21 November 2010

Can you cook underground?

If you're Tongan, there's a good chance you can. And if you're like most of the people we know, you'll only cook in an underground oven on a Sunday, a day for church, food, and sleep all across the country.
The road was really rough

What does a typical Sunday in Tonga look like? For most families it follows the same pattern every week, and although today was a typical Sunday, for us it was special because we'd been invited to some friends' house out on the western part of the island.

It takes about 45 minutes to bike out to their town, so we started off early through mostly deserted streets as people started to get ready for 10am church across the island.

Getting a ta'ovala ready
We'd brought our own change of clothes, but when we arrived, our hosts had other plans; a large pink matching two-piece dress had already been picked out for me, and Loisi, friend and coworker at the Bank, was already starting to iron the huge pile of church clothes for me, her husband Folau (also friend and coworker at the Bank), and their three young kids. Showers are mandatory on Sunday; no self-respecting person would show their face in church without clean skin, oiled hair, and a usually matching, ironed outfit. And no outfit would be complete without either a women's belt, kiekie, or decorated waist mat, ta'ovala.

Singing at church

The church in this town was massive, with a huge, beautiful Tongan curved roof. The service started promptly at ten, ended promptly at eleven, and we all trouped back through the dusty streets, tailed by the kids, to go take the food out of the 'umu, or underground oven.
Almost everyone, all dressed up. The kids were actually really happy, but were kind of intimidated as their dad took the photo.

Folau's underground oven is made out of a recycled old circular washing machine, buried in dirt for insulation. In order to build a proper 'umu, he got up at 5am to build a fire in the metal basin while Loisi prepared the lu, or meat in coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves. He piled hot rocks on the fire, which heated as the wood turned to coals, and the heat was even enough to pile in stacks of sweet potato and breadfruit. On top went the foil packages of lu, and then the whole thing was covered with old fleece blankets to keep the heat in. This was cooking to perfection the entire time we were biking there and sitting in church, so when he finally lifted off the layers, everything was piping hot and well-cooked.

Taking the lu out of the 'umu. In old times and some families still today, Sunday 'umu was the only time you get to eat meat.

The hot foil packages of lu went into one basin, while the sweet potato and breadfruit went into another, ready to be peeled and stacked on a plate for the table. After much wide-eyed anticipation on the part of the kids - and us - we sat down and dug in, after the kids recited a short prayer.

Sweet potato and breadfruit, lu, mango juice, and Nau waiting patiently

The lu was delicious. If you've never had cooked taro leaves, imagine large leaves of mild spinach, combined with lightly salted beef or chicken with onions, slow-cooked for three hours in coconut milk. Then pair that with sweet potato so sweet and creamy you could almost eat it as a desert, and a chunk or two of - yes bread-tasting - hot breadfruit. This is all washed down with grated green mango mixed with sugar, water, and coconut milk to make a type of mango juice that tastes more like a mango milkshake. Needless to say, Sunday 'umu is one of our favorite meals in Tonga.

Lu: beef with salt and onions, slow-cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in taro leaves, baked in foil.

Double nap time
It's also incredibly heavy. Naturally after a large sweet potato and almost a whole chicken's worth of lu, most people immediately take a nap after Sunday 'umu, but today, we had planned to do some cake-baking.

After a short trip to her aunt's to borrow some baking soda, Loisi and I made a chocolate cake, chocolate cookies, and got really wild with a pineapple upside-down chocolate cake while the other two took naps. By the time we were done, the kids had come back from afternoon Sunday School, to which most kids go right after the meal, and they promptly devoured most of the batch of baked cookies.
Mixing cake

This was one of the few times the kids had tasted cookies or cake, because most Tongan deserts are either stewed or baked in an 'umu. A chocolate cake just doesn't bake right underground, apparently.

Finally, naps were finished, cookies were eaten, and armed with an extra package of lu for tomorrow, we biked home still full four hours later after our Sunday meal from an underground oven.

Self photo + biking + potholes = exciting

Thanks to Tim Moore for the inspiration for this post.


  1. Lovely post! I enjoy reading about your Tongan adventures.

  2. Thanks! I can't wait to read about your adventures (when you have pics uploaded) too! :)

  3. So when are you going to build your own 'umu? Sounds like this needs practice, and like you might like to do this on your own after Tonga. You can, can't you, even if you live on stilts? Miriam

  4. It does take some practice! We'd need a back yard and a burn permit from wherever we were living. A lot of Tongans abroad have trouble making an 'umu because outdoor fires are restricted in those countries.

    But if we got the right clearance, we'd just have to find some bricks to heat and wood to burn, dig a hole, and get some used blankets at a thrift store. We'd probably also have to wait til we had a lot of people over, because 'umu is best done for a lot of people!

    A lot of Tongans abroad alternatively use a huge steamer pot on the top of the stove. You put water in the bottom, and your packets of lu in the steamer inserts, and just keep it on the stove for several hours. Either that or just baked in the oven.

    To tell the truth, we'd probably just try to find a Tongan family nearby and then do it with them! All the better when an 'umu is made together.


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