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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The Kitchen

All cooking is done in the small kitchen near the dwelling house. The fire-pit or oven is dug in the coral floor at one end of the kitchen. The bottom of the oven is covered with small, waterworn, coral pebbles, bleached on the beach. The coral breaks into tiny pieces after being heated and the fat from broiling fish gives it a strong odor; therefore a fresh supply of coral is carried in for each new oven. Every morning the girls who assist about the house bring back from the sea beach beyond the village limits a basket or two of coral pebbles which they pour into the oven. When the fire has burned down, the hot ashes are scraped away with the hottest pebbles. The used coral is banked around coconut trees for what little fertilizing value it may have.

Wood is scarce on the atolls today, and material for fires is gathered from the immense piles of coconut husks which accumulate from the copra industry. The dry flower sheaths (taume), which make excellent kindling, and the dead brush that gathers about vegetation supplement the dry husks.

Cooking Utensils

A fire plough is always kept in the kitchen house but is never used when a brand can be borrowed from another fire. I saw two boys make a fire by the plough method one morning to light their cigarettes. One boy held the hearth, a broad stick of dry soft wood, on the ground in front of him by placing one foot against it. The second boy sat opposite and ran the plow back and forth rapidly, pressing down strongly with both hands folded over the end. It was page 146 only a matter of two or three minutes before he had worn a groove in the hearth, accumulated a little pile of dust at the far end, and by the friction of his increasingly rapid movements had ignited it. Dry coconut husk fiber was immediately laid over the smouldering particles which were gently blown into a flame.

A stake for husking coconuts is implanted in the ground outside the cook house. With it is a food grater (kaukasalo), a four-legged stool with an arm tilted upward at an angle from one end. A white, fan-shaped shell (sisi) is lashed with sennit to the tip of the arm. The lip of the shell has a fine serration over which coconut meat or segments of fala can be grated. The nut is cupped over the shell and scraped downward with short, rapid movements. The hands are placed one over the other on the upturned nut.

The kitchen is furnished with a set of bowls and two or three baskets for storing or carrying food. Fresh leaves are gathered whenever they are to be used for wrapping food or making serving dishes. Only one type of serving platter made of coconut leaf is considered to be originally of Tokelau. Several other types have been introduced by the Samoan families of the village pastors.

The lower pointed half of the coconut shell (muli) makes a drinking cup (ipu) and container for baking fluids. It is also used as a ladle (ipu hele) and as a cover (ipu faka tau) to put over surplus cooked food. Coconut shells are plentiful, and the cups and covers are discarded after use. The polished cups kept in the households of Samoa and Tonga primarily as part of the kava drinking equipment are not made in the Tokelau Islands. All water is drunk from a coconut bottle.

Formerly a cup of coconut oil was kept suspended from a crossbeam in every house. These cups were made of three quarters or more of the shell with only the top removed. Two or four holes were perforated blow the rim, and a suspensory cord of fine twisted sennit was tied to them.

The coconut shell supplies a natural bottle (fangu vai) which has been utilized wherever coconut trees grow in Polynesia. The largest eye (mata) of a large nut is pierced, the juice drained out, and the nut refilled with salt water which is allowed to remain for a week or more to rot the meat. This is then poured out, and the shell rinsed with fresh water, which leaves it clean and ready for use. These coconut-shell bottles are usually hung in sets of three from the two ends of a heavy sennit braid, by which they are carried over the shoulders. The rope is made of several strands of sennit which are divided at the ends to join the sennit carrying net around each bottle. A carrying rope also serves to lower the bottles into the well for drawing water and to suspend the bottles from house posts or coconut trees. It is customary to keep the water bottles on a coconut tree near the house by wrapping the carrying rope around the trunk so that both sets of bottles hang close to the under side of the tree.

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A replica of the water containers (pl. 8, A), formerly kept in the houses, is encased in a closely woven netting with a cord handle by which it was suspended from the beams of the house. The netting is made with twisted cord of coconut fiber in a 5-millimeter mesh. The technique of netting consists of drawing the cord through the adjoining mesh, pulling it taut, twisting it over on itself, and carrying it to the next mesh. The commencement is made upon a double strand of cord wound around the bottle just below the middle of the shell. The netting is worked around the shell to the bottom of the bottle and picked up again from the commencement cord around the middle and carried to the mouth. An inch from the mouth of the bottle the cord is carried through each mesh of the last row and drawn tight to form the finishing edge.

The handle is made of a loop of cord carried under the finishing edge at two opposing points. The cord is doubled back twice to make four strands which are firmly seized. One end of the cord projects through the seizing 6 or 7 centimeters above the attachment, and a perforated stopper of puapua wood is attached to the end.

A complete kitchen is equipped with four types of wooden bowls of various sizes and shapes (pl. 9, A), which are used for mixing the several dishes cooked with fish or pandanus and coconut cream. The largest wooden bowl is the kumete tula, in which a pudding of pandanus fruit and grated coconut (vaisu) is mixed. A slightly smaller bowl (kumete tau lolo) is used with the coconut grater to catch the particles of coconut meat. A third bowl (kumete pale ika) usually has a flat bottom and is used to hold fish before they are put into the fire or mixed with a sauce. The fourth type is the small bowl (lau kumete) commonly used for holding water and for preparing or mixing small quantities of food.

