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Taro leaves for spinach

Years ago I would visit Samoa and expect to be so immersed in the Samoan language that when I returned to my western world I would feel super fluent, showing off all my newly rehearsed Samoan words and phrases.

Samoa isn’t like that anymore. Today, especially in Upolu’s town area, it’s not easy to find anyone who doesn’t speak perfect English, or who won’t obligingly switch languages once they hear your overseas accent.

It makes sense. English is the language of tourists, formal education, international aid, and therefore, money. Locals have to make a living, right? It just means that I’ll have to look harder for a group of only-Samoan speakers – they’re probably living off the land in a beautiful kua village far far from town – and see if they’ll let me camp out with them for a while to continue my Samoan language immersion program.

In the meantime, I’ve learned that the increasingly cosmopolitan landscape of Apia is developing a unique, multi-cultural… something akin to charm.

Standard Samoan dishes we all grew up on – like sapasui, puligi, panipopo, German buns, keke pua’a, masi saiga, falai mamoe and pai fala – are evidence that long before it affected our language, immigration influenced our food. Over the last couple of centuries, we picked up culinary tips and inspiration from German and NZ colonists, Chinese laborers and probably even our Indian neighbors in Fiji.

Today, the dining experience in Apia is getting pretty close to international standard (whatever that is).

I just mean that if you want fish and chips, you can get GOOD fish and chips here. Want a juicy, flavorful steak? We have that too! Plus Hawaiian style pok√© (raw fish), fiery Indian curries, succulent thick-burgers with aioli sauce, chicken noodle soup and club sandwiches, eggplant fritters with salsa, and seriously? The best pizza I’ve ever had – anywhere – was at a little restaurant right down the road from Upolu’s main hospital in Moto’otua.

What’s even more interesting to me and my food fascination is what’s happening in the private kitchens of ex-pat overseas Samoan families. “Fusion cuisine” might be an exciting trend right now on the world wide restaurant scene, but for many home cooks in Apia, it’s a necessity. It’s not always easy to find ingredients here for dishes they’re used to, so it’s all about compromise and substitution with compatible local produce.

One of my favorite home cooks is Aunt Kathy. Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, she married my dad’s engineer brother, who took her traipsing around the world – well, Canada and Asia – before dragging enticing her here to live for 11 years in his hometown of Apia.

Her food is adventurous, influenced by the spices and palates of the countries she’s lived in, but always comforting. She returns often to the dishes of her early days in West Coast USA, so visit her dinner table for beef strogonoff and spaghetti bolognaise, chowder and casseroles, chilli dogs and sloppy joes, chicken wraps in homemade tortillas, cinnamon rolls and a gorgeous apple crumble. Because she has to make do with the ingredients available here, though, these dishes are usually served with a lot of love and a subtle Samoan twist.

Like that one time she made quiche with leftover palusami chopped in to it – genius!

The other night, Aunt Kathy made lasagne. This caught my interest because, while I love the stuff, I’ve never actually made it myself. I don’t know why… lasagne is so yummy and, it turns out, not that complicated to assemble.


It is a little time consuming, though, and was more so this time for Kathy because of her special Samoan ingredient – taro leaves instead of spinach. While spinach only needs to be blanched for a few seconds, you have to boil taro leaves for at least 10 minutes or else it will make your throat mageso (itchy). Once that’s done and layered into the lasagne, though, you’ll hardly notice it’s not spinach.

The eggplant, chili peppers, pumpkin, garlic and onions that went into this (ovo-lacto) vegetarian dish were also locally grown. The free-range eggs came from the agricultural program at a nearby university. Only the sheets of prepackaged lasagne pasta were imported… oh and the lovely mixed cheese on top can’t have been from Samoa either because we don’t have a dairy industry. (There’s an idea for a business if you ever decide to move back to Samoa. Bring a few milking cows!)

Out the oven

It makes me wonder what dishes we’re going to add to our list of Samoan standards. And how will we make them sound more Samoan? We adapted our ‘sapasui’ from Chinese chop suey and our ‘puligi’ from English (NZ) steamed pudding. Will our grandkids name ‘lasaga lau kalo’ (lasagne) and ‘kisa palusami’ (quiche) as some of their favorite, ‘traditional’ Samoan dishes?

What do you think?