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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Variety and Preparation of Foods

Variety and Preparation of Foods

During a formal visit, the governing council of elders gave me the following list of recipes. They offered to describe the food of their ancestors which they said consisted solely of coconut, pandanus, fish, crabs, crayfish, turtles, and birds and birds' eggs.

The Coconut. The coconut forms the staple food in the diet of the people. It is easily obtained at all times, requires no preparation other than husking the page 148 nut, and provides drink as well as food. Every family has a plantation of coconut trees on the atoll and usually some trees near the village. It is part of the young boys' work to keep the household supplied from these trees and to go with their fathers to the plantations two or three times a week and pick nuts. A strip is torn from each of the fallen nuts by which they are tied in pairs or fours to be caried home. When a great number of coconuts are gathered, they are counted by a distinct numerical terminology:
























Tolunga pulupulu


Fanga pulupulu


Limanga pulupulu


Ononga pulupulu


Fitunga pulupulu


Valunga pulupulu


Ivanga pulupulu


Te hua


Lua te hua



The following nine stages of growth of the nut are recognized for the various purposes for eating and drinking:

Puakoili: first stage of the young nut.

Mokomoko: soft substance in base of husk, fibrous growth partially developed, flesh beginning to form.

Matatulua: soft flesh covers interior of shell.

Sua: drinking stage.

Niu mata: flesh thicker and at eating stage.

Angalele: flesh firm.

Popo: meat hard (katinga) and used for grating.

Takataka: fluid dried, flesh loosened from shell.

Uto: cavity filled with a soft, light substance. In the latest part of this stage the meat is dry and hard; it leaves the shell and can be rattled inside.

When a nut has reached the mokomoko stage it is peeled of its husk, and the soft, cellular substance between the fibers is scraped out and cooked with other parts of the nut. The soft mushy meat of the young nut is called ngai, and the hard meat of the popo stage is katinga. The katinga is grated in a a strainer of the clothlike sheath of the young blossom to extract the sweet white coconut cream (lolo katinga). The juice of the nut in any stage is suasua. In young nuts it is too bitter to drink, and in old nuts too flat. The uto which fills the cavity of the old nut is considered a great delicacy.

Vaisu ta moko is a very sweet cooked dish made from the coconut alone. Solid coconut meat (katinga) is cut up and slightly seared or roasted by putting hot coral with it “to make it smell”. Mokomoko is scraped from the fibers and mixed with the coconut juice.

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Coconut cream is the form of the coconut most used in cooking. The opened nut is shredded and the fine particles caught in a wooden bowl below the shredder. They are gathered into a strainer of green coconut husk fibers or a piece of the sheath which is twisted to squeeze out the creamy oil. This is added to many dishes of fish or pandanus and to make the various vaisu puddings.

Fala pandanus. This fruit-bearing plant grows on all the atolls and next to the coconut is the most important plant food in the native diet. Its origin is unknown. It is eaten either raw or cooked. The soft inner ends of the keys of the ripe fruit must be pounded before chewing. Children eat them when hungry between meals. The hard outer ends are discarded. The keys of the flowering fala pandanus are preserved by slicing off the ripe ends with a shell and wrapping them in packages of laumca leaves. They are then cooked on hot stones and left in the sun to dry. The dried fruit (fala fakapita) is carefully wrapped in freshly made coconut-leaf baskets (kete) and hung in the house for the season when the fruit can not be picked. In this state it will last about three months. Coconut cream is often added to it before cooking, making a very sweet concoction.

The common cooked vegetable dish of the Tokelau Islands is made of coconut and fala grated and mixed together, pressed into small balls, and put into leaf packages to be cooked in the oven. This same combination of coconut and fala with coconut cream poured into it (lolo fala fakapita) is set in coconut shell cups and baked on the hot coral ovens. Sliced fala is also cooked in this way with coconut cream to make lolo fala. It is also combined with the grated kernel of a young coconut and cooked in laumea leaf wrapping (kofu) to make seoseo mata.

The fruit of two wild trees is eaten occasionally, especially in times of famine. A species of the Ficus has small, brownish green berries (mati) which are very palatable when boiled in coconut juice or cream. The nonu tree has light green fruit which is tart and dry. These are eaten raw by children, and boiled for the family meal in times of famine.

Europeans have taught the natives to create soil from leaf mold deposited in beds and to cultivate in their gardens the pawpaw (esi, Carica papaya), bananas (fa'i), quantities of pulaka (Cyrtosperma chamissonis) and ta'amu (Alocasia macrorrhiza), a coarse tuber of the taro family. This last is the only variety of taro which has grown well enough to become a part of the daily food supply. Three varieties of breadfruit, ulu aveaveloloa, ulu lalo, and ulu maopo, have been brought to Fakaofu and grow well. The trees are large but their fruit is small and still a luxury. No breadfruit was seen on Atafu. Introduced papayas and bananas are small. Polynesian arrowroot (masoa) grows freely on Atafu but is not used much in native cooking.

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Fish is the staple flesh food which supplies proteins in the diet. Shellfish, crabs, crayfish, turtle, and squid supplement this diet of marine food. Sea-birds which are snared and netted, and their eggs, form a very small part of the food supply. Recently introduced, pigs and fowl are now owned by every family.

Several fish, particularly the bonito (atu), are eaten raw with great relish. They are usually prepared by broiling them on the hot coral pebbles of the oven, large fish cut into steaks and small fish laid on the coals without being cleaned. Whole fish or pieces of fish (ika fefile) are wrapped in leaves of laumea or plaited coconut and are baked in the covered oven.

Some fish, chiefly the bonito, are dried in the sun after cooking and thus preserved indefinitely. When they are needed they are cooked again, often with coconut oil or cream which softens the dry flesh. Sun-dried fish are kofu ika faka la.

Squid (feke) is cut up, mixed with coconut cream, and baked in a wrapping of leaves. A delicious soup is made of squid tentacles, coconut cream, salt water, and imported onions.

Crayfish and crabs are caught on the reef and roasted over the hot coals. Shellfish are gathered and eaten raw.

The turtle (fonu) supplies a seasonal variation from the regular diet of fish. The flesh is wrapped in leaves and baked in the umu. The entrails and blood are considered great delicacies and are cooked separately in leaf packages.

Sharks are caught for eating, but fishing for whales can not be attempted.

Cooking processes are few because the available foods do not lend themselves to many preparations. Informants were insistent that there was no boiling of food in olden days because there were no utensils which could be submitted to fire. Coconut meat was seared by putting hot pieces of coral from the oven into the bowl with it, and this method could have been applied to heat liquids as well.