity that the major risings in the islands of Upolu and Savaii usually occur at intervals of four weeks.
A checked list of edible Samoan fish, which is probably far from exhaustive, totals 265 varieties. A dozen or so others are either poisonous in whole or in part, and either in certain localities or different times of the year, or stages of growth. It is claimed that some fish are poisonous in certain localities because of the local prevalence of the 'ana, a small coral-like seaweed on which the fish concerned are stated to feed. Others are not eaten from a feeling of repugnance derived from their habits, and the dolphin goes free for traditional reasons.
Shark, cooked in the usual manner, is a popular food as well as being a fish of ceremonial significance, although in common with other types of fish prepared in that fashion, it is a little dry to European palates. This great fish of ill repute is caught from a canoe; by a system of lures and changed baits at different stages it is induced to enter a rope noose which is drawn tight in the region of the dorsal fin. The shark is then allowed to tow the canoe until exhausted, at which stage it is drawn half out of the water and clubbed on the nose, which is the region of the nerve centres.
Another seasonal delicacy, although not restricted to page 82 such a short period as the palolo, is the inaga, the young fry of the fresh water fish apofu which ascends the rivers about the time of palolo in October or November. These may be termed the Samoan “whitebait,” and, although black in appearance, are quite as much a delicacy as the New Zealand variety. They may be seen in season at the mouths of the Vaisigano or Mulivai rivers in Apia, and in particular ascending the Falefa Falls, some 18 miles east of Apia.* Wherever the rock of the falls is moist with water or spray, they make their progress up the face of the thirty-foot wall by short active jumps. For assistance in gripping the rocks, there is one sucker on the under-surface of the fish. They are cooked in leaf “dresses” like palolo.
We may digress here to discuss an even more remarkable fish, from two to five inches in length, and one of the most interesting known to science, the mud-skipper or mangrove-hopper (Periophthalmus barbarus Linnaeus). This is one species of the three living mud-fishes or lung-fishes which may be seen in large numbers in the mangrove swamps at Mulinu'u or at the base of the retaining wall about Apia Harbour. It is abundant also in the sluggish and brackish waters in the mouths of streams in the Territory.
This extraordinary little fish constitutes one of the few living links between ordinary fishes with a two-chambered heart and amphibians in which the heart is three-chambered. These double-breathing fishes, or Dipnoi, breathe both by gills and by a lung which has arisen as a transformed swim-bladder; they have a pulmonary circulation involving blood vessels to and from the lungs. The heart is almost three-chambered, for there is an incomplete partition in the receiving chamber or auricle. There is also a single large vein bringing impure blood back to the heart from the posterior body; this is called the inferior vena cava and is present in all animals including amphibians from the mud-fishes to man. The Dipnoi have also many-celled glands in their skins, unlike most of the skin glands in other fishes which are single goblet-like cells making slime.
* In November, 1945, a catch of palolo and specimens of inaga from Falefa Falls had the distinction of being flown to England, preserved in formalin and glycerine, for scientific dissection and examination at Reading University.
This is perhaps sufficient on the subject of types of food and their preparation to give a general idea of the methods employed. We may now pass to the question of custom relating to actual meals themselves.
Samoans who live in or near Apia and particularly those who are in receipt of a regular income, are rather more addicted than their fellows to the use of bread, butter, various forms of buns or cakes, sausages, onions, salt meat, and tinned meat, fish and biscuits; but whenever bread, biscuits and tinned meat or fish can be obtained in other parts of the country, they are much in evidence at Samoan functions like weddings, election feasts to titles, funerals, Church gatherings or openings of cricket pitches.
As mentioned elsewhere, matai eat first and are served by the women of the family or the young people. Where a matai and his wife are alone without guests, they may eat together, but this is not strictly the old custom. Old Samoan custom prohibited absolutely the use by immediate members of the family of any food left over from the sua or meal of an important chief. The remains of the meal were always taken to the chief's orator and the family had perforce to be satisfied with whatever ordinary food was otherwise available for them. This custom is still observed in some families but in many others it is not now rigidly enforced. Young people wait until the elders have completed their meal and then eat together in the back of the house or in another building. If for any reason, either in a house, or on a journey, it is desired to save time, the matai may give permission to others of inferior status to eat at the same time as he does, but they will not do so without express permission. If such permission is given, the young people will retire to a respectful distance before eating.
Samoan meals are served on woven mats or platters of coconut leaf termed laulau, some two to three feet long and a foot wide. The same word is used to designate the European table. Generous helpings of whatever food is page 84 available are placed on the mat, say portions of pork if the occasion is important or formal, fowl or fish, palusami or fai'ai, and one or two taro or a breadfruit. There may be other sea food or shell-fish. Samoans eat with the fingers of both hands; there is no restriction as to the hand or the number of fingers to be employed as in certain countries in the East. The old practice was to convey palusami to the mouth with a coconut leaf midrib used as a fork, but this is not commonly seen at the present time, although the midribs are occasionally supplied for the use of important guests. Palusami is now usually scooped up with pieces of taro or breadfruit held in the fingers; it would be wrong to take it up directly with the fingers. Wings or legs of chicken or portions of pork are not carried to the mouth and pieces detached with the teeth until as much meat as possible has been stripped from the bone with the fingers and conveyed separately to the mouth.
