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Four months of food in New Caledonia

June 5, 2012

A week ago today I found myself back in Denmark after spending four months in New Caledonia. Before leaving for my trip I had great plans for all the blogging I would do out there, especially because my ethnographic focus was on food most of the time. But no. Circumstances, like a dead computer and insanely expensive internet access 40 minutes from where I stayed, made me live more simply, sans blogging and internet fun. But what and where is this New Caledonia anyway and what are the brown things in the picture? you ask. Well, New Caledonia is a French colony in the Pacific, sort of on the Australian side. It consists of a big island and six small, inhabited ones (and countless uninhabited ones as well). I stayed in Lifou, a gorgeous island paradise with the nicest people I have ever met and the most fabulous beaches. Also it has lots of yams, which is the root in the picture above. And no, they are not like sweet potatoes. They are more like regular potatoes, just more stringy and starchy. I was out in New Caledonia to do anthropological fieldwork for my master’s thesis, and it all ended up being about the yams. Yams are SO important to the Kanaks (the Melanesian population)! They are sacred and pretty much the materialization of Kanak identity, hope for the future and a huge part of their daily lives. When you serve yams to someone, it is like giving a part of yourself away, like sharing yourself with the guest. Alright, I could go on and on, but I will leave it at that for now, and you can read my thesis when it is written. It will have much, much more on the yams!

I do want to show you one amazing dish that is made with yams, the bougna.

The bougna is a festive way of making yams. It has yams, coconut milk, chicken and bananas which are all wrapped up in banana leaves tied with vines, making a tight package that is cooked in an underground rock oven. The bougnas in the picture are made for a wedding, from the bride’s family to the groom’s, as a way of showing the new connection between the families. I got to join the groom’s family in eating this very symbolic feast.

The wedding lasted more than a full week and every day the village of the groom (which was where I lived) cooked up a storm.

We women sat around, cutting up vegetables and meat. The young men cooked the food in huge pots over open fires, and huge batches of rice salads with beets and egg were mixed and seasoned.

But I ate lots of stuff other than just yams and wedding food.  As New Caledonia is a part of France, Andy and I stuffed ourselves with foie gras and cheeses every time we got the chance. Beautiful fresh tuna was cheap as dirt at the market, and I ate so much sliced, raw tuna with just a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper. I wish it was affordable to do that here in Denmark!

Aside from all these wonderful foods, the garden of Lizie, the old lady I lived with, was teeming with beautiful stuff. I was there for avocado season, and every day we ate avocado and grapefruit salad. It was wonderful, but I was so sick of avocado by the end!

The last thing I want to show you is one of my favorite fruits, pomme cannelle. It is so weird looking, but when ripe it is one of the most aromatic and sweet fruits I have  tasted. If you ever find one in a market somewhere you must buy it! It is ripe when it feels like a perfectly ripe avocado. You just break it open and eat the soft, white flesh, leaving behind the black seeds.

All in all, New Caledonia was incredible. I don’t know if I loved it more for its people or for its beauty, but if you ever get a chance to go, do it! It has certainly enriched my life.

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