So a few weeks ago I took a kick at a truly authentic Nauruan dish – coconut fish (tuna sashimi in coconut milk). I couldn’t find any recipes, so I extrapolated form travel notes (it was pretty tasty). However, a few days later I had the fortune of getting to talk about Nauru with Elmina Quadina, and shared with her my post and asked her advice on the dish.
The good news is that I had got the basic idea down, but I had made a very stripped down version – more like a “spur of the moment dish to fill your hunger”, to use her words. She also mentioned that the fish slices should be smaller, and it needed more coconut milk. Elmina shared with me her recipe making really good Nauruan coconut fish – let’s give it a go!
Coconut Fish. What you will need:
1 or 2 coconuts, scrapped and squeezed. Or tin of coconut milk.
A chunk of tuna depending. Sliced up or in cubes.
Cubed or sliced onion in pieces.
1 Half or whole tomato. Or use cherry tomatoes.
1 or 2 bullet chilies. Or any kind preferred.
Vinegar, lime or lemon juice
Bowl of water
Method : mix fish cubes with coconut milk. Add some water depending, ensure there is enough juice. Mix other ingredients according to your taste. Note: always use a tablespoon to mix the rest into the coconut milk as you keep tasting to your liking. Remember there should be enough juice in your bowl as it is part of mixing in with your bowl of rice. – oxo and can be added in your plate if you desire. Chilies can be added to make your dish spicy if desiring a spicy dish.
It’s more like a dish of snack food for alcohol drinkers. Like having peanuts to your drink. But then as you said, this is Nauruan food. Then still it will count for Nauruans are not fussy with what they eat. Whatever you say that fills the stomach and gives you energy. Then thats good enough. Hee!!!
I used a sliced-up tomato, a jalapeno for spice, chicken OXO, half a red onion plus a topping of green onion, lots of lime juice, and made sure to cut the tuna sashimi into smaller pieces.
Oh wow, adding lime and tomato gives some really complimentary acidity – this is way better than the first attempt. This is an addictively good dish, the flavours really work together. I should have had with rice but I ended up just drinking the milk like a broth. Yum! Thank you Elmina!
The story of Nauru’s sudden overwhelming phosphate wealth, subsequent economic and environmental crash, and it’s attempts to find something else to support its economy weaves itself into almost every discussion about Nauru. However, this 2009 book by French journalist Luc Folliet, Nauru, L’Île Dévastée(Nauru, the Devastated Island, subtitled “How capitalist civilization annihilated the richest country in the world”) sets out one of the most comprehensive looks into the politics, both Nauruan and international, that caused the phosphate boom and bust.
Nauru’s story is a country-scale story of lottery winners who end up going bankrupt – much has been made about spending on luxury cars and failed musicals, but there’s a deeper story about how a population reacts to this largess and then collapse.
Apart from interviews with many Nauruans, including those in power in the 2000s, Folliet walks through Nauru’s story as a parallel to the possible futures of petrostates – what does a country do when the money is gone? Nauru’s current situation economically, now that the interior of the island has been pulverized and the phosphate all fertilizing other countries’ fields, seems to make use of it’s status as a sovereign country though bilateral deals in exchange for investment and aid. That’s taken the form of recognizing Taiwan, hosting Australian detention camps for refugees, supporting Japanese fishing policies, and more – unfortunately all stopgap measures. The question still hangs over the country – what will work in the long run?
It’s a very interesting read, I’d recommend it if you speak French – unfortunately I don’t think it’s been translated into English.
I’ve found a few references to demangi, or coconut toddy, as a traditional alcoholic drink in Nauru – I would assume it’s been particularly central as this 1981 Nauruan dictionary not only lists it but also gives “demangimangi” as the word for drunkenness. But how do you actually make demangi? I found a photographer’s reference to naturally fermented coconut sap, which means it’s palm wine, which is drunk all around the coconut-growing world.
Sadly, palm wine doesn’t ship well, and there’s not a lot of coconut trees to tap here in Canada, so I’m going to try with a variation that uses coconut water instead of the sap. It may not be exactly the same, but I figure I’m definitely in the right ballpark of “homemade coconut wine” at least.
I’m going to use this recipe from Life ippo – it’s very straightforward, get a bit of yeast going into fresh coconut water and let it ferment for 24 hours. I made sure to get 100% pure, not from concentrate coconut water, since green coconuts are scarce around here.
