Mi kaikai evri samting.
On my birthday (or rather the day after my birthday, but timezones are strange and I think it was still my birthday somewhere, probably. And probably that was more my “real” birthday anyway and… timezones give me a headache.) In the vicinity of my birthday, I made crab soup.
I’m going to use this as an excuse to talk about food in general and make this a themed posted.
First, let me show you our pantry:
Next, let me tell you where all of that came from…
The bread and such came from the super market (Bon Marche or Leader Price are your choices, though I got the peanut butter from the Tropikal Market convenience store after ending up there unexpectedly). the grocery stores are a great place for food which is dried, canned, baked, or ridiculously expensive. For everything else, there’s the market. One day I’ll manage to get a picture of it, but I’m sure that googling “Port Vila Market” will give you the general idea.
It’s got a roof to keep the sun and the rain off. It’s got a distinctive smell of too-many, too-hot people and over-ripe tropical fruit and mud and food cooking. The market runs 24-hours a day, 6 days a week and the stall holders sleep on woven mats under their tables. You can see them sleeping at night as the pass the market area, lit more brightly at 3AM than it is at 3PM (when you venture into the back of the market in late afternoon, before the lights come on, it’s shadowy and hard to see the produce).
If the Internet is to be believed, a few years ago you could buy live chickens and freshly slaughtered pigs at the market. I haven’t seen either, but I’m not discounting that they show up. What you can get at the market:
– Fresh flowers (orchids and lilies and hibiscus and some strange-looking tropical things)
– Coconuts (the older ones come in big, obscenely heavy bundles, the younger, green nuts can be bought singly and if you ask the stall holder will chop off the end with a bush knife providing you with a fresh and cool drink in an environmentally friendly container)
– Live lizards (banded iguanas to be exact. I’m not actually sure if they’re been sold for eating or as pets, but I think it’s the later since I always see kids walking around with them downtown… though I had a co-worker ask me if I’ve tried lizard yet and I’m not entirely sure they were joking with me so…). You can get unhappy looking parrots from the same stall sometimes.
– Freshly caught fish out of a dubious looking ice box
– Mangoes (there’s a big harvest of mangoes right now and as a result it’s sometimes hard to find things at the market which aren’t mangoes. Did you know that there are several different types of mango? Some are red and some are green and some are small and some are narrow and some have this little twisty bit at the end – and they all taste delicious)
– Bananas (about eight different kinds of bananas and I am determined to try them all. So far I’ve tried five different types of bananas. I hear that the varieties available change with the season so I look forward to seeing even more type of banana to sample)
– Woven palm baskets of mangoes, red and white kumala (sweet potatoes), taro, manioc, yams and various other foodstuffs
– Cell phones from one random booth in the middle
– laplap of various types sold out of coolers by women waving palm leaves to keep the flies at bay. You can also buy hardboiled eggs and different types of cake. Or you can get some meat and kumala on a leaf to go. If you’re in search of a sit down meal, there’s a restaurant-ish area where you can get a curry or a steak or a bit of fresh fish for 300-400 vatu. If you pick the right table you might get free fresh-squeezed pineapple juice to go with it.
Laplap, in case you were wondering, is the national dish of Vanuatu. It’s sort of a warm root vegetable pudding made with coconut milk. You can get kumala laplap, taro, manioc, or banana. Sometimes a laplap will have more than one vegetable in it. It’s all grated up and pounded and covered in coconut milk. Then it’s wrapped in laplap leaves and baked slowly in an earth oven. Meat can also be cooked with the laplap, and most of the choices at the market have a random body part on them to tell you what kind of meat was cooked with that laplap.
