NON AA TRII O NOHLEJ (the tree of knowledge)

A JAGGING WHEEL FOR AUNT (Part Four) ... by Rachel Borg

Friday, January 24, 2014

One of the cultural benefits of this interchange between the Islanders and American whaling families was of course the fact that the American whaling wives taught the Island women, among other things, the fine art of American pie making.  In time we have made it our own and today call them ‘Island pies’ substituting the traditional American ingredients of pumpkin, sweet potato, and pecan with Island variations such as coconut, lemon, passionfruit, hihi (periwinkles), and seasonal fruits.

And there were other benefits which can be attributed to the pie-making tradition.  On one such whaling cruise ‘Lass’ Christian, like many other whalers of his time, took to whittling whale bone.  It was an art-form practiced by many whalers of the time who often made love tokens for those they had left behind.  The art of whale-bone carving is known as scrimshaw.  Scrimshaw is generally associated with the etching of sperm whale teeth, but it is more widely considered to be any kind of whale-bone carving; especially from sperm whale teeth, or the jaw-bone of the humpback, which has been etched or carved, and polished.  The most common examples of scrimshaw are the scrimshawed sperm whale teeth which were often etched with whaling images, &c. then rubbed with lamp-black or ink.

In the whaling era ‘whalebone’ was a generic term for baleen rather than skeletal bone.  The Right Whale ‘whalebone’ (baleen), for example, was very much like ivory and valued in the production of ladies corsetry and the spokes of parasols.  But when Lass took up the piece of whalebone, with which he would eventually make a jagging wheel for Aunt, he was using what the whalers called ‘sea ivory’.  Sea ivory is the raw material for ornamental whale-bone carving which the scrimshanders (the craftsman who makes scrimshaw from ‘sea ivory’) used to form extraordinary and often beautiful pieces of bone art.  ‘Jaw ivory’ (jaw bones) were particularly well regarded for the purposes of scrimshaw and were accumulated on the voyage and put to good use making sail needles, bone knives, jagging wheels, and other useful items following selection of the stoutest and clearest- grained pieces.

As Lass turned the piece of sea ivory slowly in his hands, the fact that his mind and his hands turned to a jagging wheel for Aunt speaks not only of his close relationship with his ‘Aunt’ but is also, in retrospect at least, quite culturally significant.  A jagging wheel is the name used by the whalers for a pastry wheel or crimp.  It was likely etched or whittled when the bone is still ‘green’ (ie not dry and old); and as previously mentioned not all whale bone is suitable for sea-ivory scrimshaw.  Most whale bones are rather porous, however jaw-bones for all the extra work they do tend to be more dense, less prone to breaking, and more easily worked.

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A JAGGING WHEEL FOR AUNT (Part Three) ... by Rachel Borg

Friday, January 17, 2014

During the Island’s whaling era what sent a man, or boy, to sea was pretty much the same as it was everywhere else—opportunity, adventure, and cold hard cash.  Though none were ever guaranteed.

Whaling cruises of the kind which came out into Pacific waters were often rather extended affairs as the whaling captains could not return to their home ports until they had their full quota of whale oil.  An average whaling cruise to southern seas could take as long as 2-5 years, sometimes more, and this is why a whale-ship with ‘greasy luck’ (good luck) and a quick turnaround was generally a godsend for the whalers. 

The long whaling cruises also meant an extremely long time away from family, from wives, and from children.  But there was little choice.  Naturally enough during their time on board the whale-ships whaler’s minds would often turn homeward, and to fill in the long listless hours when the ship was beset by a dead calm, when there was no wind for the sails, no whales, and when the ship was ship-shape, the whaleman would turn their hands to any number of distractions—including singing, gamming, gambling, and  scrimshaw. 

Only a man of the sea might ever really know the true angst of long periods of separation from loved ones.   For Island men especially, culturally accustomed as they were to large extended and very close filial associations, the wrench of being separated from family (in its very broadest sense) was no doubt a particularly poignant and deeply felt one.

Any kind of sea voyage during the age of sail was guaranteed to be long and arduous.  To relieve the pangs of separation, to alleviate the loneliness, and sometimes for more pragmatic reasons, whaling captains often took their wives and children with them on the long whaling cruises.  To ameliorate the effects of isolation on their families, including the cramped and uncomfortable conditions on board the whalers, and the absence of feminine company, the Yankee whaling captains often left their wives at Norfolk Island to give them some semblance of civility, an opportunity to socialise with other women, and a way to relieve for a period at least some of the monotony of life at sea. 

