Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Totally into Taro

Located in Oceania and surrounded by the South Pacific Ocean, Vanuatu is the ultimate paradise for scuba divers (apparently they have some of the best coral reefs in the region along with an awesome shipwrecked boat you can explore) or anyone else seeking a relaxing vacation by the beach on one of the 65 inhabited islands that make up this archipelago. The fact that it is a tax haven further increases the draw of tourism which has seen a large spike over the past decade. I think it is fascinating that there are still many active volcanoes that continue to erupt underwater as well as on the islands. The latest one erupted in 2008, but thankfully there were no casualties. Vanuatu also has an interesting history. The first people arrived about 4,000 years ago. They lived isolated from the western world until 1606 when a Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain landed on the largest of the islands, Espiritu Santo. (That means Holy Spirit. Ironically most of the inhabitants of Espiritu Santo are professing Christians.) Later Britain and France set up a unique blend of governments called the British-French Condominium. Under this, France and Britain co-ruled the nation under a single court. In 1980 Vanuatu gained independence as the official Republic of Vanuatu.

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The Ni-Vanuatu (or people of Vanuatu) generally grow most of their own food. Little gardens are common as is fishing. Being surrounded by water, the Ni-Vanuatu eat a lot of fish as well as delicious produce such as yams, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, plantains, and taro.

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Lap lap is the national dish of Vanuatu. It made up of grated taro root mixed with coconut milk and topped with vegetables and meat. This is then wrapped in banana leaves to make little packets that are cooked in an underground oven. The meats used in lap lap are beef, pork, chicken, and flying fox. I chose to go with chicken because eating a flying fox (or bat) just seems too exotic. (And dangerous after the Ebola scare last year.)

Chicken Lap-Lap
1 chicken thigh
2 tsp lemon juice
½ tsp curry powder
¼ tsp turmeric
salt and pepper, to taste
½ cup finely grated taro root
¼ cup coconut milk
¼ a tomato, sliced
1 cup fresh spinach
kitchen twine
blanched banana leaf (I had to sub collard leaves)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Bring a small pot of water to a boil and cook the spinach for a minute. Drain and set it aside. Toss the chicken thigh with the lemon juice and then evenly coat with the curry powder, turmeric, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix the taro with 1 tablespoon of the coconut milk. Place the taro mixture in the middle of the banana leaf. Top with the spinach in the center and the tomato slices around the edges, skin-side up. Place the chicken over everything, pour on the remaining coconut milk, and tightly wrap it in the banana leaf, tying it together with twine. Bake for 40 minutes and then unwrap the banana leaf so that the chicken is exposed. Bake for another 20-30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and golden.

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When I spotted taro root at Kroger I just about passed out from excitement. I had wanted to make lap-lap for months, but thought I would have to cook another recipe for Vanuatu because taro root and banana leaves were out of the picture. I couldn't find the banana leaves, but I scored on the taro. It kind of reminded me of mashed potatoes in texture, but the flavor was milder and a little bland. I liked it fine. The curry spices on the chicken and the coconut milk balanced everything out nicely. This meal also was easily made for just one, but generally the Ni-Vanuatu cook it for a big crowd in an underground oven.

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