Fish, taro, bananas, coconut and breadfruit. These are the staples of the Chuukese diet. Before the onslaught of imported canned meats and bags of rice, the locals lived almost entirely off these native foods. One of the reasons that I think
is special is because of how they have utilized these foods to their furthest extent. Although Micronesia is poor, there is one aspect that separates it from most other 3rd world countries. In places like Africa, Micronesia India and South America the biggest concern for the poor people is the acquisition of food. People are starving. On the whole, this doesn’t happen in . There are very very few starving people. Micronesia
In my opinion, the lack of starving poor people is a function of three factors. First, there is an overabundance of rich natural food resources. The forest and the sea provide everything they need to thrive. The jungle is a natural supermarket full of exotic fruits and vegetables. The ocean is teeming with fish and tasty little sea creatures. Secondly, there is no problem with overpopulation. The square mileage of
Micronesia (including the ocean) is approximately the same size as mainland . However, the population is only slightly over 100,000 people. That is less than half the size of my quaint suburban town in United States . Lastly, the culture is built around collectivism and people share food. It is very rare that an individual lives far from family members. Family members will almost always provide each other with food. Sharing of communal food is an essential part of island culture and seems to be pervasive in all the places I have visited. In rare instances, an outcast/drunk/criminal might be estranged from his family and go hungry some nights. Unfortunately for the economy, the vast majority of people are unemployed. Nonetheless, the vast majority of people are fed adequately. They can scrounge up local food and find a way to feed their families just fine. America
Specifically on my island, in my home, we eat a lot of imported foods because we are rather wealthy and can afford to buy expensive items. We still supplement our grocery store food with local foods on a daily basis. (I try to support the eating of local food). The main product that my family indulges in is breadfruit. The purpose of this blog post is to talk about the extensive process of making pounded breadfruit.
Pounded breadfruit is referred to as “kon”. It is a yellowish mushy substance with an odd consistency. The kon is usually displayed in a rounded loaf that is wrapped in leaves. It has a rather bland taste and doesn’t excite many taste buds when eaten alone. However it is rarely eaten alone. Kon is best when dipped in things. Sauces, soups, coconut milk, spices, soy sauce, and pretty much anything you can think of. In a standard meal, it is used as a sponge to sop up all the leftover juices and drippings of the meal. When eaten in the correct circumstances, it can be quite delicious. We eat kon with almost every meal.
My family always jokes about how I am more Chuukese than the other boys in our household because I like to eat kon more than rice. They load up on rice every meal and I load up on kon. It is more nutritious, tastier, and much more filling.
Breadfruit grows on giant trees with leaves the size of a pillow. Breadfruit trees are prized for their strong trunks that are the best in the Pacific for making canoes. The oval shaped fruit can range from the size of an orange to the size of a small watermelon. The outside is bright green and studded with rough bumps. They ooze white sap and are often sticky to the touch. The inside has an off-whitish flesh with a chunk of seeds in the center. When you first encounter a ripe breadruit, it doesn’t look too appetizing. That is why it requires such an extensive process to make it deliciously edible.
Now that I’ve laid down the basics of breadfruit, let me jump into describing the preparation procedure. I will describe it in a sequential manner with numbered steps, similar to a recipe in a cookbook. (Though you probably wont find any breadruit recipes in your standard Martha Stewart cookbook.) The process of pounding breadfruit is an ancient island tradition that has been passed down through the generations through the hard work of young men. It takes around 8 hours of labor intensive work and is usually performed by able bodied youth (15-30 years old).
Step 1: Collect Breadfruit.