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A JAGGING WHEEL FOR AUNT (Part Two) ... by Rachel Borg

Friday, January 10, 2014

As well as a small bay-whaling operation, many of the Island men joined the whaling vessels calling through to obtain wood, water, and fresh provisions.  Among the whaling vessels using the Island as a stop-over point were an increasing number of American whalers, many of whom were looking for crew.  Many Island men took the opportunity to sign onto the visiting whalers; and Lass was no exception.  In time he too would take his turn; as would another brother Parkin who at two years younger than Lass would become the Island’s most notable mariner.  In fact there is some suggestion that Parkin and Lass were quite close and likely spent some time working in the Islands together.

As a grown man Lass cuts a fine strapping young figure about the Island settlement.  He is not an overly tall man, but he does not need to be.  Like most male members of his large extended family he is well proportioned in an aesthetically pleasing kind of way.  His solid, well-formed, dependable physique and large capable hands reflect clearly his Anglo-Polynesian Heritage.  One suspects and does not doubt his strength.  All of which would serve him well for the kind of life he, and most of his contemporaries, were destined.  Lass, like many Island men before him and many after him, is destined for a life at sea and as most Islanders know keenly—once a man of the sea, always a man of the sea.

In his lifetime Lass Christian would know loss, and love.  It is the bittersweet of life which is prone at times to fall in the same breath.  In 1874 he married Mary Ellen Olivia Buffett (daughter of Thomas ‘Beiby’ Buffett and Louisa Quintal).  Mary, like Leonard, was also born on Pitcairn.  They had eight children: Tom, Chris, Beaumont, Jackie, Muriel, Monty, Dorcas, and Esther.  Esther was born prematurely in September of 1895 and survived for only two days.  Sadly for Lass and his young family his wife Mary also died not long afterwards on 11 October 1895.    

Lass again found love and companionship when he married Jane ‘Aunt Junny’ Nobbs, daughter of Francis Mason Nobbs and Harriet Augusta Quintal, in Town Church on 12 July 1908.  From this union there was no issue; yet theirs was a long and companionable partnership which endured until his death in 1926.   

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A JAGGING WHEEL FOR AUNT (Part One) ... by Rachel Borg

Friday, January 03, 2014

Leonard Elliot Wood ‘Lass’ Christian was born on Pitcairn Island in October 1851.  In his short life it had been the only world he had ever known; he was just a wee lad of four and a half when the entire Pitcairner community relocated to Norfolk Island in 1856. 

The journey by sea on the Morayshire had been, by most accounts, a miserable one for the small Pitcairn community.  For many it was their first open-ocean voyage and they had been plagued by sea-sickness.  Once they had disembarked on that cold and blustery day in June they found laid out before them a strange new landscape the likes of which they had never known before.  There was much to learn.  


The move to Norfolk was no doubt an unsettling period for Leonard and his family; but there were also grand new adventures to be had for the children who made up around a quarter of the population.  Most had not seen cows or horses before and they were soon to be found eagerly lined up along the Government House dairy wall watching curiously as the convict caretaker party milked the cows; and although they missed their beloved coconut milk immensely, in time they would (perhaps a little reluctantly) become accustomed to cows milk.  There were also many other curiosities about the place.  The first horse they learnt to ride was inadvertently rode to exhaustion.  They took much delight in rolling wheels down hillsides; and skimmed farthings found in the Commissariat Store across the waters of the bay—for the pure joy of seeing them glide and glimmer—soon became a popular past-time. 

And there was work to be done too.  For there is always work to be done in large families.  As every Islander still well knows, living on Norfolk is wonderful; but its also very hard work and adults and children alike are expected to do their fair share of chores and to contribute to family and work life according to their age and ability.  Everyone had a role to play in ensuring that things got done. 

Leonard’s large Island family was no exception.   In the year following their relocation Leonard would watch his father form the Island’s first whaling company and take up the arduous and highly dangerous business of whaling.  It was to become the Island’s longest serving and oldest industry.  Like his brothers as soon as he was old enough, around fourteen years of age, Leonard would also follow in his father’s footsteps.  It was almost a given. 

