How to cook yams, with cultural lessons on the side

Yams and coconut are diet staples where we have been cruising in southeast Papua New Guinea. We have traded for many, but my first attempts at preparing them weren’t very interesting. One of the first women I met on Panapompom Island, Wendy, came on board to help me work out the secrets one afternoon.
The first step is to peel the rough skin from the yams. Before we began paring, she pointed out that the trader who brought these to me was giving away her seed yams. This time of year (September/October) is planting season, so she cut off the top couple of inches from each yam and reserved them to be replanted. Our lesson diverged into a long tangent on growing yams: the many varities, how gardens are owned, and who works in them.

Wendy's yam lesson-1

Wendy used a paring knife she’d brought in her bag. Actually, she’d probably love to have a proper paring knife. Like a lot of knives we’ve seen, this was just a broken blade which had long since been parted from its handle, but served the purpose.

Next, yams were cut into similarly sized pieces (about 1 x 2 inch chunks) and put in a pot, to which about an inch of water was added. She said we should put some salt in. I asked if she used seawater, since anytime we can use a little seawater helps conserve our fresh water supply. “Of course!” was the reply- and felt a little like an idiot. Her potable water is collected from rain during the wet season, so her method conserves fresh as much as possible: it’s a precious resource. Of course. The pot was put on to simmer.

What makes these yams really good is fresh coconut milk. This is probably where my yams prepared on board fell short compared to what we tasted on shore. Wendy laughed at my cleaver and suggested I needed a “proper” bush knife to crack them.  She made quick work of getting a mature coconut cracked, and the meat cut out in chunks, but it was minutes instead of seconds with the right tools. Getting meat out of a coconut is a lot harder than it sounds. I’m already fascinated with how everyone from about the age of two seems to carry these big machetes around, and have another reason now to seek out a bush knife. Meanwhile, I’m collecting photographic evidence of PNG toddlers as knife experts.

Next the coconut meat is grated. Once again, we are lacking island-style tools. Most homes have a coconut scraper that looks a little like a footstool, with a wicked looking piece of metal off the end. Half of a coconut is inverted over the metal bit, and with some vigorous rubbing the meat inside is quickly turned into a pile of fine shreds. Our grater didn’t work as efficiently or uniformly, but Siobhan helped us to get the job done.

Next, the grated coconut meat is put into a colander or strainer over the yams. All Wendy really does is squeeze it by the handful to eke out a few tablespoons of rich milk, but a little bit of water helps. She didn’t do much more than shake a wet hand over the top of the pile to get enough.

Wendy's yam lesson-5

I couldn’t resist breaking out a can of coconut milk, and showing her how we would normally acquire the creamy liquid. The very idea is anathema: we did a taste test, and of course, there’s no comparison to the fresh stuff. In the context of her home, though, Wendy was fascinated. Coconuts litter the ground, but canned goods are only acquired at relatively great expense and by traveling to another island. It embarrassed me, to be honest, and I quickly regretted grabbing the can from a pantry locker- but she just laughed it off.

The yams were tested periodically with a fork, and were cooked through in about 20 minutes. Scooped out onto a plate, we snacked on them as soon as they were cool enough to touch. Yams are cooked and eaten throughout the day. Children poking their heads out see the “dim dim” clutch them, and like children everywhere, don’t find a mouthful of fluffy yam to be remotely an obstacle for talking.

We’ve eaten yams like these on almost every stop so far in PNG. Even if I weren’t already a little obsessed with what we eat, it’s hard not to be drawn to understand these mainstays of a subsistence lifestyle.  The lessons I learned along the way from my afternoon with Wendy underscore how food offers windows into a culture.

Wendy's yam lesson-6

Wendy and I had also talked about how to find new ways to engage with cruisers to her home of Panapompom island. She and her neighbors are interested in trading, and curious to meet people who come to visit. But visiting boats don’t always want or need what islanders have to sell. Bringing them a service to trade, like a cooking lesson, is a different way of thinking. It gets cruisers and islanders into the same space and talking together: anything that can elevate the conversation from how many papayas for a t-shirt has got to be good! Even if the lessons are just be about cooking yams, at the absolute minimum it’s almost impossible not to make a friend, and learn more about the beautiful and friendly place we’re visiting.

3 Responses

  1. Behan, I just love your accounts of interacting with the people you meet! We plan to leave the Rally in the South Pacific and have a year on our own before reconnecting with them. I hope we have a taste of what you have experienced!
    Love to all,

  2. Behan, one of the reasons we diverged to the Maskelyne Islands in Vanuatu was for similar experiences. An aid worker had worked with the village to develop a list of marketable tourist experiences (for lack of a better term) that went beyond trading or buying seed necklaces. We learned about paddling canoes, calling for turtles, gardening etc. It just takes a little imagination to come up with the ideas. We’re all out there for the connection–but it can seem a bit elusive.

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