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KIRIBATI: FOOD OF THE NAVIGATORS

           

From: 'The Migrations of a Pandanus People'
in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, March 1933

The food called Te Kabubu is a sweet powder of the consistency of sawdust made from the ripe fruit of the pandanus; it is mixed for purposes of consumption with water.

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Extraordinary care is taken, in the manufacture of this food, to expel all moisture, as the durability of the finished article depends wholly upon the degree of desiccation achieved. The following description of the method of manufacture was obtained at Tarawa.

Stage 1. The pandanus fruits are broken up into their constituent seed-cones, which are heaped on a mat at the left side of the (sitting) worker. Another mat, or screen of plaited coconut-leaf, lies before her. The seed-cones are taken, one by one, and their juicy proximal ends (tabataba) are sliced off upon the empty mat, their hard outer ends containing the seed being thrown aside to the worker's right.

Stage 2. The tabataba are gathered together in a net of coconut-fibre string, and steam-cooked for about an hour. They are then taken out and heaped upon a mat of very close texture, about 3 feet square, called the ngabingabi. The sides of the mat are raised on stones, so that it forms a shallow crater, and the worker, sitting close up against one edge, proceeds to pound the cooked fruit with a pestle (iku) of pemphis-wood into a smooth mash. Not a single lump (taribi) is permissible.

Stage 3. The mash is then separated into clots, each about as big as the lower half of a cottage loaf, and these are placed side by side on a separate mat. This process is called the buabua (the moulding) with reference to the shaping of the clots between the hands of the worker. 

Stage 4. Each clot is now taken individually upon the ngabingabi, to be kneaded and pummelled until it assumes the shape of a rectangular slab about two inches thick, and eighteen by eight inches in area. After kneading, the slab remains fairly close-packed and solid. This process is called te kaboraa (the kneading). As each slab is completed, it is covered with a green mat of plaited coconut-leaf called te raurau (the plate) and tipped over upon it, as a pancake on a dish.

Stage 5. The slabs are then set out in rows to dry in the sun upon their respective raurau, being continually turned to equalize the desiccation. This goes on for a greater or less number of days, according to the weather; in a good dry season the process is considered complete after about thirty-six hours of exposure to the sun. During the whole of this stage, the mash is called te karababa; it is said to be mae (a special term indicating dryness) when the sun-curing is complete.

Stage 6. The karababa is now ready for the stage called te ewenako (the going away to another place). The slabs are taken to be dry-cooked in the Ruanuna oven, being set therein upon a foundation of green coconut-leaf midribs, which keeps them clear of the hot stones. They are left in the oven overnight. The next morning they are again exposed (tawaaki) to the sun, and the process of curing continues for not less than seven or eight days in fine weather. At the end of this stage the slabs are hard, rather brittle and of a pale golden-yellow colour. Now comes the browning process.  

Stage 7. The cakes are heaped in piles of ten or more upon the hot stones of a cooking hearth. The undermost cake of a pile is not allowed to remain more than a few minutes in place; as soon as contact with the stones has browned its lower surface, it is removed to the top and another takes its place. When the whole pile has been browned on one side, it is reversed and the process is repeated for the obverse sides. The name of this stage is te aa-karababa (the word aa meaning 'underside').

Stage 8. All the slabs having been browned, they are laid out on a mat to cool, a mat covering them. Being quite cold, they are broken up into bits, and thrown into the largest aubunga shell (Tridacna gigas) procurable, and there pounded into dust with a pemphis-wood pestle. The dust is kabubu, the finished article.

The kabubu is packed for storage in carefully prepared tubular containers of pandanus-leaf called iria, wherein, if securely tamped down, it will keep for as long as two years.

Meal-time depends much upon the supply of food, but a Gilbertese household normally likes to eat after returning from the early morning labours, at some time between 8 and 9 a.m., and again after the evening's supply of coconut-toddy has been brought home, at the hour of sunset.

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A universal habit is to wake at about midnight and make an impromptu meal of anything remaining over from the evening's repast. This kind of meal, called te tairaa, is not taken by those who wish to cultivate their babai pits next morning; it is also avoided by people engaged in certain magico-ritual observances, especially those connected with love, puberty and the composition of dancing-chants.  

Subject to such exceptions, every Gilbertese household will habitually arise at any hour of the night for the purpose of supping on broiled fish, if one of its members comes home with a good catch, or if a present of fish be sent along by some other household.

The whole household eats together, without distinction of age or sex. Children are generally seen to sit in company with those who rank as tibu (grandparents-lineal, adoptive, or classificatory) because it is held to be the duty of the young to 'watch the mouth' of the aged-that is, to minister to their wants. 

It is the office of women at meals to bring in the food, and set it before the males. As soon as the men have begun to eat, the women may also set to, if food be in plenty; but at a time of scarcity, the men are first allowed to appease their hunger, the remnants only being taken by the women.

The elder men, having the rank of grandfathers, are supposed to be given the first choice of all foods. This, as least, is the theory, but the degree of piety varies much from household to household. Everyone breaks off what he wants from the platter, but a grandchild will often do this on behalf of the grandparent, and carry the portion in his hands to the elder.

A passing stranger may be called in casually to partake of a meal, and can hardly refuse such an invitation without causing offence. To him the first choice of food is offered, unless the meal has actually begun. In any case, before eating, he will break off a piece of the article chosen by him as his first dish and offer it to the master of the house, who will accept and eat it. This done, the stranger proceeds with his meal. The custom is called te taarika, which name is also applied to the first portion given, at any ritual-meal, to the ancestral deity of the clan. Failure to observe the taarika is believed to cause a guest to become maraia, or accursed. 