And those who sail upon Her know the ocean always proves itself a mighty hard taskmaster.  Sadly whaling would eventually take his father Isaac’s life, his brother Hunt’s life, and that of his cousin Jacob.  Another brother Ernest would also die pearl-diving in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).

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Friday, December 20, 2013

While on the Island the whaling women could at least resume some vestige of their former lives in which they could indulge in the more genteel and femine arts.  Island stop-overs of the nature that Norfolk offered provided the whaling women with much needed relief from the challenges of sea-going life including the somewhat harsh conditions (and company).  During their extended stop-overs here on the Island the American whaling wives were particularly regarded by the Islanders for their role in teaching the Island women the finer points of needle-craft, and the also the art of American pie-making including their beloved pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and sweet potato pies.  In time the Islanders would make them their own and today here on Norfolk we call them ‘Island pies’ filling them variously with coconut, lemon, passionfruit, hihi (periwinkles), and seasonal fruits depending on our mood or the time of year.  Everyone has a favourite pie and a much revered Island pie-maker within arms reach.  For generations now Island pie-making has been one of those highly regarded skills and one in which many of us try, and often fail, to emulate the unsurpassed pie-making masters who have scooped the pool at every annual show for decades.


From the American whalers we also adopted the distinctive harvest festival style of celebrating Thanksgiving; a long held and much loved tradition which remains a strong marker of Island culture today.  Indeed Norfolk Island is considered the only place outside of America to celebrate Thanksgiving Day in such a unique manner.

Many Island men also joined the Yankee Whalers signing on as crew members from around the age of fourteen onwards.  It was a tradition which was continued for many generations and ultimately it was this contact which provided the Islanders with the skill-base and equipment that would enable the Islanders to establish shore-based whaling enterprises of their own.

The whalemen of yore devoted a lifetime, and some gave all, to what was essentially a very dangerous occupation which at times in truth yielded little return for a long season of toil and trouble.  They endured much so that we, their children, might have a better life and despite the devastating consequence of a huge global industry based on the unsustainable mass-slaughter of such majestic creatures; history at least should not take that away from our whaling fore-fathers.  

Next week we pay particular tribute to one Island whaler who left behind a beautiful heirloom whalebone jagging wheel which in some small, but by no means insignificant way, tells the story of the Yankee whalers and their wives and their enduring contribution to, and influence on,  our Island’s way of life and its culture.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

As much as she might face loneliness ashore, she also faced danger afloat.  As the only woman on board, a whaler’s wife may have attracted more than her fair share of masculine attention; some of which was likely unwanted and possibly unwelcome.  And she and her children, as much as anyone else on board, were also susceptible to illness and disease. 

Living under such trying conditions as they did, any distraction a whaling family (children included) might find along the way would be a welcome one.  Often when two whaling vessels met mid-ocean they would go ‘gamming’ which involved an exchange of social visits; some of which lasted for several days or more.  Special ‘gamming chairs’ were used to transfer the whaling wives between vessels and these visits which broke up the monotony of long voyages were a most welcome diversion.

At this time in history it should also be remembered that the notion of the ‘savage native’ was also very much alive and well and it was considered neither possible nor prudent to simply leave your wife and children any-old-where for they might suffer some awful fate in your absence—indeed, they could even be eaten (really, it happened)!  This now archaic notion of ‘savagery’ however meant that the Melanesian Mission Headquarters located here on Norfolk Island made this Island a safe haven for whaling families.  It was considered an eminently suitable and attractive stop-over point for the Yankee Whalers wives, and an appealing place for them and their children to while away the better part of a cruise.  While on-island the Melanesian Mission staff, as well as the pious community of Islanders, offered the whaling wives a welcome opportunity to mix ‘with their own kind’ and enjoy a more dignified and civilised kind of existence while their men-folk took to whale fishing in the nearby whaling grounds including the Three Kings Ground and Middle Ground.


While life was perhaps a little improved for the whaling vessel captains and their families, they still endured similar hardships to the whalemen, including long periods of living in cramped conditions with substandard fare for sustenance.  Nor was their any escaping the graphic nature of their business, or the overwhelming stench as the whale was processed and the decks were filled with gurry; that visceral sludge and slurry or waste product which clung to decks and dreams, and permeated your skin, your nostrils, and your clothes long after a whale had been cut up, boiled down, and the liquid gold safely stowed way in barrels. 

