By Jade Johnston
What To Eat In Samoa? Umu!
Some of you may already know my opinions on food and travel. Food is one of the most hands on way to explore a new culture. And the Samoan umu is no exception.
What is umu?
The term umu refers to the traditional Samoan style of cooking. The umu is a stone oven which sits on top of the ground. The food is cooked by covering it with hot stones and coconut frond mats, which keep in the heat and the smoke.
Preparing the umu
This is no fast food! Preparing an umu takes time, sweat, and patience. First the rocks need to be heated by burning the husks of coconuts.
While the rocks are heating, the rest of the meal needs to be prepared. The taro needs to be peeled, the coconuts need to be opened and scraped clean, and the freshly grated coconut needs to be pressed and squeezed into coconut cream.
This is not an easy job! I had a try at grating out the coconut… although I was lucky enough to not cut myself, I don’t think I cut the coconut much either. Although I don’t want to sound sexist, I would happily label umu preparation as ‘man’s work’.
Cooking the umu
Once the rocks are red hot, they are spread flat upon the ground. The peeled taro is placed in whole pieces on top of these rocks, and then using metal tongs, more hot rocks are placed on top. Then the peeled bananas, and coconut shells filled with coconut cream and herring are placed on top of the rocks. All this is then covered with matts and left to it’s own devices.
Food! Glorious food!
When the umu is ready, it is time to eat. Samoan culture is very heirarchical, and dinner time is no different. Guests and the heads of the family eat first, and the rest of the family eats when they are finished.
The fish and coconut cream mixture in the coconut shells had turned into a lovely thick (and filling) sauce, in which the taro and bananas were dipped. Taro is an extremely starchy root vegetable, and by dipping it in rich coconut cream, I was soon more full than I have ever been. (Although I still kept eating for a little bit, just because the meal was so delicious!)
Where to find umu
The umu is not something that is prepared every day. It is a meal prepared for special occassions, so it is not something you will likely find in a restaurant. I have read that some resorts and hotels offer umu to their guests, but if you are a budget traveller like myself, you mgiht not be staying at those particular hotels.
Another, more authentic way to discover umu, is to be invited for a meal with a Samoan family. The Samoan people are very generous and hospitable, and this isn’t as hard as it may seem. The umu is tradionally prepared for Sunday lunch, after church services have finished (the Samoans are very serious about their religion), so the best way to get an invitiation is to attend a Samoan church service. Make sure you dress respectably and conservatively though.
I was extrmely lucky to meet an American peace corps voliunteer on the ferry to Savai’I on my first day in Samoa. He also happened to be a couch surfer, and invited me to couch surf in his small village. After a couple calamaties (the bus never arrived, so I had to take a very long taxi ride), I managed to make it to his place, where he had arranged with his host family to prepare an umu.
The generosity of him and his host family are some of my most cherished memories from Samoa, and are definitely the closest I got to an authentic Samon experience.