Meal 129: Palau

Palau is another one of those low-population island countries in the vast Pacific. We've discovered along the way that the traditional foods tend to be quite straightforward, and that recipes are quite hard to come by, as often the cooking is more defined as a way to put things together rather than a set of instructions and ingredients to follow. Once again I ended up figuring out what, if not now, to cook by scrolling through Facebook groups. 

Joining us on this probably inaccurate adventure through this gorgeous country's food were Christina, Nancy, Dale, Mary K,aren, Mark, Jeff, Carla, and friends.

Koroke | Croquettes | Based on this recipe

There's a strong Japanese influence in the modern food scene in Palau, due both to the occupation of much of the 20th century, and the p0pularity of Palau as a vacation destination for Japanese tourists. While following the classic Japanese croquette style of breading filling with tempura batter and then panko, the filling is a bit of a variation with purple taro and cabbage in addition to ground pork.

Ukaeb | Crab with coconut cream | Recipe

A very straightforward combination. The crabs I bought were very slim on meat, so we used the shells mostly for decoration, with most of the meat coming from a can I thankfully thought to buy.

Beldakl | Fish in broth | Recipe

I found this one tough to figure out and have no idea how well I executed it, but at its core it's a sort of fish soup with aromatic leafy greens and vegetables. My research indicated that it often has a fruit that's similar to starfruit, but I couldn't even find that, let alone the titiml leaf that was called for. I did my best with green onions, which was probably a travesty, but it tasted fine.


As we've seen time and again from this part of the world, taro is an extremely popular tuber. This time I boiled it. As always, if you're preparing it, wear gloves to avoid the tiny crystals irritating your skin.

Aiskater | Frozen starch dessert |Recipe

This seemed like it would be fun, but the contents froze very firmly to the cup, so there was no way to pull it out like a popsicle as we expected. When it softened a bit we managed to taste some with a spoon, and it tasted about how you'd expect sweetened, frozen cornstarch slurry to taste: fine, a bit refreshing, but at least to me not something to crave.

Meal 122: New Zealand

A little over two years ago, when our now-good-friend Deena did an NPR piece about United Noshes, someone in New Zealand noticed and I did a phone interview on Radio NZ. I promised that when we got to their country, I'd get back in touch. And I did! We did a fun bit where they had listeners send in advice through social media of what to cook, which we chatted through live on the radio. So what do Kiwis eat? Well, lamb, of course, since that's what they raise a ton of for wool and meat alike. Otherwise it's in large part based on traditional English foods like sweet and savory pastries, with a growing influence of fresher Mediterranean flavors, blended with some indigenous influences like sweet potato.

Joining us on a cold winter's night for a taste of the other hemisphere were Estel, Sarah, Laura, Patrick, Kal, Julie, Levi, Martha, Karen, and Red. (Oh, and Reba!)

Kiwi dip

While we Americans love our convenience, one thing we really haven't gotten into is canned milk products, so we suffer the inconvenience of a perishable product as the base for our otherwise dead-simple French onion dip (recipe: mix one packet of onion mix into sour cream; serve). Well, Kiwis have no such aversion, and their reward is no temporal constraint on their ability to whip up the equivalent dip, using a can of what they call reduced cream and what we can find in the States in Hispanic markets or supermarket aisles as media crema. They even gussy it up a bit with a dash of malt vinegar, but since any self-respecting NZer would have that on hand anyway, the extra effort is still less.

It's really tasty. Eat with thick or wavy potato chips, or veggies if you want to pretend you're being at least a little healthy.

Along with the dip, we had ray oysters on the halfshell. They were in homage to, but certainly no replica of, Bluff oysters, a particular species that's found at the southern tip of the South Island. Equally fatty, but much classier.

Mince and cheese pie Recipe

One Radio NZ listener wrote in that the national dish is really a "$2 mince and cheese pie from the dairy," which in American English means "$1.40 ground beef and cheese hot pocket from the convenience store." So I made one! The all-butter puff pastry crust probably made this a bit fancier than the grab-n-go version, and of course as a whole pie the crust-to-filling ratio was surely off, but otherwise I think this turned out to be a fairly accurate and tasty replica. Speaking of, "tasty cheese" is apparently what Aussies and Kiwis call what we'd think of as sharp cheddar cheese, to the extent that you can refer to "tasty and crackers" and people will apparently know what you mean.

