Vanuatu: Laplap up some tropical flavour (+photos)

By Anya Kussler

Vanuatu is steadily evolving as a foodie nation, offering hungry punters an eclectic mix of traditional Ni-Van and expatriate fare. French influences dominate the kitchen, largely because "ze French" co-ruled this island nation for the better half of the 20th century, but you will also find that it offers culinary touches from Asia, other parts of Europe and the Pacific.

The cuisine of Vanuatu wouldn't be as more-ish as it is without the abundance of fresh, local ingredients. Cultivated in a naturally humid microclimate, the majority of fruit and vegetables flourish organically with no fertilisers, chemicals, hormones, pesticides or genetic engineering needed to cultivate them. As a result, they're bigger and juicier than those on our shores.

Another superior food item found here is the renowned Santo beef with its distinct melt-in-your-mouth quality. In fact, most of the beef produced throughout Vanuatu (not only the outer island of Santo) will give your $150 per kilo Wagyu a run for its money. And that's no surprise, really, because with its nitrogen-rich soil and consistent rainfall, the free-roaming cattle feed on lush grass all year round. So hot is the demand for Vanuatu's tender beef that it's now being exported to New Zealand, Australia and several islands around the Pacific.

The national dish of Vanuatu is laplap. Taro or yam roots are pounded into a paste, then cooked with fresh coconut cream and bits of pork, beef, chicken or flying fox (yep, it's a bat) in taro or spinach leaves in an underground oven.

Another local dish is nalot, made from boiled or roasted taro, and banana or breadfruit mixed with grated coconut and water.

Other indigenous specialties include ground pigeon, poulet (chicken), fish, prawns, lobster and a magnitude of other sea creatures. For a long time, coconut crabs were a signature dish in Vanuatu, but they're now on the endangered list so many restaurants have banned them from their menus.

If you're thirsty, beverages drunk in Vanuatu include kava, a liquid made from pounded, ground or chewed pepper root mixed with water. It has an acquired, slightly muddy taste and numbs the mouth - and the mind.

And beware: the kava in Vanuatu is stronger than in other Pacific islands, because it is harvested four years after planting, compared with two years in Fiji, for instance.

Another drink Vanuatu is famous for, although more among non-locals than the Ni-Van themselves, is the strong but smooth Arabica coffee, grown in the rich, volcanic soils of Tanna Island.
Other popular thirst quenchers include lime juice (in varying degree of sweetness), fresh coconut juice and the indigenous Tusker beer. And, of course, given its French connections it's easy to find a wide selection of French wine in and around the tourist areas, although Australian and some New Zealand wines are available too.

All in all if you're looking for a tropical holiday where you'll be well-fed on a variety of traditional and expertly prepared cuisine, you could do a lot worse than the treats of the Vanuatu archipelago.

- Detours, HoS

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