Harvesting breadfruit is one of the most exciting and interesting aspects of the process. You cannot wait for the breadfruit to drop on its own accord from the trees; by that time it is too soft and squishy. So we have to scale the trees and pluck them off the branches. As I alluded to before, breadfruit trees are huge. Their massive trunks and towering branches are some of the mightiest in the jungle canopy. The branches often don’t begin until 10-20 feet above the ground and are not easily reached by amateur climbers. Luckily, the Chuukese are expert climbers. The men shimmy their way up the trunk and pull themselves onto the outstretched limbs. The tool used to snag the breadfruits is a very long stick with a smaller sharp stick tied at angle to the end. They wield this 20-foot floppy spike and poke the fruits until they break loose and fall to the ground. To watch someone hop around the top of a colossal tree carrying a humungous stick is quite astounding. However the locals are adept at this activity and seem to do it with ease. The climber will usually knock down 40 or 50 fruits and we will haul them back to the house. The traditional way to carry the harvested breadfruits is either tied together with vines or in palm leave baskets attached to a log of wood. (We usually cheat and just use a wheelbarrow)
Step 2: Set up Cookhouse
The arena for pounding breadfruit is always an outdoor cookhouse. The cookhouse is usually a place with a thatched or tin roof, dirt floor and no walls. There is often a rock fireplace with some pieces of metal to give it a nice form. Wood is collected from the jungle forest or mangrove swamps. Red mangrove wood is the most ideal for burning. We also use coconut shells & husks, large hard dried leaves, and some small sticks. The wood is split with machetes and cut into appropriate sizes. (I chopped my finger pretty good last week while I was trying to break a log with my machete…ouch!!). We cover the floor with banana leaves to keep everything clean. Banana leaves are gargantuan by the way, they are about 2 feet wide and 8 ft long. The pot used for cooking the breadfruit is so ridiculously huge that it looks like something from a novelty store. It is big enough to cook Hansel & Gretel in and should probably be called a cauldron.
Step 3: Prepare for Cooking
The neon green lumpy skin of the breadfruit cannot be eaten. Someone told me that it is poisonous, but I haven’t confirmed that statement with a taste test yet. Anyways, we need to skin the fruit so that we don’t ingest any of the sticky green gunk that covers the outside. We use old sink drain stopper thingies to skin them. The inside circle of these drain stoppers is very sharp and does a great job of slicing off the skin. One or two people will skin the fruit and then toss them over to another worker who will chop them into sections. The oval fruit is quartered and then pitted, so the remaining pieces are trapezoid shaped. These circular trapezoids are tossed into the giant pot and placed together tightly to maximize the use of space.
Step 4: Cook
The bottom of the pot is lined with small palm leaves to avoid burning. The innards of the breadfruit with all the seeds are placed at the lowest level of the pot and will later be used for pig food. The skinned and portioned pieces of breadfruit are piled together on top. Two large buckets of water are then poured in the pot. The water line should be buried by breadfruit and not visible from the top. Then the pot is covered with black trash bags to keep in the heat. This is the only part of the process that I disapprove of. I assume they used to use leaves. I have tried to explain the harmful consequences of cooking plastic with our food but they don’t care. We keep a hot fire under the pot for about 90 minutes (depends on size of harvest).
Step 5: Pound!
Large rounded cross sections of flattened tree trunks are used as the pounding surface. This hard wood can sustain the constant barrage of pounding and keeps it shape throughout the years. The pounding tool is a rock mallet. It has a carved handle and a convex smasher on one side. One person will pull out the cooked breadfruit and place each successive piece on the pounding board as we begin to mash it up. It begins as a wrist motion to smooth out the big pieces, but after a few minutes the pounders are in a rhythmic beat of clink, clank, clunk. It takes about 15 minutes of powerful pounding to get the breadfruit to the desired consistency. The pounders are dripping sweat after one round, their arms and shoulders are throbbing with fatigue, and their fingers are blistered. Usually a pounder will do about 2 rounds. These two rounds are exhausting. The pounded mass of breadfruit is flopped around until it takes a smooth circular shape. An assistant takes the completed loaf to a wrapping table and the pounder continues on another round.
Step 6: Final Prep
The warm loaf of kon can be presented it three typical ways. The most common is to be wrapped in breadfruit or taro leaves. Sometimes it is simply bundled up in plastic wrap. However, my favorite style is when it is put in a large Tupperware bucket and covered in coconut milk. This style is called “motun”. Motun is the typical gift given for funerals, weddings, births, parties, goodbyes, hellos and any traditional or church gathering.
Step 7: Eat
Pounded breadfruit is the typical side dish in Chuukese meals. It serves the function of bread in American meals but is used in a variety of different ways. Dip it in your favorite sauces and enjoy!
This was a simplified and Americanized description of the breadfruit pounding process and I left out many of the difficult tasks like cleaning and wood gathering, however I think it presents a decent overview of what we do. Becoming involved in this activity is one of the primary ways that I have integrated into the culture. It is an integral aspect of the lifestyle and is a respected undertaking. The pounding of breadfruit not only provides a free tasty food for everyone to enjoy, but it also keeps alive an element of the traditional culture in island life.