Sunday, December 5, 2010

Interview with a Kitavan

Kitava is a Melanesian island that has maintained an almost entirely traditional, non-industrial diet until very recently. It was the subject of a study by Dr. Staffan Lindeberg and colleagues, which I have written about many times, in which they demonstrated that Kitavans have a very low (undetectable) rate of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and overweight. Dr. Lindeberg described their diet as consisting mostly of yam, sweet potato, taro, cassava, coconut, fruit, fish and vegetables. Over the seven days that Dr. Lindeberg measured food intake, they ate 69% of their calories as carbohydrate, 21% as fat (mostly from coconut) and 10% as protein.

I recently received an e-mail from a Kitavan by the name of Job Daniel. He's working at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research in Madang, studying the social and economic impacts of malaria and related health issues in Papua New Guinea. He recalls many details of Dr. Lindeberg's visit to Kitava, which Dr. Lindeberg has confirmed are correct. Job generously offered to answer some of my questions about the traditional Kitavan diet. My questions are in bold, and his responses are below.

How many meals a day do Kitavans eat?
People on the island eat mostly two meals a day. But nowadays, breakfast is mainly comprised of tubers (yam and sweet potato and greens all cooked in coconut cream and salt) and dinner is the same with the inclusion of fish as protein most often. In between these two meals, lunch is seen as a light refreshment with fruits or young coconut only to mention these two popular ones. In between the morning and the evening, we mostly eat fruits as snack or lunch. Generally speaking, there are only two main meals per day, i.e breakfast and dinner.

Do Kitavans eat any fermented food?

There are fermented fruits and nuts like you've said for breadfruit, nuts, yams and not forgetting fish. We ferment them by using the traditional method of drying them over the fire for months. And this fermented foods last for almost one to two years without getting stale or spoiled. Food preservation is a skill inherited from our great grand fathers taking into consideration the island's location and availability of food. Foods such as bread fruit and fish are fermented and preserved to serve as substitutes to fresh food in times of trouble or shortage. Otherwise, they're eaten along the way.

Is this really fermentation or simply drying?
To your query about the fermentation methods we use, apart from drying food over the fire, we also use this method like the Hawaiians do with taro [poi- SJG]. For our case we bury a special kind of fruit collected from the tree and buried in the ground to ripen, which takes about 2 - 3 days. I don't really know the English name, but we call it 'Natu' in vernecular. There's also a certain nut when it falls from the tree, women collect them and peel off the rotten skin, then mumu [earth oven- SJG] them in the ground covered with leaves to protect them from burning from the extreme heat of the fire, both from the open fire on top and hot stones underneath. After a day, the nuts are removed from the mumu and loaded into very big baskets which are then shifted to the sea for fermentation. This takes a week (minimum) to ferment or be ready for consumption at last. After the fermentation period is over, i.e one week some days or two
weeks to be exact, then the nuts are finally ready for eating. The length of time it takes before the nuts are no longer edible is roughly one week.

What parts of the fish are eaten?
As islanders, we eat almost every creature and body part of a sea creature. Especially fish eggs, it is one of the favorites of children. They always prefer it burnt on the fire and consumed greedily. Every part of the fish is eaten except for the feces, gall bladder, bones and the scales.

Is food shortage really rare on Kitava?
Generally speaking it is rare. BUT sometimes we run out of food only if there is a drought and the sea is useless. Otherwise, we tend to use the preserved or fermented foods on the dryer in the kitchen. As you would understand, we have seasons and they affect the type and availability of food on the island. In the beginning of the year, we eat sweet potato, cassava and mostly tuna for protein. During mid year, before yam comes in to replace sweet potato and cassava, taro is then ready for harvest. And then yams are ready for harvesting so the food supply is continued on. OK when yams are harvested, some are eaten, some are stored away for reserve and seedlings. In this way, we don't run out food towards the end of the year before sweet potato would be ready for harvest. So as you can see, the food supply on the island is somewhat planned by our ancestral economists where it continues throughout the year without stopping.

Do Kitavans traditionally eat pork, and if so, how often?
We do eat pork but not that often because pork meat is chiefly regarded important on the island. We only eat pork on special occasions so I'd rather say that pork is only eaten occasionally. In most cases in the middle of the year when the yams are harvested (yam harvest celebrations and towards the end of the year for certain rites and activities). Otherwise the everyday meal is always topped with fish.

How long are infants breast fed on Kitava?
Women breast feed for a minimum of 2 years. But breast feeding is again determined by the size and health situation of the baby. If the baby is looking healthy and big, it is most likely that this baby would be adopted temporarily by someone else so as to be removed from breast milk after two years of age minimum. Child care nowadays is paramount as people start to realize the importance of health and hygiene in general. But Kitavans are well known in that part of the country for their hygiene practices. They also got the provincial and district awards for a 'clean community' in early 90s and right now, they still maintain their hygiene level and awareness.

Are there any other foods that are commonly eaten on Kitava that I might not be aware of?
Bananas, pineapple, corn and watermelons. For watermelon and corn, they are plentiful especially at this time of the year.

Thanks for your help, Job! I know many people will appreciate reading these responses.


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