I put it all together, covered with a clean cloth and a rubber band, and made sure my kitchen was nice and warm. After just a few hours, I could hear it fizzing from the fermentation. At around the five hour mark I took a sample – it was fizzy, the coconut flavour had taken a back seat, and it reminded me a bit flavour-wise of makgeolli or even sake, though I don’t think the alcohol content is particularly high yet.
After around 16 hours, most of the coconut flavour and the sweetness was gone, and it’s starting to take on that “carb-iness” that beer or rice wine has.
After 24 hours, the fizzing has stopped. I strained it off, and I’m left with about a litre of an opaque off-white drink. I can smell there’s a fair bit of alcohol in it, and it almost has a hint of white wine in the smell – not coconut, though. There’s also only the slightest hint of coconut in the taste, though it has an almost creamy mouthfeel. It’s a bit tangy, not very sweet at all, and almost a suggestion of an unfiltered wheat beer – though it’s not carbonated. I’d guess it’s stronger than beer and needs to be drunk almost immediately – it doesn’t keep.
Not bad, though I kind of liked the five hour mark sample more than the finished product. After my taste test, I added a few chunks of frozen pineapple into my glass of it – it goes really well. I wonder if I could make a similar drink with maple water?
This video by Unseen Japan seems like you’re getting into a funny tale of how Nauru’s Japanese-language tourism Twitter account is unexpectedly popular. But no, this is actually one of the most comprehensive videos I’ve seen about Nauru during WWII, particularly on the Japanese occupation of the island.
It’s not a happy story, between bombings, forced deportations, and massacres – despite little direct fighting, Nauru’s population dropped below it’s 1500 safety mark and another Angam was needed post-war as the country recovered.
I thought I’d look up the Nauruan national anthem, which I’ve never heard before. 20-40 seconds into it, something started to sound a little familiar…
That section has almost the EXACT melody as O Canada. It’s got to be a coincidence, right? Let’s look up who composed the music:
Laurence Henry Hicks OBE (1912–1997) was an English-born military bandmaster and composer. He migrated to Australia in 1952 after having served in World War II with both the British Army’s Black Watch and the Fourth Canadian Armoured Division’s military bands…
Spam is immensely popular in the Pacific, with an interesting history from WWII. Due to Nauru having to import most of its food, it’s a very common staple there, and offered at many of Nauru’s restaurants, particularly their ubiquitous Chinese restaurants.
That being said, there doesn’t seem to be one hard and fast recipe for how spam is prepared on Nauru – though spam fried rice seems very popular. I found this photo that’s rice with a fried egg and fried spam slices on top (though there may be some other ingredients under the egg, hard to tell), but Anibare Restaurant seems to do it up more Chinese restaurant style.
I feel like there’s a fair bit of leeway here, so I’m also going to also make it that way, especially since there are dozens of Chinese restaurants on the island. They seem to not go particularly hard on spices on Nauru, so I’m going to use this straightforward recipe from Buns in My Oven. I am, however, going to use Mala Spam for a little extra kick (I think it’s the same thing as Hot and Spicy Spam, which is definitely available on Nauru).
It ain’t healthy, but boy it’s good. Letting the rice sit out to cool first gives it a great restaurant-quality texture, as does making sure to brown the spam.
Angam Day, celebrated on October 26, is a really interesting public holiday celebrated in Nauru. Angam Day commemorates when the Nauruan population hit 1500 people, the number considered necessary for the survival of the Naruan people. “Angam” is a Nauruan word that means “celebration” and has connotations with “meeting goals” or “homecoming”.
Since Nauru’s population has fluctuated, there actually have been two Angams – each celebrated by the birth of official baby #1500. The first Angam Baby, Eidagaruwo, was born on October 26, 1932, and her birth was celebrated with bonfires tinged blue with copper.
Unfortunately, during WWII, the population of Nauru suffered – both between Japanese occupation and forced deportation of Nauruans, as well as Allied bombings. Tragically Eidagaruwo, then a teen, died of malnutrition on Truk (Chuuk) Lagoon, where about half the Naururan population had been taken.
