REPUBLIC OF VANUATU
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Halo mo welkam long ol aelan blong Vanuatu. That is our best attempt at translating the phrase “Hello and welcome to the islands of Vanuatu” into Bislama, a creole language spoken among the locals of this Pacific island chain. Although English and French are also official languages of Vanuatu, Bislama is the most spoken and most fitting as we dive into this Pacific culture.
Traveling 1750 kilometres (1090 miles) north of Australia, we stop in the Republic of Vanuatu, atop the Pacific Ring of Fire. You may know this country from news reports in early 2015 when it was struck by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake, a volcano eruption, a category five cyclone and devastating landslides, all within the matter of a few short weeks. It won’t be of any surprise then that Vanuatu is ranked the world’s most disaster-prone country according to the United Nation’s World Risk Index. However, it should be noted that Vanuatu also ranks fourth on the Happy Planet Index, leaving us to assume they must be a rather resilient and positive-thinking nation.
Natural disasters aside, Vanuatu is a picture-perfect country, custom made for the magazine coverfront page that might entice honeymooners or middle aged couples for a tropical getaway. Or, if you’re like Aaron, you have a bromantic week away, sharing a beach bungalow with two mates. Back in 2012 Aaron spent a week on the main island Efate, clipping his PADI Open Water diving ticket amongst the island’s beautiful corals, rich marine life and historic wrecks.
Of course, as an island nation, the cuisine of Vanuatu is characterised by distinctly local produce - fish, taro, yams, fruits and vegetables. For those of you who have not heard of taro before, it is a tropical root vegetable that is a common staple throughout the Pacific. As we travel around the islands, we will encounter this vegetable again.
One of the best ways to experience Vanuatan cuisine this is at the central Port Vila Market. This colourful, 24-hour meeting point is a one-stop shop for everything from coconuts and papyas to yams in woven baskets or lap-lap, the national dish. Another option is take a seat at one of the Mama’s communal tables and be served a Ni-Vanuatu plate of food for just 350VT ($4.50NZD).
For our dinner we decided to have a go at cooking lap lap. Lap lap is a mixture of different grated root vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked with coconut milk in an underground oven. Seeing as our landlord would probably not appreciate a steaming pit in the garden, we opted for a conventional oven instead. The recipe is taken from Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific by Robert Oliver with Dr Tracy Berno and Shiri Ram. To slide the taste buds into first gear we choose a creamy chicken and pumpkin soup starter. The recipe (and dessert) was taken from this travel blog website. There are also a ton of other Vanuatu recipes that you might be interested in checking out. To cap it off, we prepared a delicious banana cake (with coconut milk) and irresistable home-made mango ice cream. The recipe for the ice cream is available here. For liquid refreshments, a Marlborough Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc (from New Zealand) proved to be a great pairing with its citrus notes and tropical flavours matching the meal well.
All the dishes proved to be a hit, with everyone saying they would gladly eat it again. Our energetic English Springer Spaniel had a hard time staying away from the irresistible aromas. We were also fortunate to be joined by our first guest Andrea, Aaron's sister, who was visiting from the UK.
Oven or a subterranean fire pit
Blender or food processor
INGREDIENTS LIST (AS PER ORIGINAL RECIPE):
Lap Lap - For the base:
2 large squares banana leaf
5 cups grated taro
11/2 cups coconut milk (try making your own)
2 cups cooked island cabbage, squeezed dry (substitute: spinach)
4 small tomatoes, halved
salt and pepper
For the chicken:
1 small whole chicken (about 1 kg)
juice of 1 lemon or lime
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon chilli flakes or powder
For the coconut sauce:
1 teaspoon coconut oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons thinly sliced ginger
2 lime or lemon leaves (optional)
1/2 cup flour
2 cups coconut milk
2 chillies, whole
1/2 cup roughly chopped spring onions
salt and pepper
Creamy Chicken and Pumpkin Soup
2 tablespoon cooking oil
4 cup sliced and peeled pumpkin fruit
1/3 cup chopped onions
6 pumpkin tips
1 kg (2 lb.) chicken
1 cup coconut cream
4 c. water
1 sliced green pepper
2 chopped tomatoes
3 tbsp. lemon juice
Salt to taste
2 ¼ cups flour
1 cup mashed banana *
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ cups coconut milk (cream)
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ cups sugar
Mango Ice Cream ingredients:
3 cups frozen mango chunks
1/2 cup canned coconut milk (full-fat recommended)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2-4 tablespoons agave nectar (or liquid sweetener of choice such as honey or maple syrup), to taste
pinch of salt (optional)
Mango Ice Cream method:
1. Place all ingredients in blender or food processor.
2. Process until mixture is smooth and creamy and there are no more mango chunks. Do not over process or it will begin to melt.
3. Serve immediately. Enjoy!
* Save your banana peels for your garden
Soak in these facts while you wait for your lap lap to cook.
The ancient practice of land-diving (or precursory bungy jumping with elastic liana vines wrapped around the ankles) originated on Pentecost Island, one of Vanuatu’s 83 islands. The goal is to land close enough to the ground to just graze it with hair or shoulder, bearing in mind the launching tower is 100 feet high. For those who survive, this proves their manhood and ensures a good yam harvest for the following season.
More than 100 languages are found in Vanuatu, making it per capita the world's most linguistically diverse country.
Torba province, the northernmost island grouping in the sprawling archipelago, aims to introduce legislation prohibiting all foreign food, with the aim of becoming an entirely organic region by 2020. The province has a population of just under 10,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers. In the meantime, tourism bungalows have been ordered to serve guests only locally-sourced, organic produce.
Climb the world's most accessible live volcano, Mount Yasur. This constantly erupting volcano on Tanna island is just a 10-minute walk from the car park and a 45-minute flight from Port Vila. The glowing molten rock is apparently what attracted Captain James Cook on the first European journey to the island in 1774. Epic.
Don scuba gear and access the wrecks of sunken ferries, yachts, cargo ships, sea planes and most famously, the wreck of the SS President Coolidge off the island of Espiritu Santo. The luxury cruise liner and later WWII troop carrier was run aground and sunk by the Americans. Espiritu Santo also features the diving site of Million Dollar Point, where Americans dumped millions of dollars’ worth of military goods into the harbour just to spite the British and French.
See the stunning blue holes of Espiritu Santo. Paddle one of Espiritu Santo’s many pristine waterways before snorkelling and tree jumping in the 30-meter deep spring formed holes. A book and camera wouldn't go amiss here.
Tell us about your Vanuatu adventures and get ready for our next adventure in Fiji. Join our subscribers list to receive updates on new posts.