Life on board the whaleships could not by any stretch of the imagination be seen as luxurious, but shore-life was in such stark contrast to ship-board life that in many ways it might almost have been considered luxurious.  Life on a whale-ship was certainly not for the feint-hearted and it bred strong, resilient women; but women nevertheless, many of whom remained women at heart in spite of the life they led.    

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Friday, December 06, 2013

So long and important was the Island’s association with the Yankee Whalers that a number of American and general whaling terms still survive in our language, many Islanders are also directly descended from American whalers who settled on the Island, and there are a number of customs and traditions which are directly attributable to the American presence and influence on the Island during the whaling era.

Due to the long and arduous nature of south-sea whaling the whale-ship captains would often leave their wives in ‘suitable’ places for a extended shore-leave throughout the cruise, particularly if it presented some opportunity for social interaction and feminine company of a suitable kind; which of course was always a most welcome respite for the women as it also meant relief from rough company and the monotony of life at sea.

Nobody would ever dare to claim that life on a deep-sea whaler was either attractive or glamorous for a whale captain’s wife.  Few thrived, for others it was to be endured, and for some it was simply to be survived. 

If her clothing wore out or was destroyed a whaler’s wife might find herself garbed in ship’s slops; those rough ready-made shirts, trousers, and loose-fitting garments that the whalers could purchase from the ship’s slop-chest or store.  Nor would she find herself dining on the finest of fare or among the best kind of company.  The standard weekly ration on whale-ships did not vary much and any addition or variation, especially if it was fresh, was appreciated if not enjoyed with relish.  Everyday ship-board fare would include standard rations of flour, sugar or molasses, tea, salt meat or ‘salt junk’ (dried and salted meat, either pork, beef, or horse) and ‘hard tack’ the rock-hard ‘ship’s biscuit’ which was the basis of all meals; along with small amounts of potato, peas, and sometimes fish or sea-fowl.   And whale-meat.  Of course!

One supposes however that a whale captain’s wife, with her slightly more elevated station in life, might sometimes be afforded some extra indulgence—not that there were likely many of them to be had.  One could imagine, for instance, that a whaler’s wife was able to eat ‘doughnuts’ to her heart’s content!  Yes, doughnuts.  They were undoubtedly the greatest delicacy of all on a whale-ship (they are not the lovely light sugary treats that most of us would imagine); yet these doughnuts were considered so delicious that some skippers banned them until a minimum amount of whale oil had been collected – as an incentive for the crews to work harder!  ‘Doughnuts’ were ship’s biscuits fried in whale oil; and no doubt if they had become weevil-infested frying them in whale oil must have vastly improved their palatability.


And if one was not inclined to indulge in ‘doughnuts’ then there were sometimes ‘fritters’ to be had; if the makings of them were around.  When the ‘case’ (at the head of the sperm whale) was broken open whale fritters were often on the menu for the deep-sea whalers.  These fritters were made by simply rolling the whale brains in flour and deep-frying them.  Fresh fritters were very likely best.  And holding your nose and not thinking too much might have been better still!

Fresh whale-meat, deep red, full flavoured, and slightly pungent was another opportunity to vary the menu and improve ship-board diets; right whale and humpback being the better quality whale-meats, and sperm whale the least valued due to its strong flavour.  Taken from the ‘strip’ just up from the tail, whale-meat was generally stewed or fried.   Some whalers also enjoyed the ‘scraps’, those lovely crisp pieces of whale skin which floated to the top of the hot whale oil as the blubber was being rendered down in the try-pots.  These were generally skimmed off and fed back into the try-works fires; but the whalemen also skimmed them off and ate them as a snack saying that they tasted a lot like pork crackling.  

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Today when we think about going on a cruise we dream fancifully of a few weeks of untold luxury and decadence; warm tropical Islands, white sandy beaches, and coconut palms waving languidly among gently wafting breezes.  Most of us would relish even the idea of a sea cruise of this kind; yet when our forebears talked of going on an eight-month cruise it was a very different kettle-of-fish (literally).  Believe it or not, an eight-month cruise was a rather short cruise back then—especially when it was a whaling vessel cruise which could last between two and five years—the longest whaling vessel voyage lasting a staggering eleven years all told. 

