Friday, December 2, 2011

Washing Saksak

There are some foods that require such an elaborate process to make them edible that you wonder how in the world we discovered the process. Coffee, for one (really….let’s pick some beans, roast them, grind them up, and eat the dirty water that filters through them?). Mushrooms are another (who first got to figure out which are poisonous? Hmm?). In Papua New Guinea (PNG), my great question mark centers on sago (or saksak  in the Tok Pisin language).

Saksak is a staple food for many parts of PNG, including my village. Thus, my wasfemili (host family) was eager to let Jessica and I experience the many steps of harvesting, cooking, and eating saksak according to the customs of Aronis (a part of PNG's north coast).

Saksak comes from a certain palm tree, which can be planted or found growing wild. Once the tree has reached maturity, it is chopped down, and the great palm leaves are cleared away for morota (the traditional roof), the saksak grubs are removed (to be eaten later), and the gaimer is picked (a leafy vegetable used in cooking).

Then the men hack away the bark with their tomahawks and bush knives until the pale, smooth core is revealed.

After some good-natured ribbing and jostling, they sit down with metal-tipped adzes and pound. Above the head—down! Smash the wood pulp to bits! Again and again and again until they shine with sweat and heaps of sawdust spill over their legs, piling on the limbum mats.

Now the women and children arrive, scooping the sawdust into bags and bilums (string bags), carrying it on their heads to a nearby water source, where my wasmama (host mother) had gone ahead to set up the troughs for washing.

Half a dozen massive pots circled the troughs waiting to be filled with water and saksak pulp.

I plunge my hands into the sludge and begin to repeatedly squeeze the saturated dust. Washing saksak. The resulting water is a murky rust—the color I always imagined the Red Sea when I was young, and it stains your hands and clothes (especially our white skin!). We all bend together, washing saksak in a rhythm until I no longer notice my aching back or tired hands. Squeeze, shake, toss. Repeat through four pots until the water runs clear and no more food streams from the wood.

Then the water is pressed through the troughs, letting the liquid drip into the bag where it will settle, forming a thick, pasty sediment of starch, like fine sand. This is saksak.

The sun is starting to go down and we scoop the food into pots, dividing it among all the family present, which we carry on our heads back to the house. It’s a great delicacy, they tell us. You must taste it!

Delicacies, however, are culturally determined. And despite my own involvement in its preparation, when I was first handed a bowl of saksak soup, I began questioning the energy invested to acquire this food. (Since most of you probably haven’t tasted it and I neglected to get a photo, you can imagine a semi-solid gelatinous mass, looking like Jell-O that hasn’t set, and tasting similar, though without the sugar or the cherry flavor.) In spite of this rather unfavorable beginning, I found that the innumerable ways of cooking saksak—wrapped in leaves, combined with meat, fried over a fire, and more—did broaden my perspective on the value of the food.

However, I still wonder who first thought of eating the sediment that settles when you strain water through sawdust.