Here is laplap with fish:
Here is laplap with flying fox:
(I was weirded out by the wings since they were nothing but fur and skin. My co-worker assured me that they were delicious and then ate the furry skin with relish. I just liked the legs. I also liked… well… I can keep telling myself that they weren’t bat intestines, but that’s exactly what they were. As for the taste. It’s strong and distinct and overall not bad, though in certain places it verged towards urine. I found that the further from the skin the meat was the better it tasted)
Right, back to what you can get at the market:
– Live flying fox (they lay on their backs on the table panting and I have no idea how they keep them so still… if they’re drugged, or if they bash them on their heads or break their wings or what. In this climate,without refrigeration, life is the way you keep meat fresh)
– Aelan cabbage (it looks like giant maple leaves and tastes something like spinach. I like it, but it comes in giant bundles which always go off before I can cook it all… and cooking it all at once isn’t an option since it’s a pretty potent diuretic in large quantities)
– Soursop (it looks like a green nerf ball, it tastes like a pear and a pineapple got married and the offspring had a fling with a watermelon jolly rancher. The texture is like a very ripe pear – creamy smooth – but segmented like a citrus fruit and with large seeds to watch out for. I think that they’re brilliant. You’ve got to eat hem fast though because they go bad within a day or so)
– Papaya (or po-po/paw-paw in the local lingo)
– Passionfruit (You have to wait until it’s wrinkly to eat it)
– Other strange tropical fruits which I haven’t got the nerve to try yet
– Peanuts (raw peanuts with leaves and roots and dirt still attached, roasted peanuts in baggies, boiled peanuts…)
– A whole bunch of stuff I’m forgetting/not listing because you will get bored of this list of food eventually
– And live crabs
You can buy coconut crabs, which are huge, terrifying, and very expensive. Or you can get ten small crabs tied together for three hundred vatu. Since I didn’t have 3000 odd vatu lying around and I was scared of their pinchers I didn’t get a coconut crab (they can crush coconuts. Coconuts are bloody hard to open. I think it’s a safe bet that those crabs can probably take off my amateur-chef fingers out of spite).
I got the little crabs instead. They looked at me with mournful crab eye and waved their small pinchers.
I put them in a bag so that I wouldn’t have to meet their accusing gaze all the way home.
Back at the flat, I pulled the crabs (still waving their pinchers and giving me sad looks) from their bag. I then realized that I’ve got no clue how to cook a crab. Luckily, our land lady, Irene is the most wonderful lady in the world and goes far and above the call of duty.
She showed me how to tell if a crab is male or female (after which I couldn’t stop calling them Mr. Pinch and Mrs. Crab in my head) and how to peel up the soft part on their belly, stab them to death then crack open their back and pull out of the guts. The disturbing bit was that some of the crabs just did not die and went into the pot torn practically in half waving their claws and trying to scramble out of the boiling coconut milk. Sorry Mr. Pinch and Mrs. Crab.
Disturbing aside, the crabs tasted lovely. Since I wasn’t eating ten crabs in one sitting, even with my flat mates help, the rest of the crabs (still clicking their claws, and bubbling, and waving their eye stalks in a mournful fashion) went outside on the porch to await their fate.
You could hear them struggling to get free all night. Poor crabs.
Poor delicious, tasty crabs.
(I feel badly for them, but really, it was over for them the minute they got caught in a net and brought to market. I like the taste of crab and it’s probably more honest to dispatch them myself than go to a restaurant and get one that’s been killed for me)
For those of you at home who want to try making Aeland-style crab soup, the recipe (given by Irene) is as follows:
– 4 to 6 small crabs (or 1 to 2 crabs for each person)
– One coconut
– Half an onion, chopped
– One clove garlic, minced
– 2 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
– 2 tbsp curry powder
– 4 tsp salt
– 1 cup chopped green beans (optional, you can use any vegetable you like or go sans vegetables if you prefer)
1.Clean and gut your crabs and put them into a pot
2. Pierce the coconut to get the juice out. Put half the juice on the crabs and reserve the rest to make milk
3. Open the coconut, grate out the meat, add juice Squeeze grated coconut over the pot to make milk
4. Add all other ingredients (the amounts aren’t exact, add however much of whatever you like the most)
5. Boil until the crab is red and your vegetables are cooked
6. Serve with rice
7. Nom Nom Nom and try not to think to hard about Mr. Pinch and Mrs. Crab out on the back porch scrambling about in their bag.
As you may have noticed in the pantry picture, we’ve only got a gas stove to cook on, which was terrifying for me initially (never used one, not overly comfortable with matches). I needed help to light it the first few times because I was certain it would blow my fingers off, somehow. Or my head. Or poison me in my sleep. It hasn’t yet.
So, just as I was finishing this one of the French women came and told me that the land lord has a bunch of coconut crabs and he’s selling them for 1000 vatu a piece (roughly $10-12 CDN). This being an insanely good price for coconut crab I agreed to split the price of a crab.
We got to go over and choose our (still living) and terrifying looking crab out of a cooler. They are primordial monsters. Coconut crabs are the largest land-dwelling exoskeletonal creatures in the world. Their pincher are the size of a child’s fist and have teeth. You read that right, their pinchers have teeth. And they can break coconuts.
The land lord killed them for us, for which I am grateful (coconuts!).
We cooked them to the same recipe as the little crabs. The result was delicious.