“A famous way of preparing food in Samoa is the umu. An umu is a special way Samoans cook their food. Firstly by starting a fire and then placing smooth stones over it to retain the heat. When the stones are hot different kinds of foods such as luau, breadfruit, and fa’i (bananas) are placed on the umu. An umu is normally cooked for special occasions such as, birthdays, weddings, funerals, appointing new Matai (chiefs), building of new houses and faalavelave” – Angeline from Living Heritage
When we were in Samoa earlier this year, my friend Pai and her parents invited us to a mid-week umu they had organised. I’m not sure if it was because we had just got engaged, or because her family really wanted to show us Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan Way) and how significant food is to the Samoan way of life. Or perhaps they were just having one, and we were lucky enough to get an invite. Whatever the reason, I’m really grateful, because it was the single most amazing food experience I.have.ever.had.
Pai picked us up from our hotel and took us to her family home. It was absolutely bucketing rain, so we all huddled under umbrellas and ran around to the back of the house where her mum’s lawn mowing boys were preparing the umu. They had been at it for hours, preparing the bits to put in the umu and getting it to the right temperature. This video made by Pacific Pulse about Samoan Umu shows the prep work really well.
The guys gave us a bit of a demo about how to prepare the food before it is put in the umu. They showed us how to peel breadfruits and unripe bananas and how to prep tuna in coconut cream (cooked in coconut shells).
Breadfruit is a tropical fruit that grows in Samoa. I’d never seen it before we went, and still don’t really know how to describe it. It’s really yummy; you cook it like you would a potato and can eat it as chips or deep fried. We had it slow cooked in the umu and it came out tasting sweet on the inside.
The guys showed us how to peel unripe bananas, which are also added to the umu. When cooked, the unripe bananas taste savoury, not sweet like you would expect. They’re really delicious dipped in coconut cream. I love learning how to cook everyday food in a different way. Who would have thought you can have bananas as a savoury meal!?!
The coconut cream (for the baked tuna in coconut cream) is made from scratch. You start by cracking open the coconut and then shave out the flesh using something sharp (see picture below). You then put the shredded coconut in the coconut husk and squeeze really hard until coconut cream drips out.
Rocks are heated until they are red hot and food is placed on top of them.
Then, the whole lot is covered in banana leaves to seal it like an oven for about an hour, or until the food is ready.
Umu smells delicious; smoky, sweet and coconutty, and the actual product is even better. I can’t even describe how yummy everything was. I think it’s just one of those things you have to experience to believe.
Have you tried an umu or equivalent from around the Pacific - mumu, hungi, laplap, lovo? If so, please share your eating experience!
For more about my trip to Samoa – click on 7 days in Samoa.