Friday, October 19, 2012

Sunday Lunch, Tongan Style

If you've wondered about traditional food here, this is Tongan Fare 101. Let's talk about "Lu" (pronounced loo), the self-proclaimed favorite food and after church meal of choice for most Tongans. I knew that this type of preparation was pretty common among all the Polynesian cultures, and this is Tonga's particular version. This last Sunday, we broke out our camera for the cooking process so that we could share it with you.

Lu starts with a stack of leaves from the taro plant, which remind me a lot of collard greens in the US. Then, you make a cup with the leaves and add coconut milk, onions, and some kind of meat. This is then further wrapped in foil or banana leaves and cooked in an "umu" - the famous Polynesian underground oven that is heated by fiery hot rocks. Some umus are the picaresque pit in the ground, but some (like ours) are just small holes lined with tin, to promote further use. Here is ours:

Alissa preparing the taro leaves with Vaiola, our host mom:

Momma and Poppa:

Maile chopping some chicken and fish, and Luisa peeling some mango:

In my opinion, the coconut milk is the most hardcore part. This ain't your store bought, processed, canned version; this is the real deal. You begin by cracking open and grating some brown coconuts (using a tool that could couple as a medieval mace). The pictures don't do it justice, but our brother Muli is an absolute machine at it.

Then, you make a sieve out of some fibers from the outer shell of the coconut (kind of a homemade cheese cloth, if you will). Some hot water is then added to the grated coconut, and you use the sieve to squeeze the coconut like crazy, one handful at a time.

So, the coconut milk is actually the grated meat, pressed with water (not the liquid found inside the coconut itself). I tried my hand at it, but Muli said I was fu'u vaivai (too weak). He was absolutely right.

Here's the finished coconut milk and the assembly of the Lu:

When everything is done, the wrapped Lu and some whole root crops are put into the umu, and the umu is covered by tin and burlap sacks. Then, it's off to church while the food bakes. The finished product makes for a huge, delicious, pre-nap Sunday lunch.

Come visit and try some Lu!

- Mark

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