About the food of Papua New Guinea

As a fisherman waits patiently for the fish to bite, Tavurvur belches ash and pumice into the twilight. Photo by Taro Taylor.

Few sentences succeed at stopping me in my tracks, however last night’s research on Papua New Guinea made me blush and chuckle. I can’t help but share the line that made me react so strongly, as it sums up the culture more succinctly than three pages worth of blabber I could offer:

A young bare-breasted woman recently bought as a bride for five pigs may be wearing a digital wristwatch. (1000 Places to See Before You Die)

Knock that image around your brain a while. As far as mental images go, the digital wristwatch really is the cherry on top – a snapshot of a bygone era in American style, circa 1980, which is now firmly lodged in the “outdated” category this side of the Pacific.  I love every bit of it. As for the pigs – yes, they are so valuable that many tribes use them as currency.

Treehouse of the Korowai tribe in Papua New Guinea, photo by "Paul ♪ ~". The side of the parliament building in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Photo by Steve Shattuck.

The book goes on to describe several regions of Papua New Guinea celebrated for even more dramatic isolation. So untouched by modern influence, these communities remain submerged in ancient arts and rituals like woodcarving to communicate with the spirit world, face painting, and competitive dancing (to keep once fierce tribal rivalry at friendly levels).

There’s a district called New Britain, where the sides of the head are elongated for beauty.

There’s also a district called New Ireland, where dancer’s masks look like trees come alive.

Spirit mask worn by male dancers during Malanggan ceremonies. Photo by Valerie McGlinchey

As far as food goes, tradition and simplicity are the name of the game. Almost everything contains some form of coconut. Veggies are stewed in coconut milk (anything from potatoes to eggplant… to green beans) [Recipe]. Seafood is dipped in it – especially in the form of ceviche (like this). Even desserts are simmered in rich coconut milk.

Probably the two most common ingredients I continued to come across were bananas and sweet potatoes. Sometimes together (like these) and sometimes in coconut milk (like this)… other times cooked with tapioca in banana leaves  [Recipe].

Foods are often eaten on the floor or outside, picnic-style. People might gather around the fire, chewing sugar cane, as stews bubble. Perhaps women will chatter and laugh as they pull tapioca into a gummy treat (they call it Sago Pudding). In the background, a lithe gentleman might climb a coconut tree with nothing more than a ramshackle loop of palm fibers around his feet (see video at the bottom of this post).

You might even find coconut shrimp in the coastal restaurants [Recipe].

Life bustles everywhere in this rustic country, for those who care enough to open their eyes.

Maps and flag courtesy CIA World Factbook. Walking the Kokoda track, Papua New Guinea. This section of the track is known as the potato fields and is located between the village of Kokoda and the village of Isurava. Photo by Luke Brindley. Salamaua isthmus, photo by Berichard.



  1. Brian S. says

    Deep in the impenetrable jungles that form the center of the island of New Guinea live a people called the Hewa. I spent a fortnight there some years ago. They played, sang, hunted, told stories, and it was all so far, far far from the madding world. So unused were they to outsiders that they thought I was a god or at least a spirit.

    The New Guinea highlands are a land of razor-sharp mountain ranges separating isolated valleys. Hundreds of different languages are spoken. If the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is correct, then many of these peoples have radically different ways of viewing — and of being in — the world. Some might have something of value to teach us. But we’ll never know because these cultures and languages are fast disappearing. And as each dies, it is as if a universe is extinguished.

    Here’s something I wrote about my time with the Hewa: As the days passed, I grew restless. Too much of my life had been spent in cities, and I had become addicted to constant stimulation. The endless peace and harmony of the forest bored me. The others never found life tedious; they could sit for hours staring at a wall, and I sometimes wondered whether they were in a yogic trance or bovine stupor. The Hewa had no expectation of change and, until recently, no desire for it; for hundreds of years, the round of daily life had remained the same, as fixed and inevitable as the sunrise. Now, of course, shiny tempting trinkets of change — tin cans, steel axheads — had penetrated the forest and in a few years the babies who woke me at night with their bawling would leave in search of more. And if they lingered too long in the towns, they might gain a wristwatch and maybe even a radio, but they would lose the magic of the forest. If they ever went back, they would, like me, be bored to distraction, unless they took their radio along.

    Wikipedia article, written by me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hewa_people

    Note: The Korowai people do not live in Papua New Guinea. They live in the Indonesian-controlled half of the island.

    Here’s something I wrote about a more developed part of the Highlands: “In a science fiction novel I once read, the world suddenly shattered into different eras; you could walk down the street and step into another century. Papua New Guinea was like that; some parts lived in prehistory while others were as modern as anything between Singapore and Sydney. Many people were caught straddling the line. Mt Hagen… was full of men dressed in the leafy loincloth known as “ass-grass”. Some wore sport jackets over the leaves. They had come from their villages to eat hot dogs and doughnuts, deposit money in the bank, buy beer and comic books, and go to the movies. One day, I joined them at the Hagen Cinema and saw an old James Stewart film; it was a western, part comedy and part adventure. The audience gasped with horror at the gunfights, and roared with laughter at all the corny pranks and pratfalls. Folktales and drama are important parts of New Guinea rural life, but the screen was a hundred times larger than life — every pore on James Stewart’s face was visible, and his lazy smile was six feet wide. Surging waves of raw emotion stunned the villagers, some of whom might never before have seen a photograph or viewed a face that wasn’t real. When they go back to their villages, I thought, they will being the restlessness of the city with them. Never again will they be satisfied with stories told round a campfire.”

    • Sasha Martin says

      Lovely… I feel like I’m right there with you, experiencing Papua New Guinea…. although I will always enjoy stories told around a campfire – perhaps *because* of all the media that surrounds me.

  2. Jillian says


    I am doing a project on the Hewa Tribe specifically, and having trouble finding any information on them other than the wikipedia page about them, which you say you wrote, if you can help me, please send an email to me, it would be amazing of you! [email protected]

    Thanks bunches,
    hoping you get this!


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