Meal 120: Nauru

If you've heard of Nauru, it's likely because of the refugee detention center that Australia operates there. It's just about the only thing going on economically there, since the decline of the phosphate mines that briefly made the country the richest in the world per capita in the 70s. It's a strange and sad story, in which a small population decides to turn over most of the island to mining bat guano, making everyone on the island instantly wealthy with no reason to work, but the whole artifice crashes within a few decades as the phosphate dries up and the sovereign fund is woefully mismanaged. If you can believe it, one of the things that brought them down was an investment in an unsuccessful musical in London about Leonardo. While Leonardo did a whole lot of just about everything, now just about nothing (save for the detention center) happens on the island. Virtually all of the workable land was destroyed through mining, and the population gets by on foreign aid and leveraging its UN membership to trade diplomatic recognition for cash. (It's proven adept at playing Taiwan and the People's Republic of China against each other.) Anyway, the present reality of no farming, combined with the recent history of a taste for imported goods, means that the island's diet is limited and, frankly, unhealthy, as manifested in Nauru's inglorious status as the world's most overweight country.

Given how small the country is (just about 10,000 people), and how it pretty much has no cuisine of its own nor a tourism industry that might at least make a few local menus show up on a website, this was a really darn hard one to research. I ended up spending a lot of time scrolling through the "Nauru Wanna Buy/Sell" Facebook list and reading several depressing articles about poor nutrition. I have no idea how well I did with replicating what you might expect to eat in Nauru, but I sure did give it a shot.

Bringing a sense of obscure adventure to the table were Jon, Nicole, Annie, Will, Amie, Vincent, and his guest.

Coconut fish | Recipe

Despite the doom and gloom in the intro, it's not like all of the island's food traditions have disappeared. There are still coconut trees, and the seas still have fish in them, so like many of its far-flung neighbors, Nauru also serves tuna in coconut milk. Either you like it or you don't — the author of the recipe is definitely in the latter category. I found it a fairly unexciting way to treat raw tuna, but hey, I like raw tuna so I still liked it. If you're making this, if at all possible don't use canned coconut milk, as it'll taste tinny. Instead, find a coconut, shred it, squeeze it with a bit of warm water and use that milk. Or, be semi-lazy like me: buy shredded coconut from the freezer section of an Asian grocery, and squeeze that with warm water.

Spam fried rice | Recipe

I have to admit, I'd been looking forward to cooking this for a good long while. I've been told many a time that canned meat is a popular thing throughout the Pacific islands, a taste acquired from the rations provided by Americans during and after WWII, and of that, Spam is king. We even had canned corned beef in a Fijian dish, but it wasn't until this, our 120th meal, that we finally got our taste of Hormel's finest.

And I have to admit, with a grin both sheepish and impish, that it was super tasty. Fried rice is a pretty undeniably tasty thing, and the addition of crispy cubes of unnaturally spongy meat squares just made it all the better.

Lemon chicken | Recipe

Several sources say that most of the food establishments in Nauru cook Chinese food, and this one site says he had some good lemon chicken there once. Given how little detailed info there is online about the specific foods that they eat on the daily there, that was enough for me to go on. I have no idea how close to authentic this recipe was, but it was just as awesome as you would expect breaded and fried chunks of chicken in a thick and tangy sauce to be. Yum!

Pandanus tea | Recipe

I have no idea if they actually drink this in Nauru, but this recipe on a random site claims they do (see the pattern?), so I made it. As I've described in a few other Pacific meals' writeups, pandan leaf has the same nutty scent as basmati rice.

I had no clue of what to make for dessert, so given the indications of cheap-and-cheerful western foods, I went for mid-low-grade vanilla ice cream.