The history of the first inhabitants who canoed from the Pacific to dwell in the island was relived. It’s a first of a kind tour and the passion of Ngaa to educate locals and tourists about how the people live their lives way back then.
The Umu, An Earthen Oven
Ngaa of the Aitutaki Village Tours fetched us at 9AM for the 4-hour excursion.
He brought us to the marae where he showed a Tiki, whalebones and other wooden tools used by their ancestors.
A first hand experience on how to cook food using an earthen oven called umu was introduced. This is the same as the hangi with other ethnicities.
Each of us has to weave together hibiscus leaves to use in the cooking. This will serve as a cover to contain the heat and steam underground.
The umu consists of heating up basalt rocks in a pit. The scorching heat these rocks retained will be used to cook the food. Banana barks are then split which serves as a first layer above the hot rocks to prevent charring. Raw chicken meats are then put on top of the banana barks. Cut pumpkins around the meat. Red bananas with skin still on. Breadfruit cut in quarters. Fish wrapped in banana leaves. And that completes everything that’s needed in the menu.
Afterwards, banana leaves and the woven hibiscus leaves earlier were used to cover the hot pit to trap in the heat from the stone and the steam coming out of the meat, fruits and vegetables. Interwoven coconut leaves come after. Then a mat made out of grass weaving placed on top. Rocks are then placed in a circular manner to further seal the umu. It will take about 45 minutes to cook.
Then there’s another activity and that is to weave the coconut leaves that will serve as our plate for lunch.
While waiting for the food to be cooked in the umu, we managed to visit one of the stone structures erected by the first inhabitants in the eastern side of the island. Lush vegetation on both sides of the rough road lined with hibiscus, coconut trees, pawpaw and taro plants. The birds are chirping everywhere. The crabs come in and out of their burrows. Piles of coconut leaves collected by the locals. And Ngaa constantly greeting all the people we come across with. It is such a small community that everyone knows everybody.
We’ve finally reached one of the sacred stone sites. Grasses and shrubs have been cut to clear the path giving a clear view of the stones. These stones represent the number of families or clans who have occupied the island. It looks like a small Stonehenge.
We drove back to the marae passing by the hospital, police station and school.
The earthen umu is releasing steam while all the coverings are removed. And there they are, the cooked food revealing itself.
While Ngaa prepares the sumptuous lunch, we played a local game. It’s turning a husked coconut shell while hitting with a broom to keep it turning. Each player has to keep it turning to win. And another can topple down the other player’s coconut.
The feast is on. Grace is uttered. A woven coconut leaves with our own making layered with banana leaves serves as a plate. Then eat with your hands. And everyone started to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Australian family of 5, a lady from America and 4 of us from New Zealand graced the dining. We have chicken, unicorn from fish, pumpkin, banana and breadfruit with their own unique flavours without added seasonings. Coupled with pawpaw, pineapple, watermelon. There’s the sweet spongy white stuff inside the coconut called coconut apple. How could I forget the first fresh coconut juice sipped directly from the nut.
And that concludes the tour. The best local food I’ve ever indulged myself upon.
Among the 2,000 population of the island, there is only one Filipino family in the island. Ngaa dropped us off for a brief moment to meet Richard, Jen and Manuia. Ate Nora who just arrived few days ago as a tailor. Richard is a pastry chef and runs the well-known Mango Takeaway. Should anyone needs a cake for any event, he is the go to guy.
We rented four bikes to cycle around. Two of the bikes cost $15 each. The other two is $10 each. These were bought from Warehouse New Zealand. We cycled back to the Mango Takeaway and spent the rest of the afternoon with the Filipino family catching some buzz on what life there is in the island. Life is laid-back and down to earth simplicity.
Expenditure for the Day