Watties sauce | Recipes

It seems that Watties is to NZ what Heinz is to the US, the universal tomato condiment. Watties is apparently a little runnier, a little sweeter, and a little more spiced — it's known as tomato sauce, not ketchup. Not finding any here, I made my own, with frozen pureed tomatoes from last year's harvest. The recipe I followed had a shocking amount of allspice, so I cut back quite a bit and even then it was pretty strong. It was pretty good, but unless you have a strong reason to recreate the flavor of the original (like, if you have an around-the-world cooking project or are really trying to impress a Kiwi), you may as well just make do with ketchup.

Lamb with mint sauce | Recipe for mint sauce

There's about seven sheep for every New Zealander — and that's down from twenty a few decades ago! — and accordingly, those Radio NZ listeners made very clear that lamb was required on our table. It seems that the classic version, fit for a feast, is a roast leg, whether in a classic austere British style, or enlivened by garlic and herbs; the latter's what I chose to do. I got a whole leg (bone in, including the shank), studded it with garlic and rosemary, and let it cook for hours. I also whipped up some mint sauce with a splash of malt vinegar, two ingredients that contrast nicely.

The lamb was good, but not great, kind of a disappointment given the quality and expense of the meat. I mean, we all enjoyed it, but I was hoping it'd be something more.

Minty peas Recipe

Mint again! Green peas, green onions, and mint made for a vibrant hint of sunnier days. Easy to throw together, tasty, and decently healthy.

Kaanga waru | Steamed sweet potato and corn pudding |Recipe

To properly represent the cuisine of the Māori, the indigenous Polynesians who predated the British, I ought to have done a hangi. But that would have required digging a pit in the yard, superheating rocks in an adjacent fire, quickly moving said rocks into the pit, lowering in sackcloth-enrobed bunch of meat plus veggies, and covering the whole thing with soil for several hours. Even if I had all the space and time, it seems that watching a few YouTube videos isn't enough, that without having learned from others you risk making a muddy, undercooked mess of it all. Time for plan B.

Several listeners suggested that our meal include kumara, which as the sound of the name suggests is also a Māori food; Americans know it as sweet potato. While kumara is quite common around NZ, this dish is Māori through and through, though the cooking technique and most of the ingredients come from the British! It's a dense loaf of shredded kumara, cornmeal, flour, sugar, milk and butter, steamed in a cheesecloth. It's dense, and it's really pretty tasty.

Pavlova | Baked meringue with fruit | Recipe

Aussies and Kiwis may argue about who owns the "pav," but history is on New Zealand's side; while it grew very popular in Australia, it first took form in Wellington during the tour of the ballerina Anna Pavlova, who was described as dancing as if she were lighter than air.

A pav is a marvel of kitchen chemistry, starting with the goop of some egg whites and ending with a magical, etherial mass that's crisp on the outside and chewy like a marshmallow on the inside, all thanks to a ton of beating and strategic addition of sugar, cornstarch, and an acid. Once the science is over, the art begins: the pavlova is a blank canvas for decoration with fruit to your heart's and eye's desire. Of course, ours had kiwifruit!

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.

Meal 111: Micronesia

At 1 million square miles with only 100,000-ish people, the Federated States of Micronesia is both huge and tiny. (Obviously, almost all of that square mileage is ocean.) As with much of the rest of the Pacific islands, the traditional bland starches and simply cooked fish aren't the most stimulating cuisine. Micronesians have swung the pendulum far to the other side, with some really intense and novel uses of imported flavors. (Read below for what they do with ramen and Kool-Aid.)

There's precious little about Micronesian cuisine online. The two most useful sources I found were a few posts from this teacher's blog for traditional foods, and this astonishing account of some of the uses of modern foods on the island of Chuuk.

Along for the adventure were Emily, Jens, Molly, Will, Caitlin, Trish, Amy, Jordana, David, Michele, Emily, and guests.