Not only was whaling hard on the whales; it was also terribly hard on the whaling families.  So it is little wonder under such circumstances that the whaling captains often took their wives (and sometimes their children) with them on these long voyages or cruises.   The whale-men even had a name for those vessels which carried women on board – they were known as ‘hen frigates’!  Of course when you couldn’t return to your home port until you had your full quota of whale oil, and when you couldn’t in all reality tell your wife how many years it would be until you’d be home for dinner, it made pretty good sense to take her with you.   A lot could happen in five, or ten years, and many whaling wives did in fact prove themselves to be invaluable if not indispensible members of the ship’s crew during the whale fishing cruises.  Mates in more ways than one, some wives were even called upon from time to time to captain the whale ship in the event of illness, or their husband’s untimely demise.

As whaling endeavours expanded further and further into southern waters the ‘Yankee Whalers’ began to call into Norfolk Island on a more frequent basis; particularly following the 1856 relocation of the Pitcairners to Norfolk Island as Pitcairn Island was already a well established and known port of call for the increasing numbers of whalers and sealers plying the Pacific.  In light of this early and sustained contact, it is not at all surprising to also learn that the Yankee Whalers and their families have had a long and enduring influence and effect on our Island’s history and culture. 

In fact the American whalers began to call into the Island with such regularity that an American Counsel was appointed.  Isaac Robinson’s job was to liaise with the American whalers, attend to disputes, and any other matter which presented itself is the course of the American business of south-sea whaling.  In addition Isaac also acted as the Islanders’ representative; particularly in trade negotiations as the whalers generally drove a hard bargain and were not always scrupulous in their dealings with the Islanders, hence the Island term d’baagen (to pretend, to do a bargain).

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TAALA- WHAT TO DO WITH IT NOW YOU HAVE IT? (Part Three) ... by Rachel Borg

Friday, November 22, 2013

Here is another delicious recipe using taala from our Tahitian cousins.  The great thing about this dish is you can eat if for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or an after school, after work, or as a midnight snack!

Taro Poe

Wash and peel three good sized taro and a fresh pineapple (there are still delicious fresh pineapples in town), arrowroot starch, 1 tablespoon of oil, and 1 vanilla bean (Tahitian Vanilla is the best, and from the Island of Taha’a comes the VERY best).  Wash and peel the taro and simmer until cooked in sugar-water.  Coarsely grate the pineapple (or used tinned pineapple if you want).  Soften a young banana leaf over a flame or in the sun, brush with oil.  Drain and mash the taro.  Measure out taro, starch, and sugar (2 parts taro: 1 part starch: ½ parts sugar).  Adjust sugar according to taste, mix well and add scraped vanilla bean.  Spread poe mix in the middle of the banana leaf, fold carefully into a packet shape and place inside a baking tin (slightly greased) and bake for about 45 minutes in a moderately slow oven.  Make sure poe is cooked before un-moulding.  Place on a service plate, cut, and pour over coconut cream or milk.  Pie is best served when still slightly warm, and best eaten on the day it is made as refrigeration changes the consistency of poe.  Mmmmm...Delicious!

Hopefully you are coming to the realisation that taala is a really quite a pleasant and inoffensive vegetable when well prepared.  At one time taala was a widely consumed and very valuable food source here on the Island.  So much so that it was considered a traditional Island staple; yet for most people today taala now falls into the category of a heritage plant and a heritage vegetable which is now mostly eaten in the older more traditional Island families.


So here’s a thought.  Today there are numerous new buzz words around about food; but in many ways for us at least everything that’s ‘new’ is rather old-hat.  We hear frequent talk of food miles, sustainable harvests, organic food, low carbon foot-print, food security, and wild or foraged foods. 

Long before anyone started talking about it; we were already doing it.  Our produce is grown in the soil and sun, it is watered by cloud juice, and we simply walked out our back door (food meters NOT  food miles) and picked what we needed fresh.  Taala is a very low maintenance crop and one of those foods which fits the bill in every regard.  Taala (along with yams) could be the new king (or the old king resurrected) were we all not so habituated and pre-occupied with going to the supermarket and buying dead food in plastic packets from far flung places loaded with sugar, salt, colour, and preservative.


