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Monday, 22 March 2010

Guest Post: A taste of PNG

I'm very excited to present our first, intriguing guest post.

I'm also very proud to say it was written by dear friends, adventurers and now ex pats, giving us a taste for their new life. Thank you.

Lots more excitement and fabulous images here.

And so, without further ado over to M...

Papua New Guinea is a country made up of over 800 different language groups. This fact sounds straightforward when read from the page, but in reality it means that communities that face each other from opposite sides of a river or a valley can each have mutually unintelligible languages and, by extension, vastly different ways of seeing the world. In such a cultural chaos, establishing your identity has always been, and remains, critically important. It is who you are, it is what you are, and it represents who you can rely on. And in Papua New Guinea, ‘identity’ means only one thing - land.

PNG is a country where over 85% of the population still depends on their land for their daily subsistence. Even in the centre of Port Moresby its common to see crops being grown next to bus stops, and in scrub land behind smart apartment blocks, and every family has a smallholding or access to one. No matter what your position in society, government minister or bus driver, everyone remains a landowner, and has a connection to their land, their ‘mama graun’ (lit. their homeland, their mother’s land). This connection to land also translates into a strong connection and a love for food, and is probably an understudied part of national identity. If you eat sago, you will probably be from the Sepik, taro and reef fish makes you an islander, and sweet potato and pigs puts you firmly in the Highlands….

A whole new perspective on ‘you are what you eat’.

As life continues to change rapidly for the majority of Papua New Guinean’s, the symbols of land and food will only become more important as tools in asserting their identity in future years. In many ways the development of a ‘cuisine’ could be seen as the ultimate expression of this search for identity, just as neeps, haggis and tatties define the Scottish internationally, and fish and chips define the British. Perhaps a Scot in a kilt eating a haggis on Burns Night has more in common with a Sepik man with crocodile skin scarification tucking into a crocodile foot than we might first think, and in the most unexpected ways!

An identifiable cuisine in PNG is still some way off, and perhaps this reflects the difficulty of homogenizing a presentable national identity in such a diverse culture. Food and eating for visitors can still be a bewildering experience, and is definitely adventurous. Outside of the hotels, which produce the usual range of international compromise (not quite local, not quite European, and nowhere in between), food is still an adventure. Most locals have a diet of superb (and organic!) vegetables, most of which I have never seen outside of the country, combined with a sometimes excellent, sometimes terrifying selection of animals. A meal can therefore range from superb fresh pork, cooked underground on hot stones in a banana leaf with roasted sweet potatoes and vegetables in coconut milk, to skewered monitor lizard, grilled over an open fire with its intestines as a side dish. It is that random. Many people still hunt, fish and gather for their daily meal, so it depends what can be caught or what is in season as to what you might end up with on your plate. And, as meat is a rarity whatever form it takes, so every last piece is always savoured - bone marrow, nails and all. Be warned, and remember that next time that C sneaks his trademark haggis into your next meal (what’s next – haggis dessert?), he’s only re-asserting his identity….

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