When we had Culture Day in the village during training, I had slept for 20 hours the day before, getting over the fever-diarrhea one-two punch from hell. And though I could mildly appreciate all of the steps and techniques for assembling a traditional Samoan feast, I was not in the best shape for an intense day of rustic cooking and ceremonial eating. That said, Culture Day in the Peace Corps was surprisingly comprehensive, and gave me strange authority in maneuvering the goings on of today.
At one point, one of my year 12s Amanda approached me and asked if I’d ever tried any of the foods they were making. “Yeah. I’ve tried them all before.” Amanda was shocked.
“I’ve never tried any of them. Except for the kokoesi.” I was shocked. Though we only had one Culture Day during our village stay, my host family often fed me the same traditional foods from the Peace Corps and school Culture Day.
For the most part, the baking of all parts of the meal happens in one large umu, which is halfway between a bonfire and an oven. Baseball-sized lava rocks are heated in a fire like re-usable pieces of charcoal. When all of the food is ready, the lava rocks are taken out of the fire and spread out. The food is placed on top of the lava rocks, and then a few lava rocks are placed on top of the food. When all of the rocks are in place, the entire pile of food and lava rocks is covered with a thick layer of banana leaves and breadfruit leaves (occasionally cardboard is also used).
It should be noted the umu is hot; my guess would be upwards of 500°. A complete pig is completely roasted in an umu in about an hour. Even with a thick cover of banana and breadfruit leaves, an umu emits strong heat.
It seems like almost any food can be cooked in an umu as long as it is properly protected from the extreme heat. Taro and breadfruit (when breadfruit is in season) are traditional staples. Palusami, coconut cream wrapped in a taro leaf, is common. Today they wrapped whole chickens in banana leaves and roasted them in the umu, which was new for me. I didn’t get to taste it, but it sounds pretty good. Fish is a little too delicate for the extreme temperatures of the umu.
Another traditional dish not cooked in the umu today (or any other day) is kokoesi, a mixture of papaya and roasted and crushed cacao beans. It is thick and soupy and pretty good, although I could see it being a bit of an acquired taste for some. The other common thick and soupy dish is vaisalo, which I think is essentially coagulated coconut milk.
In any case, the cooking took up the majority of the morning, and from my perspective, was the most interesting part of the day. Once the umus were covered, the ’Ava Ceremony portion of the day began. The ’Ava Ceremony is the traditional ritual used when two groups come together. It can be used to welcome or to resolve conflict. Our first morning in Samoa, group 81 was welcomed with an ’Ava Ceremony. Today’s ’Ava Ceremonies took place in the middle of the field, so it was difficult to see exactly what was going on or who was speaking, and the entire thing was done in Samoan, so I wouldn’t have understood anyway.
After that came the song and dance portion, which was fun and well-done, but I’ve been watching that for the past 6 weeks, so I’m a little over it at this point. My house, Savai’i, looked great, but Upolu looked fantastic. They ended up winning the dance portion, and rightly so.
Did I mention the day was a competition? I’m a little unclear on the details, but I think there were 3 judges who are either respected matai (village chiefs) or faifeao (ministers) or both. Beyond that, I know little about the scoring and weighting of the various events, and aside from Upolu winning the dance competition, I have no idea how other events shook out. All I know is when the final scores were tabulated, Savai’i (my house) was the winner.
It rained during the award ceremony, which brought a traditional feel to the end of a traditional day. It was a good day.
I hope you’re well. Pictures below.
The competition started today with making fire the traditional way; that is, rubbing two sticks together.
Scooping out papaya flesh for the kokoesi.
Plucking chicken feathers.
Esau (on the right) is from Fausaga, our training village. He and the other guy are posing with their palusami, readying it for the umu.
Fish were cooked in embers.
Posing with the pig's entrails. Their idea, not mine.
Lava rocks for the umu being spread with long sticks because they're just so damn hot.
One of two 'Ava Ceremonies held today. Kids from my house are in red on the far side.
Fiu (on the far right) with students showing off the 'Ava bowl trophy.
4 days ago