Pasta with random vegetables and processed cheese
A recipe for those on islands far from home
Westerners who come to teach on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu sometimes naively bring cookery books with them. One past gap volunteer left behind a book of recipes written by her grandmother - who, according to the book's foreword, was the wife of a Conservative MP (there is a little bit of truth in the stereotype of the people who take gap years abroad). Back in England it is probably a very good book, but when flicking through it on Pentecost, I could not find a single recipe that could be made using the ingredients available in the local stores.
The American Peace Corps, who often seem like the only people in the whole of Vanuatu who try to do things properly, have a book of Western recipes specially adapted to the minimal ingredients found on the islands. However, even these recipes assume that the book's owner has done a certain amount of shopping in town, or has generous friends and relatives who will send boxes of food from the States. Good cooking can achieve a lot, but it is not biochemically possible to turn rice, sugar and tinned tuna into a steaming Hawaiian pizza with extra toppings.
Here, therefore, is my own contribution to the literature on island cooking. It's easy-ish, it tastes OK-ish, and after shuffling home from the kava bar you're seldom hungry anyway...
First step: get a packet of pasta out of its rat-proof container and inspect it to see if it contains weevils.
Weevils are probably quite nutritious, and are too small to affect the taste and texture of the food much, but for psychological reasons you might wish to remove them. If you empty the pasta into a bowl and leave it for a few minutes, some of the weevils will instinctively crawl out over the rim of the bowl and wander away somewhere (it doesn't really matter where, so long as the rest of your food supplies are well sealed). You can strain off the rest with water: pasta sinks, whilst agitated weevils float. If you're lucky enough to live in a house with running water, you can do this four or five times. Macaroni needs extra rinsing, as the weevils hide inside the tubes of pasta. Rinsing also removes the tiny crumbs of pasta nibbled away by the weevils, which would otherwise create a sticky mess when cooked.
If you thought the packet of pasta was sealed, it's worth investigating how the weevils got in. Maybe your container wasn't as rat-proof as you thought, and the packet has been gnawed into. If the rats have been at the pasta in a serious way then you could be forgiven for throwing the whole lot out and opening a packet of breakfast crackers (the hungry island-dweller's trusty standby when there's nothing else in the cupboard), but pasta is hard to come by on Pentecost, and boiling will kill any germs the rats might have introduced, right?
Having removed the weevils (and any ants that might have got in along with them), put a couple of handfuls of pasta in a saucepan and cover with water. Since you'll be boiling this water, you can get it straight from the nearest tap - no need to worry about whether or not the water supply is clean. The Peace Corps' recipe book devotes an entire page to the cooking of perfect pasta, but when you've got home late and you're cooking by candlelight in the half dark because the generator has already been switched off for the evening, or when it's evening study time and you have students interrupting you every five minutes by banging on the door to ask for help with their homework, you won't care how many minutes the pasta is boiled for or whether or not the water is brought to the boil first or whether or not you've added salt or oil. So just dump the saucepan of pasta on a lighted stove and keep an eye on it.
Now prepare the vegetables. Which vegetables you put in will depend entirely on what the ladies who run the local market happen to have harvested from their gardens this week. Sometimes it's capsicums (green peppers), sometimes it's chouchouttes (chokos), sometimes it's snake beans. Very occasionally it's tomatoes, but all-too-often the rats nibble those off the plants before the villagers have a chance to harvest them. All the produce is guaranteed to be organic (not that there's any such thing as an inorganic vegetable): local people can't afford pesticides or synthetic fertilisers, and with their diverse little gardens growing in rich volcanic soil there's no need for them.
If there have been no vegetables at all at the market, ask your neighbours which of the trees and ferns growing outside are edible and go and pluck off a couple of leaves. The islanders call this 'bush cabbage'. Be careful when trying new varieties: some kinds of bush cabbage, though not considered poisonous, are extremely diuretic and will have you up all night running to the toilet (which, at some sites, will be a pit at the end of the garden with a stinking shack over the top). If you don't want to brave the bush cabbage, you can buy tinned vegetables in some of the village stores, but they cost five times what they would in Tesco or Wal-Mart, and may have disintegrated into mush during the two or three years that they've been sitting on a dusty shelf.
Remove the seeds, stalks, skins and whatever other part of the vegetables you feel like removing (some of the local vegetables are unfamiliar to Westerners, and opinion differs as to which parts are supposed to be edible). Throw the peelings out of the back door; something will come by and eat them. Chop up what's left into small pieces and throw them into the pan with the boiling pasta. Many stoves in Vanuatu either have only a single gas ring or work poorly when more than one ring is lit, so it's best to do all your cooking in a single saucepan. Besides, you don't want to use too much gas, because if the cylinder runs out and there turns out not to be a spare one in the school shed, you'll be boiling pots of tea on Bunsen burners down in the science classroom until the next time that the ship comes.
