Thursday, May 06, 2010

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Papua New Guinea II: Bava Bona Taro

My next foray into cooking it up Melanesian-style brings me, coincidentally, right to my own back door. As many people in Papua New Guinea rely on the surrounding seas for their food, fish, shrimp and crabs are common throughout the coasts and outside the highlands. We here in the Chesapeake are no stranger to crabs, of course, so a crab dish was unquestionable.

The dish: bava bona taro (crab with taro)

There was just one little catch to Anne MacGregor's recipe in the Papua New Guinea Cookbook: the crabs in question needed to be boiled. Now, I have no problem with murdering crabs - I have steamed many a blue in my lifetime, and eaten many, many, many more victims of callinecticide (yup, made up my own word). But I cannot bring myself to boil a crab. They boil their seafood up in New England, and they boil their seafood down in the Deep South. But we do not do that to our crabs in the Chesapeake. It's just sacrilegious. So, instead of boiling my own crabs, I got 'em steamed for me - in the same Old Bay that they just do not have in Papua New Guinea - and picked the crabs instead.

The crabs are just one of many ingredients for this dish. I had to make a substitution here or there, and I had to do some multitasking in the kitchen in the process, as there are two parts of this recipe, a sort of crab and coconut milk stir-fry, and the mashed taro itself:

  • Of course, the crabs were a vital part. That trip to Richard's Crabs in Churchville? That was for this project. I needed 2 large or 4 small crabs. Three females and a smallish male gave up their lives for this experiment (plus another small male, just because I was hungry). Again, Tuesdays is $1-$2 crab day at Richard's. Each female was a dollar, and each small male was half a dollar more. Total spent: $4.50.
  • Of the other ingredients that went into this recipe, the pumpkin tops were difficult to find. The recipe calls for tomato, scallion (or as they call them in Oceania, shallots), coconut milk, and pumpkin tops. I truly have no idea what they mean by "pumpkin tops" but as far as plain old "pumpkins" go, in Australia and Oceania, pumpkins refer to any winter squash. I had an acorn squash lying around (paid about $1 for it) and just cut up and used half of that.
  • Two Roma tomatoes went into the dish, about $1.50 per lb - or about 75¢ for the two.
  • About three scallions, roughly 50¢ to $1 for those.
  • One can of coconut milk, which set me back $1.50. It was cheaper and more hassle-free than buying and processing my own coconut meat (one coconut would run at least $3). Though the recipe calls for two coconuts, I did just fine with one coconut's worth of coconut milk - based on recipes for processing coconuts into milk, the ratio is roughly one coconut to one can of milk. I still bought a second just in case.
  • And of course, there was the taro root. I had never worked with taro before. It's tough to find unless you go to H-Mart, where it is easy as anything to find. I bought three taro roots, which set me back about $1 at the very most.
After picking the crab, the stir-fry was pretty easy: just chop up the tomatoes, squash and scalions, stir-fry for a few minutes, then add coconut milk and crab and cook for 20 more minutes.

The part I had the most trouble with turned out to be the taro. On the surface, it's quite easy to prepare: just boil, peel and mash. But once you start the prep work, you realize just how tough it really is. Fir st, you need to remove the hard, hairy fibers on the outside of the taro. You will not get all of them off. Just try to remove as many as possible.

I'm gonna wash that hair right outta my taro

Next you can go one of two ways, either boil the taro until tender (about 30 minutes) or microwave it for about 4 to 5 minutes (this post from Just tells you how to nuke it effectively). I took the more conventional route and boiled it. Since I had also read that taro can be poisonous if undercooked, I wanted to take no chances, and cooked it longer than I probably should have. After boiling and peeling each taro root, I mashed it up and then nuked the slightly-purplish taro for about two minutes. The end result was a much drier product than I should have gotten. At least it wasn't slimy like taro can sometimes be.

Mashed taro

The dryness of my overcooked taro was still adequately masked by the rich coconut milk, drenching the succulent crab, squash and tomato. This dish also goes well with rice, by the way. The one thing I was most concerned about was how the Old Bay from the steamed crabs might alter the taste. Surprisingly, the coconut milk overpowered the Old Bay, not viceversa. But after all, it's not like a dumped a whole cup of Old Bay into the stir fry. So don't be afraid to use steamed crabs instead of boiled ones like MacGregor's recipe calls for. They will work just fine. Of course.

What's Tok Pisin for "Bon Appetit"?


theminx said...

Looks yummy :)

Peeling the taro wasn't an option?