Ramen snack "Recipe"

When I first saw that a common snack in Micronesia is dry ramen with its seasoning packet plus Kool-Aid, I thought it might have just been one person's crazy idea. But I read plenty more about the abundance of Kool-Aid, especially consumed in dry form, well, we had to try it. We tried various combinations: pork ramen with cherry Kool-Aid was best, and shrimp with tropical fruit was definitely the worst.

Kosrae soup

The island of Kosrae, where our friend Nathan did Peace Corps, is famous, at least throughout Micronesia, for its Sunday Soup. Below is a recipe, as given by LeiviaChenisa Situl in response to a Facebook post of Nathan's. You'll note from the photo that I included crab, because I saw clarified elsewhere that shellfish would work, and the crab was fresh at the market. Despite the simplicity, it was really quite flavorful.

Simple recipe. Boil your h2o first,bring up to boil then add the fish more better with bone for flavor for about 10-15 minutes and take fish out,make sure no bones in the stock and add on your uncooked rice cook all the way till rice cook and add on onions and salt and pepper and the last thing is coconut milk.


Half pot Fill 3/4 of the pot Fish- half fish or any meat 2 can coconut milk 1 onion salt n pepper with taste

Yapese taro salad

Picture a mayonnaise-based potato salad, but instead of potatoes, it's chunks of boiled purple taro. Pretty tasty, and the taro has a fun texture.

Rohtamah and kon | Pounded taro and pounded breadfruit with coconut milk | Description

The pounded taro with sugar and coconut milk, not pictured, was fine. The pounded breadfruit, pictured before being covered with coconut milk, was not. Never having had fresh breadfruit, I don't know if the overwhelmind blandness and mouth-drying texture came from being deep-frozen and potentially mishandled en route, or if breadfruit really is that unappealing. In any event, no more frozen breadfruit for me.

Sukusuk | Pounded banana with coconut milk

Straightforward and tasty, though yes, it's yet another mushy thing covered in coconut milk. The banana leaf made for a little variety in presentation.

Meal 89: Kiribati

Move over, Equatorial Guinea: Kiribati, a constellation of a few dozen atolls in the heart of the Pacific, now holds the title of Country the Least People Have Heard Of, judging from an unofficial tabulation of "huh?"s and "where's that?"s as we told friends and family of this meal. Even if you've heard of it, you geography nerd you, you're probably pronouncing it wrong. Say it "KEE-ree-boss," because it's really a Polynsianism for Gilberts, the British colonial term for the territory they arbitrarily created. That's why it's not called by any native name: as a collection of disparate chains of tiny clumps of land, there was no pre-colonial precedent for what to call it.

Kiribati is right up there in the hardest countries for figuring out the menu. My usual tricks didn't work: No Wikipedia article. No awkward but workable site from an embassy or the Ministry of Culture. No lovingly compiled blog by an expat living there, or a homesick student abroad. No chatter on food discussion boards. Even when I granted myself a temporary reprieve from the prohibition on looking at other cooking-around-the-worlders' sites, much of what I saw didn't ring true (though I ended up borrowing some). When I couldn't find even a Peace Corps cookbook, a trick that rescued me for some smaller West African countries, I took my search to the next level and reached out to a Peace Corps volunteer whose name I found in a newsletter of returned volunteers. Thankfully, Laura Montez quickly replied, and we had a great chat on the phone.

She explained the challenge: there's no cuisine as such, no recipes handed down from grandmothers around the hearth. On the further-flung islands where life is at its most traditional, food is, quite literally, catch as catch can: whatever you manage to pull from the sea; coconuts, breadfruits, and a few sweet fruits from trees; and a limited assortment of roots and squashes. Whatever greens exist are for the pigs and chickens that run around for a special-occasion meal. With that limited assortment, and the notable lack of herbs or other embellishments, it now makes a lot of sense why I didn't find much in the way of recipes. (Note that on the most populated island where the capital is, life is totally the opposite: it's so crowded that there's no land for farming, not even coconuts, so everything has to be shipped in: some from other islands in the country but mostly from Australia/New Zealand. Accordingly, the cuisine is quite different, with canned corned beef, curry powder, and other smatterings of global cuisine.)

