Rachel History - Wihi Plan ... by Rachel Borg

These two words have been rolling slowly over in my mind for several years where no doubt they have grown older and gathered a little more moss.  Why?  Because they are a mystery to me and probably many of my generation and younger.  These are the key words to an old Island recipe; a dish I had never seen prepared, never tasted, and in my lifetime at least, never even seen on a Bounty Day table (maybe I just couldn’t see beyond the mudda and hihi pie!).   A chance reference on an old recording set me off on the path to greater undertanding.  Asking around among the old people seems impossible now; most of those oel salan (old people) who I would have liked to have asked were of my grandmother’s vintage and long gone from this earth.  This recipe is not to be found in the Holy Grail of Island cooking—the Sunshine Club’s Norfolk Island Cookbook.  My be-smeared and smattered copy, now dog-eared by time and use, remain silent and secretive on the subject.  Clearly the mysteries of wihi plan lay now with the living.  But with who, and where?

But first, let’s go back to the good old bad old days of yore, after the mutiny when the men and women of the Bounty were setting up house and working out how they would work together, and make their little, completely isolated community work.

Work it out they did, for eventually as it prone to happen, the children began to arrive; one after the other.  And children, along with everyone else, cried out to be fed.  Dutifully the women took out their yolo stones (traditional vesicular basalt graters) and began to yolo their days away in the age old rhythm of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers and in the doing fed their children, their partners and themselves.  When the children were old enough they too took their turn on their mother’s yolo stones and so ensured the survival of this practice which seems now to be older than time itself.  It kept the crew satiated, if perhaps at times not always satisfied, with their lot in life.

Into the linguistic pot these English men and Polynesian women also threw their cultural lot; useful words, meaningful words, and words of mutual intelligibility.  Plan (often spelt plun) is the Pitkern-Norf’k word for banana (which includes plantains).  It is an abbreviation of the English word plantain.  Bananas (eating plan) and plantains (cooking plan) are a staple of traditional Norfolk Island food, and luckily so as this is one of the few year-round food sources, although plantains which tend to be more starchy, less sweet, and often requires more work to make them palatable have fallen further and further out of favour over the last few generations.  While plantains still holds an important place in Polynesia, and the home islands of the Tahitian foremothers today, many Norfolk Islanders tend to grow more multi-purpose higher yielding varieties of ‘eating’ banana. 

Plan (bananas) are still an omnipotent part of Norfolk Island life and for this reason alone it is turned to a myriad of different purposes and is used at every stage from green right through to almost rotten—there are at least twenty-six different ways to use banana.  The leaves and bark of the banana bark (rauhulu) also have a number of uses.

The word wihi is a gift from our Tahitian foremothers.  It comes from the Tahitian word vihi or vehi with the very common and interchangeable ‘v’ to ‘w’.  Davies  1851 Tahitian dictionary records vihi as ‘a wrapper’ and vehi as ‘a case, sheath, or covering; to case, or cover a thing; to make a thing into a bundle, and tie it up’.  Although this is an old Tahitian word it is also one of the Pitkern-Norf’k words which have been consistently recorded.  A. W. Moverly was an Education Officer on Pitcairn Island in the 1950s and his substantive research along with work undertaken by Elwyn Flint in the 1960s on Norfolk Island was compiled by Professor A. S. C. Ross into a wonderful resource—The Pitcairnese Language.  On Pitcairn Ross recorded ‘wehe’ as ‘to wrap up cooked food for handling and carrying’.

Back on Norfolk Island Dr Shirley Harrison, daughter of Morseby Buffett, in her glossary of the Norfolk language, was one of the first people to extensively examine the origin of Norf’k words.  Her substantive field work was carried out in the 1960s and her informants, including her father Moreseby or ‘Moss’, were born in around 1900-1910.  Shirley lists wihi in her glossary and states that it is ‘now used almost solely to describe a pilhai wrapped in banana leaves before being cooked ‘Es wihi pilhai' (It is a wihi pilhai).    Again in ‘A Dictionary of Norfolk Words and Usages’ Beryl Nobbs-Palmer recorded wihi as ‘the act of wrapping pilhi in banana leaves’ and gives the following example ‘I thought dem plun leaf muss be se mare-mare nuff fe I wihi deye pilhi, yu nor thought’ (I think the banana leaves must be pliable enough for me to wrap the pilhi, don’t you).  Finally in her dictionary and encyclopaedia Alice Buffet also identifies the word’s Tahitian origin and defines its Norf’k usage as to ‘wrap in banana leaf to cook.  ‘Ai gwen wihi sam pilahai en bail sam dem wihi tala en ‘ yaam puding’ (I’ll wrap some pilahai in banana leaves and bake them for us, the some greeted taro and yam puddings in banana leaves and boil them from those others).  Wihi wetls d’ swiites. (Cooking in banana leaf wrapping gives a special flavour).  If you think about, it when we wrap Island pies, quick breads and scones in a clean, dry tea-towel to prevent moisture loss, and also for carrying, we are also wihiyen (wrapping, covering and encasing them).