Although a Samoan will take food if it is available and eat whenever the fancy moves him, especially if there is cooked food left over from a previous meal, there are generally only two organised meals of the day, one late in the morning on return from the plantations or other excursion, and the second or principal meal after the fall of darkness and the holding of evening prayers. There is now, however, a growing habit, especially amongst Samoans in employment who have to conform to European hours of work, to take a light meal early in the morning, a cup of tea or Samoan cocoa with bread, or a plate of rice.
* Cooked bananas have no ceremonial significance and are not deemed suitable for use at a formal feast.
On completion of that portion of a meal that is consumed with the fingers, a Samoan, if the meal is taken from a separate leaf platter in a house, will, without waiting for others to reach the same stage, push it away a few inches and hold up his hands to show that he requires washing materials. If he is seated at an outside feast there will be plenty of attendants to note that he has finished. Basins of water and a towel are then forthcoming, the hands and lips being washed with characteristic movements and gestures. A cup of water or a coconut pierced through one eye-hole called the mata will then be presented, for Samoans do not drink during the progress of that part of the meal that is consumed with the fingers. Other courses such as tea or cocoa and bread or cake, or rice, eaten with a spoon, will then follow. Nuts pierced through one eye-hole must be consumed by a special intermittent sucking method termed mimiti.
During the progress of the earlier part of a meal that is taken during the day from platters, the type of food consumed is likely to attract flies. Girls, including perhaps the taupou, therefore sit down before each of the more important page 86 guests and with steadily waving fans see that the food is not contaminated.
Samoans say grace before a meal taken inside a house or at a formal feast, although not usually before a casual meal taken in the bush or elsewhere in the course of a journey in the open. They prefer a European not to eat unless grace has been said, even if he is the only person before whom food has been placed. It is not essential that he should say grace for himself, and a Samoan will be pleased to deputise for him if asked to do so.
An opened drinking nut will probably be offered to Europeans at the conclusion of the first stage of a meal taken in the Samoan style. This may be drunk or not as desired, but in no circumstances should the nut be cracked and the meat inside consumed. Such an action is proper enough on a journey when a stop has been made in the open for a drink and a rest, but to eat coconut meat either before or after a meal in a house is a grave reflection on the hospitality of a host, since it is properly eaten only when other food is lacking, and to do so in a house would be to suggest that the refreshment provided has been inadequate, or is lacking altogether.
Eating utensils will be provided for Europeans where the meal is served on a table. If one has to be seated cross-legged, the meal will be taken from a plaited table mat and may have to be eaten with the fingers although there are few villages where cutlery is not now available. It is correct to use cutlery if that is provided, even if one is taking the meal otherwise in the Samoan fashion. It is not essential to eat everything that is served, and satiety is indicated by pushing away the mat a few inches and holding forward the hands for washing materials as explained above.
One's Samoan hosts will be gratified if a healthy interest is shown in the food provided. Sucking pigs, poultry, pigeons, crabs and lobsters generally come to the table whole for purposes of display and as a mark of respect. Girls will be in attendance throughout the meal, and one of these will, if requested, divide poultry or crack crabs or perform any other service that is required. Where European guests are expected, the most elaborate preparations will probably have been made for them. Samoans recognise that their modes of cooking are different, although they genuinely still prefer their own methods themselves. They take pride, however, in preparing for European guests as nearly as possible what they would prepare for themselves. page 87 If there is a Mission nearby, the hosts will probably arrange for assistance in the preparation of European foods, vegetables, salads and cakes, or perhaps the kitchen of a local trader may be requisitioned so that nothing will be lacking for the comfort and entertainment of a European guest. The writer has even known ice-cream to be transported on ice many miles from Apia over the ridge to the south coast of the island. Even when reduced to Samoan methods of cooking, however, Samoan hosts still do remarkably well for their European guests.
Fowls have a rather special usefulness, for Samoan custom, if strictly interpreted as it so often is, requires that the casual guest, even though unexpected, should be provided with a meal. Other food may be hard to obtain at short notice and in any case requires a fair amount of time for preparation. The fowls belonging to each family, however, wander freely about the village and can quickly be brought low with a well-aimed stone,* so that the guest who is pleasantly pressed to await a meal may see a squawking hen chased around the house and in an incredibly short space of time be regaled with chicken soup and a boiled bird. This can be amusing, but an understanding of the people suggests a more discerning view than this. It is a warming thought that in this commercial age and after two world wars there are still pleasant isles with people whose hospitality is so genuine and eager that it refuses to be denied.
* A stone in the hands of a Samoan is a deadly weapon, and children learn at an early age to bring down fruit such as the mango out of a tree by this means. Stone-throwing to the danger of persons, apart from coming within the category of technical assault, is a specific offence under The General Laws Ordinance, 1931.