While the rest of the island knows cousin Jason as a captain for Polynesian Airlines, we like to think of him as Iron Chef Samoa, king of the Umu. The Umu is an underground cooking pit and could be described as the Samoan (and better) version of the Luau.
Jason took us through the step by step preparation of the traditional Umu meal. This is no leisurely Saturday afternoon cookout. Each step is a major workout and/or a major craft project. If it wasn’t for the heavy dose of coconut cream included in several of the dishes, there would probably be an Umu exercise tape by now.
When we arrived at our relatives’ house, Jason, drenched in sweat, was already hard at work shredding the inside of knife-halved coconuts. He straddled a stool (sort of like one you’d find in a shoe store) and scraped out the white coconut flesh against a long, flattened spike that extended from the end of the rectangular stool (Samoan Cuisinart). My wife Gina briefly took a turn at scraping. At first, she looked a bit odd in her long sleeved shirt and the Porsche sunglasses that rested above her brow, but she quickly got the hang of it, delivering several clean coconut shells.
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Like the coconut scraping, each part of the Umu is performed in the traditional way. We’re talking way old school here. Cans are opened with a long knife. The top of cans are then used to scrape the taro and breadfruit (the Oxo peeler, otherwise magnificent, would fail when faced with these thick skinned fruits). The hollowed-out coconut shells are later used as cooking containers for individual servings of a fish stew.
Jason’s Umu is an entire fale. There is a concrete slab, an arched, tin roof, and a recessed area in the center of the concrete where the cooking is done. It’s basically a walk-in barbecue.
A fire is started in the pit. Volcanic rocks are placed over the burning wood. This process continues until the pile of rocks turns red hot (Samoan charcoal). Then, using tongs made from the spines of coconut tree leaves, the rocks are spread out evenly along the base of the pit. The taro, breadfruit, meat, stew-filled filled coconut half-shells and other items are placed on the rocks. The tongs are used to place the remaining heated stones on top of the food. At this point, there is a tremendous amount of smoke pouring out from the Umu. Jason has cut slits in the tin roof of his Umu fale that allow the smoke to stream out and thin rays of hot sunlight to stream in through the billowing smoke (Samoan laser show).
The cooking layer of food sandwiched between red hot rocks is then covered with fresh banana leaves, dry banana leaves, coconut husks, and the less traditional giant sides of an old cardboard box. By the time the covering process is completed, all of the heat and smoke is contained in the Umu. All that’s left is to wait.
Our menu included taro, breadfruit, lamb, fish stew, corned beef cooked inside of a hollowed out pumpkin, and my favorite Umu menu item called Palusami. The shreds of coconut are grabbed with something that looks like a small net that is made out of cut and dried strips of tree bark. That utensil is then twisted to squeeze the milk out of the shredded coconut (Samoan juicer). Jason added chopped onions and chilis from the garden a few feet away. The mixture is then poured into a cup made of nothing but taro leaves which are then tied off to create a sealed container. After it comes out of the Umu, you’ve got something that greatly surpasses creamed spinach both in terms of flavor and cholesterol.
After about an hour of cooking time (during which a couple of Jason’s assistants quickly weaved baskets out of palm leaves), the coconut leaf spine tongs are used to remove the top layer of rocks and to load the cooked food into the just made baskets.
You’ve got a lot of starch, a lot of fat and a lot of cholesterol. There is no such thing as an Atkins Umu.