Vanuatu is one of the few nations in the Pacific where its traditional food hasn’t been heavily influenced by the outside world. Despite being colonized by the British and French, local people have continued to cultivate and prepare food as their ancestors have. However as the country becomes more urbanized, imported ingredients are becoming a popular accompaniment in the daily diet. Aelan kai kai such as boiled kumala and island cabbage is often eaten with rice and tinned beef or fish. Shirley Jacobus, a coordinator from Wan Smol Bag’s Nutrition Center, says that these typical meals aren’t as healthy as people think. ‘It’s okay, but there aren’t enough nutrients in it,’ she says. ‘We need to cut down processed food and refined fats in our diet and increase our variety of ingredients to get all the necessary nutrients we need’.
In 2014, the World Health Organization announced that 9 of the top 10 countries for the highest percentage of obesity were nations in the Pacific. This included the Cook Islands, Palau, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Marshall Islanders, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Poor diets consisting of cheap and processed food and beverages have contributed to the obesity crisis. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and heart disease are also on the rise and are a direct consequence of unhealthy eating habits and sedentary lifestyles. NCDs can easily be prevented yet statistics from the World Bank estimated that in 2008, 70% of fatalities in Vanuatu were due to NCDs. On World Health Day in April this year, the Minister of Health, Toara Daniel, confirmed that Vanuatu is ranked 6th in the world for the prevalence of diabetes.
Mrs Voutasi Mackenzie-Reur, chef, nutritionist and the founder and managing director of Lapita, a Port Vila based company which uses local products such as banana, manioc, taro, nangai nuts and coconut to create healthy snacks, says that the consumption of processed foods is a significant factor to the increase of NCDs. ‘The fact is you do not have to be fat to get diabetes. You only have to check the imports of rice, sugar, flour, cooking oil, noodles, tinned food, and tinned biscuits to figure out the average consumption and see what we are doing to ourselves. We are even drinking too much sugar, not only when we have tea, milo and coffee, but also when we have soft drinks and cordials.’ She also says that Ni-Vanuatu people consume a large amount of starch in their daily diets. This includes food such as white rice, white bread and noodles, which all turn into sugar. ‘Our current life styles in wanting to copy the western life style is killing our population,’ she adds.
Although most of the food in Vanuatu is sourced from the family’s own backyard, changes in the lifestyle and diet are inevitable as more people move from rural areas to the bustling towns of Port Vila and Luganville. Bread and margarine has become the staple breakfast and Twisties are popular snacks. It doesn’t help that gardens are only just recovering from Cyclone Pam, with basic vegetables and fruits still selling at unaffordable prices for some. Rather than buying a bag of kumala for 300vt, why not just pay 200vt for a packet of Maggi Noodles? Mrs. Mackenzie-Reur says that families in urban areas are reliant on the market, as they don’t have a garden. It’s often it’s too expensive to buy produce so they have no choice but to resort to cheap, imported alternatives. ‘I would say the biggest factor is the purchasing power of families to purchase fresh local foods from the market,’ she says. ‘Most of our families cannot afford to buy local fresh foods every day from the market as it’s not cheap anymore.’ On the other hand, she also acknowledges that the taste of imported food has become acquired, and that imported food can sometimes signify wealth or modernization.
Further contributing to the consumption of imported and processed food is the long time it takes to cook aelan kai kai. Island food is usually boiled or cooked underground, and the time it takes to make doesn’t suit the urban lifestyle, especially for those in office jobs who only have limited time to cook and eat during lunch breaks. However Mrs Mackenzie-Reur says that issue can easily be fixed as traditional food can be cooked in a modern kitchen. ‘Most of us in urban and semi urban areas use the modern kitchen to prepare our traditional dishes such as laplap, simboro, or steam, boil, bake or roast our traditional vegetables,’ she said. Mrs Mackenzie-Reur believes that there are only a pocketful of young Ni-Vanuatu who aren’t familiar or confident enough to cook traditional dishes, but most are very well versed with some, if not all, of the traditional way of cooking.
However Ms. Jacobus, from WSB, has found that many young people don’t actually enjoy aelan kakai as its common for the same ingredients to be used everyday. The Nutrition Center at WSB is teaching youth how to reinvent aelan kai kai by making it more nutritious and delicious through the use of different cooking styles and ingredients. ‘At the Nutrition Center, we are trying to teach young people how to explore different ways of cooking traditional food. We have discovered that they get bored of eating the same food all the time – sometimes local food can be very bland and that’s what attracts them to imported, fast food,’ said Ms Jacobus.
‘We try to give them new ideas by exploring what other ingredients can be added to existing aelen kai kai – for example, we add different kinds of vegetables to lap lap instead of the traditional ingredients,’ Ms Jacobus continues. ‘Or we teach them how to use local vegetables and meat in a different way. They can mix taro and manioc with fish to make fish cakes and it’s very tasty and easy to make. Much better than rice, tin fish and island cabbage.’
By embracing the changes that urbanization brings, the Nutrition Center doesn’t eradicate the teachings of aelan kai kai, but finds ways to make it relevant for the youth. Ms Jacbous says that it’s also a way to preserve Ni-Vanuatu culture. ‘Young people are now learning how to cook traditional meals from their island. We make it fun and interesting. This is a way for us to keep our culture alive. We have also reinvented food to make it nutritious. For example, we make banana cake by reducing sugar and adding more bananas instead. Instead of using oil, we use coconut milk. Besides all the benefits of the food being tasty, nutritious and easy to make, it is also much cheaper to prepare your own food.’
Preventing obesity from becoming an epidemic and reducing NCDs can be dealt with at a grass roots level. If Vanuatu doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of neighboring Pacific countries, the answer may be to simply cook and eat healthy meals. It’s not only great for your health but also for the preservation of Vanuatu’s culture. Mrs Mackenzie-Reur says, ‘My personal hope is that our young generation does not forget our aelan kai kai. Our traditional way of subsistence farming, hunting, fishing, harvesting and preparing our foods is what kept our population healthy for so many generations and now the modern world is recognizing how organic, plant based foods are the best to maintain good health. Vanuatu once had that, but then our lifestyle changed. Now we see NCDs creeping slowly even to the most remote areas of Vanuatu.’
If you want to learn how to cook healthy meals, pop down to the Nutrition Center in Tagabe, Wan Smol Bag, to find out more information. To purchase healthy snacks from Lapita including baked chips, gluten free cookies and gluten free flours, visit their Facebook page. Lapita products are also stocked at Au Bon Marche.