This all of course leads us to ‘wihi plan’; most people of a younger vintage will have never even heard of this term.  In many ways ‘wihi plan’ is a dish now well relegated to a musty corner of the kitchen cupboard; it is probably now more fairly considered a heritage recipe than a part of the everyday fare of today’s Island folk.  It comes from a time when food was sometimes scarce, there was far less choice—absolutely everything that ended up on the kitchen table had to be grown, harvested, processed, caught, or foraged. 

The process of wrapping food in leaves goes right back to the Tahitian foremothers and today on Pitcairn they still wihi things like whole fish in rauti and plan leaf.  This moist insulating layer allows all kinds of food to be parcelled and cooked in ground ovens, in coals, on barbecues, iinhoem awn (a home-oven - also called umu on Norfolk in earlier times), and in wood-stoves as well as the more modern gas and electric versions.  These kinds of dishes benefit from long slow cooking to preserve moisture.  As most people will probably be aware, long slow cooking also develops flavour and texture.  Cooking in ‘em doht awn’ (the dirt ovens) also continued on Norfolk, at least up until my grand-parents generation, which meant that different kinds of food such as pilahai, whole fish and meat required wrapping in leaves before placing in the ovens.

Joe ‘Joss’ Adams who very generously gave me his recipe for wihi plan; says he is the only one left in his family who still makes it.  Hopefully there are many more wihi plan enthusiasts out there who are still keeping the home fires going with these lovely old recipes.

F’ Miek’ Wihi Plan (To make Wrapped Grated Green Banana Pudding)

Tek twelw pu’u plan (ala maches wieh yu want).  Dem Chaina plan es gudan.  Piil en yoloret, udi yus mikscha, spil et orn wan plans liif s’ p’hiehet en meamearet. Wihi yus miks iin yus plans liif en taiet lorng’ sam yu buchas twain (ef yu mieket diip es wan pilahai gwen bi es gudan).  Padet daun iin wan pot o sloe bailen worta f’ wan awa.  Drainet den letet sit short letl.  Anraep yus wihi plan en itet hot ala koel lorng’ wathing aewa yu laik; miit en’ griewi, frai fish, ala jes wieh es.

(Take twelve fully developed green banana, or as many as you like.  The old Norfolk banana known as ‘China or Cavendish banana are good.  Peel and finely grate it, mix it and place it on a banana leaf which has been stripped and wilted.  Wrap your mixture in your banana leaf and tie it with some butcher’s string (if you make it as deep as a pilahai that will be sufficient).  Put your parcel down into a pot of slow boiling water for one hour.  Drain it and let it sit a few minutes.  Unwrap and eat it hot or cold with meat and gravy, fried fish, or whatever else takes your fancy.  It is also delicious just the way it is).  If you have plantains, generally known as kuken plan (cooking bananas), their higher starch content makes them perfect for this dish.  

In the same way that you make wihi plan, Joss says you el wihi d’ swiit tieti (can wrap sweet potato) and prepare it in the same way by yolorenet (grating it), wihiyenet (wrapping it) and bailenet (boiling it).  Taala (Taro) and yaam (yams) can also be prepared in the same way though less and less people grow yams and go for taro.  As a matter of interest, in previous times packets of food cooked in this way were tied by many Islanders with a strip of clean rag.

A little tip from one who now knows; when making wihi plan make sure that you don’t boil your pot dry!!

The end result is of an hour’s gentle simmering is divine—a beautiful, dense, moist rich cake of green banana.  It cooks to a solid state but is moister and softer than mada/mudda (green banana dumplings).  Some people find green banana dishes taitai (tasteless) anyway, but if you like green banana enough said.  Joss also said he does not put salt in his wihi plan, but that quite possibly the old people piled it on before or after cooking ‘dem lauw’ solt’ (they loved salt!.  I am glad that I resisted the temptation to salt the plun, I suspect it might make it a little tough and to be honest the lovely full flavour of the green banana warrants nothing extra.  As usual, the quality of your base ingredients very much determines the quality of your end product.