These wooden bowls are hewn from single blocks of wood. The larger bowls are made of kanava, and the smaller food dishes are made of puapua. The general shape is elliptical with handles projecting at either end flush with the rim of the bowl (pl. 9, A). The common type of handle is undercut to fit the hand, having knobbed ends which set at an angle from the longitudinal axis. A hole is bored in one handle, and a loop of seized sennit is drawn through for hanging the bowl. The bottoms are sometimes flat but are usually rounded. No bowls with legs were seen in the islands.

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.


At daybreak the men set out in their canoes to fish or to cross the lagoon to gather pandanus and coconuts. If there is cooked food in the storage baskets, they take a small piece of fish or a coconut before starting. Many of the fishermen return by the middle of the morning. Their catch is immediately taken to the cook house and prepared, and the first meal of the day is eaten. Workers in the plantations eat coconuts or pandanus during the day.

The second meal is eaten at sunset to make use of the last of the daylight for cooking. By this time everyone has finished work for the day and bathed in the lagoon, and is ready to relax and discuss the events of the day. Before page 151 Christian times this meal was completed before sunset, for it was tapu to have fires at night.

The men of the house are served their meals first, and the women take what is left for themselves and the younger children. The young boys are allowed to eat with their fathers. On Sundays groups of people eat together; the older men and women often sit with the pastor for the noonday or morning meal after the church service, and the young people meet together in the school house and bring their food in baskets from the home oven.

The labor of preparing meals follows the western Polynesian custom. The young men do the heavier work of making the large ovens and putting in the food; the women remove the food and serve it. The lighter meals are prepared by the women. At a large feast in which only the men participate the younger men of the village make all the preparations and serve the food.

Food Ceremony

Kava does not grow on the atolls, but the coconut supplants it to some extent as the cup of hospitality. A drinking nut is always offered to a guest as soon as he arrives, and a visitor in the village is constantly being called to from the houses to enter and drink. A drinking nut properly cracked around the pointed end and opened is placed before each person at meal times and is usually drunk at the end of the meal. The top of the nut is left on to protect the juice from flies. A more common method of drinking is to pierce the largest eye (mata) of the nut and to suck the juice noisily.

Considerable ceremony is associated with food. The usual presentations to visitors are gifts of food. Processionals with singing, speeches, and gifts are called ta'alolo, the Samoan name for similar ceremonies, and also by the old Tokelau term, momoli faka itu fenua (the carrying between the divisions of the land). In these processionals one part of the village goes to the other, bringing a great gift of food. The bearers march in pairs, singing some ancient chant. The food is laid before the house of the person or the head of the people for whom it is given, and the leader of the visiting party makes a speech of presentation (tauati). A dance often follows for the entertainment of the people to whom the gift is made, and the procession returns to its own part of the village. In a few weeks the recipients of the presents make a similar procession with gifts in return.

Sacred Food

Whenever sacred fish (ika sa)—whale (tafola), swordfish (sakula), and turtle (fonu)—were caught they were brought to the village malae for ceremonial prayers of thanks and distribution among all the villagers. Anyone page 152 who kept a sacred fish for his own household alone was punished by having his house burned and his property and canoe broken up.

Whales were never caught but were sometimes washed up on the windward side of the islands after dying in a storm. The men who discovered the whale on the reef decked themselves in wreaths of flowers and twined coconut leaves and carried short clubs cut from the heavy butts of green coconut leaves (langa). They went in canoes across the lagoon to the village where they shouted out their discovery. Immediately the men sitting in the men's houses rushed out, cut similar pieces of coconut leaf butts, and went to the point of the beach where the canoes were landing. The men in the canoes jumped out and a pitched battle (moamoanga) followed between them and the men of the village, which was only stopped by the intervention of the old men of the village when they thought it had continued long enough. Both parties then retired to the men's house to rest, while the news of the find was told in detail. The significance of this ritual is not known by the present natives.

All who could get into the canoes went to the reef, cut up the whale, and brought it to the village malae where it was heaped before the god house. The priest offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the bountiful supply of food. The official apportioner of food appointed a man to slice off and roast a small piece of the flesh in the great oven which had been prepared while the meat was being brought into the village. A second man was appointed to taste the cooked meat. If he considered it fit to eat he shouted, “Te tala mai Samoa” (literally, news from Samoa). The meat was then divided among all the families, the chief receiving the choicest and the sacred parts, and a great feast was held. The whale was not considered a god but there were some people who refused to eat its flesh.

Turtle were carried to the malae and laid on their backs, while thanks were offered to Tui Tokelau for his provision. The head was presented to the high chief of the village. Turtles are still divided among all the villagers although the man who first sights the turtle receives a larger share.

All ceremonial divisions of food are made by the tauvaenga who is today appointed by the official head of the village (faipule).