To’ona’ai: A lunch like no other

May 12, 2015

The Samoans are almost excessively hospitable – especially when it comes to food.  Every chance my host family got they gave me food – and then more food for later just in case I got hungry. When I met up with a friend, or someone to interview it inevitably involved food of some sort.  Not that I complained – people who love food are my kind of people.

Most families in Samoa eat pretty simply during the week.  The majority of their diet comes from what they can grow, cultivate or catch.  On Sundays however, things get ramped up a bit and a to’ona’ai is had.  From early in the morning people start preparing this by digging a hole in the ground, lining it with stones and lighting a fire to heat these through.  Large banana leaves are laid down, then parcels of food are placed into the hole.  Typically pork, chicken, taro, breadfruit and pumpkin are cooked in this way, each wrapped in their individual leaves.  The food is covered with more banana leaves and sometimes woven mats, then a layer of soil is added on top and some of the hot rocks taken from the pit.  This is all left for a few hours and then the layers are gradually peeled off to reveal a succulent, smoky feast.

taro lalomanu

  ↑ Peeling taro with the bottom of a kids school chair and the lid off a paint tin. ↑

to'ona'ai the travelling anthropologist

  ↑ Grilled chicken, grilled taro, rice, chop suey and salad ↑

to'ona'ai the traveling anthropologist

↑ Palusami (taro leaves cooked in fresh coconut cream), breadfruit, fried fish, chop suey and rice ↑ 

I was lucky enough to experience six different to’onai’is.  One of them in particular stands out fondly in my memory.  My parents had come over to visit me and we were invited to lunch at a friends parents house.  The parent’s didn’t speak any English but they made us feel so welcome and treated us incredibly well.  We were sat underneath a fan and given soft drinks (they were a Mormon family) while we watched a baby play with some toys on the floor in front of us  Shortly after we arrived one of the younger family members bought us a hot towel to wipe our hands on (we were given the towel first, then the parents, and then my friends).  Then it was time for lunch and we were shown to a large table laden with all of Samoa’s finest cuisine.  Pork, taro, fish, and breadfruit all cooked in the umu so they had a lovely smoky dimension, as well as palusami (taro leaves cooked in fresh coconut cream) and oka (raw tuna in lemon juice with coconut cream, cucumber and chilli).

We as the guests were invited to eat first, and one of the children stood over the table with a fan keeping any flies at bay.  As we were devouring the delicious food, the baby in front of us grew tired and was put to bed on a mattress on the far side of the room. An older child of around five was summoned, given a fan and instructed to sit with the infant keeping her cool while she slept.  Incredibly she did so without hesitation or complaint – and when we left half an hour later she was still dutifully fanning her little sister.  As we were walking out and expressing our thanks, we caught a glimpse of the kitchen where around twenty people were huddled around a table eating what we recognised as the leftovers of our lunch spread. Needless to say we were more than a little embarrassed, but my friends explained to me it’s just the Samoan way – Fa’aSamoa.

The Samoan people really do go above and beyond. If you ever get the chance to visit try to stay in a family run accommodation in one of the villages so you have the chance to experience genuine Samoan hospitality and cooking.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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