Perhaps the old people were right?  Perhaps the old people knew best?   And perhaps the old ways are best?  It’s just that we are only beginning to discover that.

Taala f’ brekfes,

En taala f’ tii

Gat sam f’ yu Faad,

En haes sam f’ himii.


By the time we’ve finally worked it all out for ourselves everything old may well be new again—and we will find ourselves once more sitting down [a little sheepishly perhaps]to taala f’ sapa.  Perhaps because it’s now in vogue, or simply because we will have re-discovered just how good it is.

Daaset yorlye, tek keya.

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TAALA- WHAT TO DO WITH IT NOW YOU HAVE IT? (Part Two) ... by Rachel Borg

Friday, November 15, 2013

You can also make taala fritters from cooked mashed taro mixed with self-raising flour and salt and then fried in hot dripping, oil or butter until crisp and golden.  Another way to use your taala is to yolo (grate) it and mix it into your corn, or sweet potato pilahai (savoury pudding made from vegetables or banana cooked or baked in banana leaf).  You can also make a taala pilahai.

Cooking down or stewing diced tomato, onion, garlic, salt and pepper (and a little pork if you like), and then adding boiled taala pieces and cooking for another 10 – 15 minutes is also an enjoyable way to serve taro.  Cooked taala (tuber)and taalas liif (leaves) can also be added to soups, curries, or stews.  Taala is also nice cooked in coconut milk or cream.

You can also make scalloped or baked taro by peeling and thinly slicing the taala, peeling and slicing some onion and layering in a baking dish greased with butter.  Assemble dish by layering the taro and onion, sprinkling with salt and dabs of butter, pouring over coconut milk, and repeating layering until the coconut milk covers the taala.  Bake in moderate oven until taro is soft.

The very young tender leaves of the taala (pota) and stems (fafa) make a tasty vegetable and was once eaten fairly regularly here on the Island as a green vegetable similar to spinach and silverbeet.  Remove centre stem of leaves if desired and cut leaves as desired.  Make sure you boil the leaves in plenty of salted water (juice of lemon is optional) for a good 15-20 minutes and drain off the cooking liquid before using the leaves.  Please note that cooking times varies depending on the level of oxalic acid in the leaves; and that this can also vary with the type of taala and the time of year.  You may need to boil it for as long as 45 minutes in a good amount of water.  To test the boiled taala leaf or pota take a tiny bit of leaf and put it on the top of your tongue.  If no burning, itching or pain occurs when you chew it a little, then it’s good to serve.  If not; simply continue cooking until there is no reaction.  Drain taala leaf well and squeeze dry. 

Taalas liif  is nice cooked with onion, garlic, ginger, and coconut milk or cream, and seasoned to taste with salt and pepper.  Merv tal em taalas liif is byuutiful, es gudan f’ iit, es delikasi, en es swiitan lorngf’ koknat melk.

Young taala leaf is one of the main ingredients in Potter Bush (whether you are on Pitcairn or Norfolk Island).  Both Islands include pota (taro leaf) and young tomato leaves in Potter Bush.  On Pitcairn they use other leafy greens such as manioc leaves, and obrew (nightshade) while here on Norfolk we substitute these with silverbeet or spinach.  The leaves are washed, drained, chopped and cooked in a large pot of simmering water for about 15 minutes, the water is drained off, coconut milk is poured over, and the dish is then returned to the stove to thicken slightly.  Season with salt to taste and eat like any other vegetable dish.

Although we do not seem to have retained the use of fafa (taro leaf stem) here on Norfolk there is no reason why you can’t make the traditional Tahitian dish Chicken fafa which is still eaten regularly in traditional Tahitian households today (mostly with the taro leaf).  If would like to give it a go simply simmer the very young taro leaf and stems for about ½ hour and drain well.  Put chicken thighs or breasts into generous pieces, peel onion, garlic, and ginger cut finely, heat oil and brown with chicken in a pot.  Add the taala leaf and stem, fresh lime or lemon juice, some chicken stock and coconut milk.  Season and simmer (do not boil) for further half hour.  Check seasoning (you can also add a little curry powder if you want).  Finish off by thickening with a little arrowroot or cornstarch (also optional).

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