So thank you, Laura, for the advice! And to Jaymee, her brother, and Deena for coming. It was a small crowd but we scarfed it all down! (Alas, we were having such a good time we didn't end up getting a group photo. Imagine happy people with their faces stuffed. Done!)

Papaya cocktail

In the spirit of throwing together what you've got, I juiced a papaya, which Deena mixed with some palm juice, lime juice, and rum, and voilà! A suitably tropical-esque drink to get us in the mood.

Te ika | Raw tuna

Laura told me that yellowfin tuna is the most common, but the closest I could find was albacore. I defrosted a few frozen steaks from Trader Joe's — if that sounds weird or unsafe for sashimi, keep in mind it's frozen on the ship very shortly after being pulled out of the water, and much of what you eat in a sushi restaurant was previously frozen anyway. (I also grilled some for those less inclined to raw fish.)

Not knowing how an I-Kiribati would prepare it, I cut the fish into random bite-sized morsels, with little bowls of coconut milk I painstakingly extracted by hand from fruit I cracked, pried out, and shredded. I've done this a few times, and frankly I can't taste much of a difference. From now on, I'll stick to canned, or at least buying it frozen pre-shredded.

Te inai | Fried parrotfish

Fiji Market didn't have most of what I was looking for — dried pandanus fruit, for instance, which I'd read about as being used as a starch — but they came through with a few fun things. A load of this fantastically exotic fish had "just come in last week" according to the friendly owner. A quick search on my phone revealed a parrotfish on a Kiribati stamp, which was good enough evidence for me that they've got it there. I let it thaw overnight in the fridge, removed the scales, and did a halfway decent job at filleting it. Right before we ate, I slipped it into the oil I'd already had going for the breadfruit.

Te mai | Fried breadfruit

We first tasted this peculiar food with the Jamaica meal. Popular as it is in the Caribbean, the tree is actually is native to Polynesia, and appreciated everywhere it grows for providing abundant, filling fruit. It's not sweet, though; like a green plantain, it's mostly starches and needs to be cooked. The tastiest preparation is to boil and then fry it, and that's just what we did, with a generous dusting of salt. Unlike in Brooklyn, I could only find frozen breadfruit at Fiji Market, but my palate, unaccustomed as it is to the food, couldn't tell the difference after cooking. Its artichokey aspect was less pronounced after frying than with grilling, but of course the texture was a whole lot more pleasing.

Te bwaukin | Pumpkin simmered in coconut milk with pandanus leaf | Recipe

Coconut milk isn't just for dipping, it's also a great simmering medium. Coconut milk and pumpkin are both foods that can go either sweet or savory, and in this case tossing on some sugar brings out nice flavor in both. On the islands it'd probably been a palm sap that seems like the Polynesian version of maple syrup; as an attempt of replicating the flavor, I threw in a bit of that palm juice along with regular sugar. (If I'd had my druthers I'd have bought palm sugar, which is easily found at Asian markets.) It's worth noting that coconut and palm are different flavors: while they both definitely have that toasty-nutty undertone in common, coconut is richer and brighter, and palm is muskier.

A new-to-me ingredient showed up in this preparation: pandanus leaf. It's used like bay leaf: added in a simmering dish for the flavor it lends. I later learned that I've definitely tasted it – in the water at Pok Pok, Portland's famous Thai restaurant. I'd always thought the flavoring came from rice, and I wasn't far off: according to Wikipedia, Basmati rice and pandanus share the exact same aromatic compound. So, if you want to impart a Basmati-esque flavor to your next simmered dish, pick up some pandanus from your Asian grocer's freezer.

All this said, a very tasty dish. We gobbled it all down.

Te bua toro | Sweet potato and coconut milk loaf | Recipe (in comments)

Once again to a fellow cooking-round-the-worlder for the recipe — though in this case the insight comes from the comments. (Corrections always welcome on blogs like these!) It's a coconut-milk based casserole wrapped in leaves: we saw this sort of preparation with Fiji, and I suspect we'll see it a fair bit more with more Pacific island nations. I ended up using some sweet potatoes, the drier white variety. The result was again pretty sweet, thanks to sugar, and not terribly impressive. I'll stick to the simmered pumpkin, thank you.