If you see cockroaches scuttling about while you're chopping the vegetables, try to ignore them. If you swat at them they'll only run away and hide, and you can't spray Mortein at them while you're cooking in case the insecticide gets into your food. In any case, the version of Mortein sold in the local stores is the version that merely pisses cockroaches off a bit rather than the one that kills them dead. The good kind has to be imported from Port Vila, and your supply will soon run out if you spray it at every cockroach you see.
While you're waiting for the pasta and vegetables to boil, get out a packet of Kraft Cheddar, the cheese-flavoured form of edible rubber that very occasionally turns up in the village stores. If the packet has already been opened, brush off any ants that have got into the container, and check if the exposed part of the cheese has gone mouldy. (Kraft Cheddar is designed not to be perishable, but almost anything will rot when the climate is sufficiently damp and tropical. Even elastic bands start to decompose after a few months on Pentecost.) If there is any sign of mould, cut off the outer couple of millimetres; the rest will be fine.
Grate a handful of the Kraft Cheddar onto a plate. Your grater will probably be rusty (see the above note about damp tropical climates), but surely extra iron is good for you.
If the pasta and vegetables seem to be done by now, strain off the water (along with the boiled corpses of any remaining weevils). If yours is one of the houses that doesn't have a proper kitchen sink, chuck the boiling water out of the door, but make sure you don't hurt the cats that may be hanging around outside hoping for food scraps. (If your doorstep, like mine, is frequented by a Sinister Cat that you would suspect had been sent by the local sorceror if you believed in such things, content yourself with throwing rubbish at it, and if that doesn't make it go away then chase it with a big stick. Boiling water is just cruel.)
Now add in the grated cheese. Kraft Cheddar doesn't melt in the way that real cheese does, but if you can find mayonnaise, stir in a spoonful of that to recreate the creamy texture. When buying mayonnaise, try to check that it hasn't come from Australia, since Australian brands of mayonnaise are vilely sweetened. Unfortunately, you'll probably be stuck with whatever random brand the supplier happened to send to the local storekeeper this month - if he has any at all.
If you can get hold of a jar of Kraft Cheese Spread, a spoonful of that will really improve the pasta, but that's something you'll probably have to bring from Port Vila. (One local storekeeper has been telling me for months that "next week" he'll arrange to have a crate of it shipped to Pentecost.) The label on the cheese spread says "refrigerate after opening", but if (like most people on Pentecost) you don't have access to a fridge, just eat it within two or three days and it'll probably be fine.
Many stoves in Vanuatu leak. If yours is one of them, don't forget to turn off the valve on the propane cylinder after you've finished cooking, otherwise the room will slowly fill with gas.
If you have any herbs that aren't yet stale, sprinkle them into the pasta. (Note that cockroaches love to hide in old herb containers, so if the container isn't transparent, check carefully to make sure that there are no antennae poking up through the little holes.)
Tip the whole lot onto a plastic plate, and serve with a glass of rainwater.
If you're dining with locals, don't forget to say grace. Mumble it quickly in English (God will still understand you) and your companions won't realise how inexperienced you are at saying your prayers.
If you have any leftover food, you might consider feeding it to a hungry Third World child - there are usually plenty about - but since these children normally eat little but rice and taro, anything that's less than 95% wet starch might upset their stomachs. Perhaps it's better to feed your leftovers to the cats and chickens outside instead. Sooner or later someone will eat the chickens (and possibly the cats too), so this isn't really a waste, more a form of recycling. Maybe somebody back home should invent recycling bins that crow loudly outside people's windows at five o'clock in the morning to remind them to recycle their rubbish.
Finally, if anyone asks you what you had for dinner last night, tell them it was noodles. Most islanders haven't heard of pasta, and as 'pasta' is the Pidgin English rendering of the word 'pastor', talk of 'eating pasta' will only confuse them. People in Vanuatu did eat pastors once upon a time, but since being successfully converted to Christianity they've given up that practice. However, those first unlucky missionaries sparked off a habit of eating things that come on ships that persists to this day, and instant noodles are now one of the country's major imports. Noodles are considerably easier to cook than pastors, although since Vanuatu's last surviving cannibal died a couple of years ago, nobody knows how the taste compares.