The second Angam Baby, Bethel Enproe Adam, was born on March 31, 1949 – Nauruans began to celebrate Angam Day again, though keeping it on the original baby’s birthdate. I can’t find much else about Bethel Enproe Adam – she would have just turned 72 about a week ago, if she’s still around.
Angam Day is celebrated with parties, sports competitions (including fishing), and traditional dances. There’s a great clip here from Angam Day celebrations in 2016 – there’s some really skilled traditional dance that starts at around the 4 minute mark:
I had the great fortune of getting in touch with Nauruan writer and teacher Elmina Quadina and got to ask her about life on Nauru as well as Stories from Nauru – her 1990 short story “A Plea For Help” really stuck with me, and has stuck with others, as one of the most emotionally moving piece of writing in that book. In the story, Elmina writes about her frustrations and challenges and lack of understanding about her hearing loss in her 30s. We chatted about the short story, how things have changed since then for Nauruans with disabilities, and she shared some great details about traditional food and dress on Nauru.
All photos are courtesy Elmina Quadina, and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me about Stories from Nauru, how did people respond to “A Plea for Help”?
I was just trying to raise awareness of what it’s like being with a hearing impairment, since l was not born with it but acquired it through later in life. Also to the fact of being made fun of and to think your own doctors think its nothing compared to other disabilities. Just imagining those born without it at all. Got me the guts to do what l did. Yes for sure once l opened up, l was sure surprised to find quite a number of my own people coming forward for hearing tests on the first day the doctors brought in some specialists after launching the book of Nauruan stories.
Elmina previously was a stewardess with Nauru Airlines, which included travelling all around the world, including to Japan, Taiwan, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. She is now a teacher at a special needs school on Nauru, which was established in 2002.
At this time I’m teaching pupils of special abilities. They can be a handful, but they are lovable. Myself now being disabled with my hearing impairment, it’s hard trying to catch up with the needs of my students. Though l try to the best of my ability to work with them together as one. Though l was not born with my disability. I have come to understand the needs of these children. There is nothing more important than showing them love and care. I am not the 30 year old but now l’ve turned 60. So don’t be surprised if l’m still on my feet. Hee!!! I guess I’m still young at heart.
What are some traditional Nauruan foods?
Well food to say may be quite different in the old days and how they cook them. But nowadays l guess we people become too dependent with money talk. So usually we buy tin food mostly.
But local delicacies are usually fish. Deep fish ocean fish and reef fish. Local delicacy is raw fish in coconut milk (tuna, bonito, skipjack, yellow tail or others). Octopus cooked in coconut milk. Or salted and dried under the sun. Sea urchins eaten raw.
Actually some Nauruans eat them but not me. I’d collect them for my cultural handcrafts. As you can see from one of the beauty pageants. Shells are used for necklaces, adornment on costumes. And other uses such as house decorations outdoor curtains etc.
Black terns are another Nauruan delicacies.
This is a hermit crab [picture above] that would grow much bigger and becomes a coconut crab. Why its called coconut crab is because it then can climb up a coconut tree to eat of its fruit.
Usually Nauruans are good divers as well. They wouldn’t leave the waters till they have acquired some good catch.
What’s daily life like on Nauru?
Well since this is a very small island. And Nauruan people have acquired more of the modern style of living. I’d say our regular days are just lazing about.
Daily life is just like any other people around the Pacific. Though nowadays gambling is a more fun way of spending the day, though these games are mostly played at any private houses.
Local handfans woven with the use of pandanus leaves, hibiscus fibres or now with modern resources available such as raffias.
Tribal weaving of mats or baskets is not allowed to be used with other tribes. This type of pattern [picture above] usually belongs to the lruwa tribe and cannot be used in any other tribal clans.
You might think Nauru should not be divided into tribes as it’s pretty a small island. But as you can see from our flag, we have the twelve pointed star which represents the 12 tribes. We are of a matrilineal society and our children each follow on with their mothers tribe. So, so far we have lost two tribes to the fact that these two tribes have only male children left and no more women to bare their offspring to continue the tribe.
Traditional costumes are made with our local resources. They are now usually worn during special occasions such as Angam celebrations or Constitution Day and or other such as birthday parties, etc.
Elmina also shared with me some tips and a further recipe to make really good coconut fish – I’ll be sharing that soon! A huge huge thank you to Elmina Quadina for sharing her story, her experiences, and these wonderful pictures.