12 July 2011

Do-it-yourself: How to eat at a feast

The Conference Feasts seat over three-thousand people 4 times a day for seven days
Imagine you are walking around Nuku’alofa, and you turn a corner and find the street jammed full of vehicles and people all headed for an open field covered by tents. You wonder what all the commotion is about, so you ask someone what is going on. They tell you that this is the church conference, and that you should come eat at the meal that is just about to start. So how do you proceed, and what do you have to look forward to?

My blue badge is my entry ticket 

First, this is a church event for all the members from all over Tonga and the rest of the world who have come together for the annual meetings. If you are remotely connected to the church, you are welcome. But as a foreigner, you are doubly welcome because Tongans love to share big events with visitors, regardless whether they are part of that church or not. The whole church is reconvening after a year apart, so this is cause for celebration similar to a family reunion on a grand scale.

All the schools welcome the visitors for the Conference. Many stay here at the all-girls college.

As soon as you walk up to the gate, ushers in white shirts greet you, and motion you to follow them. They lead you past rows and rows of tables, each stacked higher than the last with plates and plastic containers brimming with every manner of food. Finally, they motion you to sit at a table and disappear.

Tables are decorated with centre pieces contain fruit, candy, soft drinks, and chips for the guests to take home

You look around and there are a few middle-aged and older women sitting at the table, and a small army of children and adults still setting out yet more food on the tables around you. Each family from a church prepares one or two tables-worth of food, feeding between 25 and 50 people.

People begin to flood into the tented area from every direction, all dressed in their best traditional clothing. Many of these people are getting out of annual church meetings making decisions for the next year. There are so many people that it makes sense to arrive 30 minutes to an hour early to make sure you have a seat.

Elena and I are invited to sit at the table prepared by some good friends of ours
Friends will tell you to come to a particular feast because the food will be very good. Occasionally special dishes like savoury meatballs and potatoes appear at feasts.

If someone in particular has asked you to come to the feast, find their table. They probably will not be able to sit with you because they are busy serving the food, but it is usually more fun and less overwhelming if you know the hosts.

Elena's counterpart with her two cooks waiting on the table they prepared

Pretty soon, every table is packed to the max, and there are still people coming in, but nobody is touching the food. Everyone waits until the prayer for the meal has been said before they begin eating. If you understand Tongan you will catch the queue; if you don’t, it is when the whole conference gets quiet and you can hear one person at the microphone. As soon as the pastor is finished, everyone tears into the food.

As you begin to eat, you will notice a few constants, no matter where you sit. First, there’s always a large plate of root crop, usually the big yams called ‘ufi. The second is a warm, spit-roasted pig with crispy skin. Both of these are wrapped in foil until the meal begins, but as they are delicacies, they are attacked quickly.
Roasting the pig can take a couple of hours so it is good family time
The pig is roasted until the skin is glistening and crispy, and the fat is dripping into the coals
Pig is best when it is warm and crispy so is wrapped in foil. One must break through the skin and tear out the flesh beneath

The rest of the food varies, but usually includes shellfish, macaroni salad, sweet and sour chicken, etc. If you are lucky, there will be lobster as well.

A friend's table laden with lobster, stuffed pig and chicken, delicious salads, and other delicacies

During the feast, you will notice a steady stream of groups walking up the aisles to the head table at the front of the feast. They are dancing, and carrying large, intricately woven mats and painstakingly printed tapa cloths, and they present these to the church and the honoured guests.
Tapa and woven mats being presented as gifts

Towards the end of the meal, you will notice that people have stopped eating, and are beginning to pack up food in bags. Because there is so much food prepared, guests are encouraged to take food home with them to family members who were not able to attend. This makes the host's job in cleaning up much easier.

Delicious Octopus seared and then cooked in coconut milk.
An octopus and vegetable salad made from leftovers from the feast

As you begin to leave, you notice people everywhere taking the chance to catch up. The conference really gives the Tongan Diaspora community the opportunity to reconnect with their friends and family back in Tonga, and many use this as an opportunity to hold family and community reunions.

Most of these pictures were taken at the 88th Annual Conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. This conference happens every year, and the general purpose of the feasts is to feed all the people coming into Nuku'alofa for the meetings, church services, concerts, fund-raisers, and competitions going on during during the conference.

All the gathered church administrators make the decisions
that will guide the church bodies for the coming year
All of the major decisions for the Free Wesleyan Church are announced during the conference; pastors are given their parish assignments, teachers are placed at schools,and administrators are appointed to the businesses and offices of the church. The other major decision made at each conference is who will be elected as the President and the General Secretary. This year, Rev. Dr. 'Ahio and Rev. Dr. Tevita Havea were both kept in their respective offices, so not changes were made to the very top level of the church leadership.


  1. Hola: Me parecen muy interesantes las costumbres y los usos; se puede observar fácilmente los choques culturales con occidente. Ojalá sigas escribiendo artículos de esta clase.
    Hi, I have been visiting your blog. ¡Congratulations for your work! I invite you to visit my blog about literature, philosophy and films:

    Greetings from Santa Marta, Colombia

  2. Love the pictures, Mark! Great post, really captures the experience. Now I am wanting some crispy pig!


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