A stranger may never eat to repletion; if he be observed to do so, he will acquire a reputation of trading upon the hospitality of others. Nevertheless, good manners require him to simulate repletion, no matter how little he may have eaten. There is no particular method of doing this, but a rubbing of the stomach with the remark that 'a full meal makes sleepy' is considered delicately to the point, and an eructation followed by the explanation that the stomach is riba (packed right), or tibutaua (inflated) is particularly appreciated by the host. 

Food at all meals is served together, without discrimination of variety, and each individual follows his taste as to the order of eating. The only gastronomical preference of a general nature is the principle that something sweet ought to be eaten with fish, as a tanna (relish). This seems to apply especially to fatty fishes, such as the baneaua (sp. Mulloidae) and the rabono (deep-sea conger) and to porpoise-flesh. The meal is usually rounded off with a drink of kamaimai, kabubu, or water. 

TE TARARAKE

A very strict etiquette is observed in the drinking of te kabubu. In a dry state, this food is of the consistency of sawdust, and the correct way to take it is to mix it with water. The drinking-vessel is first half-filled with the powder, and water is poured in to within half an inch of the brim. After the mixture has stood for a few minutes, it is stirred with a piece of green pandanus leaf; the first draught may then be taken. Each fresh draught must be proceeded by a renewed stirring. When the liquid is finished, there always remains a thick sediment of liquescent kabubu at the bottom of the vessel, to finish which manners demand that more water should be added, and the mixture stirred again before drinking. The process must be repeated until but a little sediment is left. Only when a man judges that the remainder will make no more than a single mouthful, is he allowed to tip it into his open mouth, with head thrown well back; this action is called te tararake (the looking upward). The necessity of performing a clean tararake is unqualified; though the sediment may be collected (with the pandanus-leaf scoop) in the bottom of the bowl for the purpose of convenient tipping, it may on no account be ladled out or touched with the fingers, and to leave it unconsumed is a serious breach of manners.

That the original motive of the tararake was not material but religious appears beyond argument from certain rituals connected with the fructification of the pandanus and the offering of its first-fruits to the clan-deity. It will be seen that the upturning of the face, in one case to an elevated tuft of feathers called the Sun and in the other to Heaven, is an essential part of those rituals; and it is here most pertinent to add that, in former days the persons whose function it was to fructify the pandanus were habitually buried at death on a sitting position, with the head thrown back in the tararake attitude. The looking-up when a draught of kabubu is being drained clearly belongs to the same group of religious observances, and thus may be regarded on a ritual act.

PRINCIPAL USES

A man will cheerfully do a full day's work on nothing but a handful of kabubu in water at sunrise and the same at sunset, if other rations fail him. The gently purgative qualities of the food are also recognized and valued by the islander, who uses it freely as an aperient for his children. The powder is occasionally eaten dry in these days, but is consumption in such a manner was formally prohibited except on sea-voyages, when it was consumed as the traveller wished.

Mixed with the kamaimai, a treacly product obtained by boiling and re-boiling coconut toddy (karewe), the food makes an aromatic sweet called te korokoro. In this form also it will keep good for an indefinite period. It was under the guise of te korokoro that the first fruits of the pandanus harvest were formerly offered to the sun.

COCONUT-TODDY

Toddy is the sap extracted from the coconut-blossom before the hard spathe which contains it has burst. The tip of the spathe is cut off, exposing an inch or two of compressed unopened blossom; the spathe is then bound around with string, in the manner of a cricket-bat handle, upward from the base to the cut-off end. A section of the exposed blossom is shaved off, and the toddy oozes from the cut surface; the spathe is pulled down, so that it protrudes horizontally from the tree, and lashed in that position; a coconut-shell suspended below the tip catches the sweet liquid, which is guided into the mouth by a funnel of leaf. A leaf-shield prevents the intrusion of insects.

Numerous 'schools' of toddy-cutting exist, nearly every family-group having its own peculiarity of technique. The methods of binding the spathe are particularly varied, as the flow of sap is held to depend very greatly upon the skill with which this operation is performed.

The collecting-shell is changed twice (sometimes three times) a day, and in each occasion a fine wafer of the exposed bloom is sliced away, to stimulate a fresh discharge of sap. As cutting progresses, the binding of the spathe is gradually unwound, so that further lengths of the contained blossom may be exposed as necessity arises.

The hours of collection and renewal are usually just after sunrise and just before sunset, but some toddy-experts favour an intermediate operation at midday. A skilled cutter can win more than two pints of sap in twenty-four hours from a single spathe; the present writer, after several years of endeavour, was unable to achieve a full pint - which was politely attributed by the islanders to lack of the proper magic. In point of real fact, the cutting process demands an extremely deft and sure touch, without which the sap refuses to run freely.

Toddy-cutting is said by some to have been confined, seven generation ago, to the single island of Abemama, the secret having been brought thence by an individual named Nakuau, and introduced into the Northern Gilberts. But this hardly tallies with the evidence of other tradition, which connects the art with the ancestral being named Taburimai - one of the most important of the anti-ma-aomata (spirit-with-man) of the race - and seems to indicate that it was generally known from very early times.

Toddy begins to ferment within fifteen hours of its collection, especially if allowed to stand in a previously-used vessel; it is a popular intoxicant in its fermented state. 

 

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