Back in the day, the umu was how all Samoans cooked their food. While that can still be true in more rural areas, the spread of the gas/electric stove has definitely reduced the need to fire one of these bad boys up just for dinner. Particularly in Apia, the umu is basically the Samoan equivalent of a Sunday barbeque–most families cook a large lunch and then take a nap before evening church services. Even families who don’t have an umu will get takeout from a restaurant.
Typically, men–who delegate to the younger boys–are in charge of the umu (further reinforcing the Sunday barbeque image). While cooking with hot rocks is definitely not unique to Samoa, Francis (one of the MacDonalds, who I’m staying with) tells me that he believes it’s unique amongst the Pacific islanders to do it above ground, as everyone else digs a hole in the ground to put the rocks in. He doesn’t understand why they do it that way because he claims the dirt ruins the taste of the food–but after nervously watching scaldingly hot rocks pushed around next to flip-flop clad feet, I can see at least one motivation for digging that hole.
Wait, what is an umu and how do the rocks get so hot? I better back up.
An umu is basically an outdoor Samoan oven/grill/stove/multipurpose cooking situation. I refer to it as a situation because oven/grill/stove seems to compare it to an appliance, which it’s really not. Its components include rocks, wood, coconut husks & shells, and giant leaves of an unknown source, possibly banana. Cooking utensils include wooden tongs, a long stick, and honestly not much else. The fire is built with the rocks surrounded by a pyramid of fuel. Coconut husks burn well, but I’m told that the shells burn the hottest, sometimes producing a blue flame. The fire is lit in the middle and the rocks sink to the ground as the fuel is eaten up.
Once everything is basically burned down, the logs are removed from the sides and the rocks are spread out. Things that need the most cooking (breadfruit, taro, bananas) are placed in a layer directly on the rocks. Another layer of rocks is arranged on top of them, and the more delicate things (packets of young taro leaves with coconut cream) are put on top. You can also put pots or pans of other things in there–we had beef ribs and albacore mixed with coconut cream and chilis cooking on there as well. When all the food is in place, the giant leaves (banana? I honestly forgot to ask.) are used to cover the entire thing and seal all the heat and moisture in. Francis and Tony (a friend who is an expert umu-er) also threw a plastic tarp on top, although I’m guessing this is not strictly old-school traditional.
After 45-60 minutes, all the layers are peeled back (the leaves are soaked by steam at this point!) and all you have to do is dig through the hot rocks without maiming yourself, then delicious Sunday lunch is served!
On this particular day, there were three things that I really saw being prepped for cooking in the umu (the fourth thing cooked was the beef ribs, but they were basically just foil-wrapped in a pan and tossed on the umu). The most interesting part of it for me was probably watching the coconut cream being made, because this is a commonly used substance in Samoan cooking and the process was pretty labor intense. At this point, I have definitely developed a newfound appreciation of the coconut. It is totally insane how many uses the fruit and tree have, including providing both food AND fuel for the umu. Francis referred to it as a kind of ‘tree of life’ for Samoans and I have to agree. Between coconuts and breadfruit, no one in Samoa will ever starve.
1. Breadfruit: Breadfruit has a peel and can be cooked without removing it, but it’s easier to peel first and then not worry about it as you feast later. Peeling is a pretty standard process, except that Tony braces each breadfruit on a wooden peg (apparently standard breadfruit peeling equipment) and uses the chopped-off top of a tin can more effectively than any vegetable peeler I have ever wielded. Honestly pretty badass. Once peeled, they’re ready–so not too much prep there.
2. Lu’au: I can truthfully say I never once thought about taro leaves because I always thought of them as kind of like a potato, and who thinks about potatoes as having leaves?? But, I suppose root vegetables are the ROOT of a plant, and plants tend to have leaves, so it shouldn’t be so weird after all. Young taro leaves (palusami) are the only leafy vegetable that I’ve seen incorporated with any sincerity into Samoan cooking. Lu’au is young taro leaves cooked with coconut cream, and it is DELICIOUS as well as impressive in preparation.
Tony puts a fist into a stack of 5 or 6 leaves to make a bowl, pours coconut cream (mixed with a little salt and some onions) in, and pinches the top off to make a little ball. The coconut cream is totally liquid–and he’s worked his tail off the make it–so I’m a little anxious that it’s going to spill out somehow, but I shouldn’t worry. Tony knows his stuff. He takes other leaves (again failed to catch the kind. But they are tougher, non-edible ones that he’s placed on the fire briefly to ‘soften’ and de-stemmed for flexibility. Like I said, umu-expert.) and wraps the little lu’au ball, somehow tucking the ends all in so that they stay wrapped without tying them up.
A few of them are stuffed with the albacore-coconut cream-chili mixture, but then he runs out of palusami so the rest of the fish is just cooked in the pot. It is also DELICIOUS, although coconut cream is so rich it’s hard to eat too much of anything that’s cooked with it.
3. Coconut Cream: So where does all of this coconut cream come from? Well first, Tony sits on this special stool, which has a spiky point sticking out of one end. He grabs coconut halves and grates them until the meat is gone, of course at an alarming pace that makes it look ridiculously easy. Maybe next week I will try my hand at this, but I’m sure I will confirm my suspicion that it is not, in fact, ridiculously easy.
About ten coconuts later, he’s left with a tray of finely shredded coconut. He then takes the fibers from a some-kind-of tree and quickly, efficiently scoops up the coconut shreds and wrings the cream out of them. The remaining pulp is tossed in the grass for the chickens to eat. Again, the process looks simple in that suspicious way of someone who has totally mastered a ridiculously complex task. And in those easy steps, a couple cups of coconut cream have been made!