Food Glorious Food

One of the first things you learn as a Peace Corps Volunteer is that no matter how hard you try, your eating habits are going to be very different. Some volunteers who have been vegetarians for years soon find themselves eating meat. Others, who may have been picky eaters in the USA now find themselves eating things they never imagined while others try to come up with creative ways to add some variety to the diet.

A typical Tongan Sunday mealThere are really two problems with food in Vava’u. The first is that Tongans pretty much eat the same foods every day without a lot of variety. There are a number of root crops that are grown here and those are part of the Tongan diet daily combined with some kind of very fatty meat.

On Sundays and for special occasions, Tongans eat the same root crops but instead the fatty meat is wrapped in Taro leaves and cooked in an outdoor oven in a dish called lu. (The photo is a typical Sunday dinner.)

The second problem is that you live on an island and if it doesn’t grow here, it has to be imported. If there are no tomatoes at the market, you are not going to get a tomato even at the best restaurants. “If it ain’t here, it ain’t here”.

For the first year or so of my Peace Corps service I either shared meals with other volunteers who knew how to cook or I ate stuff that I was comfortable cooking. In the past year, I’ve gotten a little more ambitious, trying to actually learn to cook with what is available.

The good news is that in Peace Corps you have lots of free time so you have the time to cook.

I thought I would tell you about two things that I’ve made recently. I would never have attempted either of these meals in the USA. It was too easy to go Publix or Polo Tropical and pick up chicken . Want a pizza? I would have ordered from one of the many places that deliver to your door and if I was desperate, I might have even popped a frozen pizza into my oven.

So when I show you this picture, you have to understand this is a big accomplishment for me.

IMG_2769This is pepper chicken…meaning, it is cooked with pepper and a few other spices. The key to the chicken in Tonga is to remove all the fat and skin before you cook it. Often you end up cutting away about almost half of what is in the package.

The biscuits were made completely from scratch. (I was really proud of myself when I discovered I could make biscuits). The stuff that looks like mashed potatoes is actually mashed ufi, which is a Tonga root crop. I boiled the ufi, which was given to me, mashed it up and added milk, hot peppers and salt.

Pizza from Scratch

My love for pizza hasn’t diminished since I began my service but it has taken me a while to learn how to make it. The place that has the best pizza in Vava’u has been closed since December even though they are scheduled to re-open soon.

IMG_2671 This pizza was also made from scratch. It’s all veggies with green peppers, canned tomatoes, canned tomato sauce, onions and garlic. There is also some fresh basil which my neighbor James planted right outside my door. I decided to make this pizza after I discovered two cans of black olives in one of the stores. A rare find and I bought both of them and came home and made the pizza. The cheese is the most expensive part. It all comes here frozen but you can usually get it without a problem.

Vava’u Shopping Tip

A shopping habit you quickly learn in Vava’u is that when you see something you want in a store, you buy it…because you may never seen it again. We once has fresh broccoli. It lasted about a week and I haven’t seen it again. That was more than a year ago. Another time a stalk of celery showed up…yes there was just one when I went into the store. I didn’t buy it as it was expensive and didn’t look very good. It’s not just fresh food that’s random, we occasionally will run out of staples like rice, flour and boxed milk. (There is no fresh milk in the stores).

This creates even bigger challenges when you are in the mood for something because it might not be there.

I now wonder if I’ll still take the time to cook when I return to the USA or if you’ll be bumping into me at the deli counter of Publix.

Changes in Peace Corps Tonga

The Peace Corps Tonga Country Director is leaving. The Country Director is the top position in each country and in the case of Tonga, he is also the top-ranking American here since there is no Embassy.

Jeff Cornish is moving to a new Country Director Post in The Gambia, West Africa. In his e-mail announcement to the volunteers he said:

It has been my honor to serve with you here in the Kingdom. Together we have done much to improve Post operations, programming and Volunteer support. I am proud of the role each of you has played in supporting each other, as well as those you serve in your respective communities. I am also proud of the fact that you have remained committed to your service and to the fulfillment of both Peace Corps and local community goals for development.

No word on a replacement. He begins his new job on October 25th.

Best of luck Jeff!!

The Wreck of the Clan McWilliams

More than 80 years ago, a steam powered tanker came into the harbor at Neiafu, Vava’u. The 300 foot long boat was on fire and sank before the captain could run it aground. The wreck now sits in about 100 feet of water at the bottom of the harbor. Last week, I had a chance to dive on the wreck. Because of its depth, I was limited to just 20 minutes on it, but it was amazing to see how intact this boat is after all these years.

You can still see the portholes and where the doors used to be. The ladders are still there as are the railing along the side of the ship. We only explored the first half of the ship, as the remainder is in even deeper water. I did not take my camera with me, but I found this photo online of the wreck.

I plan to dive on the wreck again next week.

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  1. It's not a problem to grow tomatoes here, but the supply is inconsistent. As far as broccoli, they do grow some cauliflower here so I would think you could also grow broccoli, but am not sure. I have no idea about celery.

    The challenge is that there is a small market for things like broccoli and celery and Tongans tend to grow the things they either want to eat or the things that are proven successful to sell like pineapple.