Published in the July 2001 issue of

A feast by any other name

Lena Liew recounts her first experience of an indigenous Papua New Guinean "feast" in a photo feature.

"Mumu" literally means "cook together, eat together" or "feast" in Tok Pisin, the neo-Melanesian Pidgin language commonly used in Papua New Guinea.            

Any occasion is an occasion. More important functions involve roasting a live pig or two whole. 

But Papua New Guineans in the sub-urban or urban areas nowadays just go to the store or supermarket for 500-gram trays of frozen meat. Thatís if they even bother to make a mumu the traditional way - cooked in the ground. Kerosene or gas stoves are the norm now.

Traditionally, mumu is cooked in a hole in the ground using hot stones. 

The stones should ideally be smooth river stones or they will cool too quickly to properly cook the food. Sometimes, the stones crack or explode while being fired if they are not river stones.

Papua New Guinea is generally separated into four regions - the Papua New Guinean (southern coastal), Mamose (northern coastal), Highlands (central) and Islands regions. Variations in terms of ingredients can be found in the way mumus are prepared in all four regions.    

Philip and his wife Agnes are the gardeners who maintain the surroundings of the residential compound where I live.

They are Highlanders who came to Port Moresby five years ago. They still  remembered how to make a traditional Highlands mumu.

Alas, their three children were born in Port Moresby, and it was going to be THEIR FIRST experience of a mumu as well.

The morning of the mumu, Philip and Agnes came to my residence soon after daybreak and started digging a hole in my backyard using coconut shells (which was going to be used a fuel later), and a bush knife (called parang in Malaysia).

The hole was some two feet wide and one foot deep - we were going to have just a very small mumu for four adults and three children. An average Papua New Guinean village mumu would have to feed over 200 people.

By the time Daniel and I woke up, they had already started a fire and were heating the stones in the fire.

We went to the wet market and bought potato, a few varieties of kau kau (sweet potato), yam, taro (root vegetable similar to yam), carrot, corn banana, ginger, chili, snake bean (otherwise known as long bean), aibika, pumpkin tips, water cress, okra (called ladies finger in Malaysia), spinach, and water spinach (kang kung).

Finally we bought frozen chicken pieces from the supermarket.

Naturally, we couldnít finish the food; even after we gave some of it to the local security guard on duty.

So I lent Philip and Agnes a cooking pot to take the food back home.

Traditionally, there wouldn't be any food left after the whole village (counting the dogs and pigs) gorges itself!