I even tried it with cream and golden syrup which, in my humble opinion, ruined a good thing as it totally masks the distinct flavour of green banana.  If you like green banana dumplings (mada/mudda) and pancakes why not try wihi plan.  I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

Joss, ever generous with his culinary secrets and also proving yet again that Island cooks are eternally creative, says the when he is not in the mood to go and get some plun leaf he mixes some ‘pu’u plun se yolo et’ (green grated banana) with coconut and cooks it in coconut milk in a pan.

One person who must remain anonymous says wihi plan  ‘Kaa duu f’ dorg iit ef nor gat’ koknat iin’ (it is not good even for a dog to eat if it doesn’t have coconut in).

Colleen Vincent says her mother Noni used to make a dish called ‘China’ which is very similar to wihi plan. 

F’ Miek’ Chaina (China)

Piil en yolo yus pu’u plan, pat in’ koknat ef yu want (el kain’ mieket drai bat ef yu laik padet iin), wihiet lorgnf’ plans’ liif, tieyet lorngf’ sam string padet iin wan bieken dish, kawaret lorngf’ hot worta en biek f’ gud awa.

(To make ‘China’ peel and fine-grate your green well-developed banana, put in some desiccated coconut if you want - (it can tend to make your China dry but if you like the flavour put it in – then wrap your mixture in banana leaf, tie it with string and put it in a baking dish then cover it with hot water and bake for a good hour).

Here is another important point of difference.  If you make wihi pilahai it is actually ripe banana pilahai wrapped fully in banana leaf before baking.  Few people make wihi pilahai (fully wrapped pilhai) anymore; many Islanders simply line the baking dish with banana leaf, and others now also use baking paper instead of plans liif (banana leaf)—this is the plan pilahai (ripe banana pudding or slice) that most people today still know and love.  Those who stay faithful to ‘banana leaf baking paper’ do so because of the vastly improved flavour, and perhaps also the moist, insulating properties of banana leaf.

Alice Buffett makes a good and clear distinction between wihi plan and wihi pilhai.  She says that the primary difference is that ‘wihi plan’ is boiled and ‘wihi pilahai’ is baked using a dry heat method.  Aunt Liz McCoy showed Alice twenty-six ways to cook bananas, in fact one or two bunches of bananas and not much else ‘es orl yu niid f’ pad ap wan alien dena f’ twenti salan’ (is all you need to put up an Island dinner for twenty people).

Pilahai is a generic Pitkern-Norf’k word of Tahitian origin (from pirahai – a species of wrapped food) and in Norf’k it remains as a generic word used to refer to a ‘species’ of food, namely a kind of baked sweet or savoury pudding made from different roots, fruits and vegetables depending on availability and seasonality as well as personal inclinations.  


It follows then that if you make pu’u plan pilahai (green banana pilahai) you are making green banana pilahai, this you will find in the Island cook-book but I suspect that today it rarely finds its way to Island family dinner tables to the extent that mada (green banana dumplings) and griin plan paenkiek (green banana fritters) might.  Pat Anderson used to do Island dinners and was taught by her mother-in-law Gigi and Nella Adams.  Pat remembers making this dish and said that in comparison to many of the other dishes it was dark, thin, ugly and taitai (tasteless).  Like so many of these dishes, and the times from which they came, the most important thing of course was that it filled your empty tummy.

Not only are the staple ingredients of traditional dishes versatile but Island cooks of old, and also thier studied descendants, with very few ingredients on hand do make very versatile  and intuitive cooks; they can make many things out of what seems like just about nothing, if they don’t have the right size or shaped dish they will adapt their recipes, they will make up dishes based on what is at hand, and they will use whatever cooking method suits the circumstances whether it be over an open fire on a cliff-top or beach, whether the oven’s going or there’s a pot on the stove-top the recipe will be adapted to fit the circumstances and surroundings.

The greatest beauty in these recipes was that the ingredients were readily available and their heavy, starchy nature easily satisfied family appetites.  Today, more than anything they keep us connected to our past and satisfy our yearnings for Island food staples, and our natural leaning towards what is available almost all year round—the every humble, but nourishing and filling, banana and sweet potato.

Special thanks this week to Joe ‘Joss’ Adams, Pat Anderson, Colleen Vincent, and Alice Buffett in helping to bring these old recipes back into wider circulation.  Daas et yorlye, en tek keya.


Speak Norfolk Today – Alice Inez Buffett, OAM (1999)

A Dictionary of Norfolk Words and Usages – Beryl Nobbs Palmer (Third Edition, 2002)

A Glossary of the Norfolk Island Language – Shirley Harrison (1979)

The Pitcairnese Language – A.S.C. Ross (1964)

A Tahitian and English Dictionary – J. Davies (1851)

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