Lap-lap is the national food in Vanuatu. Visitors usually struggle to eat more than a few mouthfuls but after you've been here a while you find you love it. Tonight's was really good.
I'm often asked how lap-lap is made. So this time, I took lots of photos so that you can all see. I didn't make it on my own... I needed lots of help, not least because we don't even have a bush kitchen with a fire. But, lap-lap making and eating are both fellowship events. No-one (usually) does it on their own.
This is what we started with: yam, coconuts and a fowl. Two students caught the fowl for us early this morning and my house-girl killed, plucked and gutted it later in the morning. It spent some time in our fridge. The coconuts were gathered just before lunch and another friend removed the husks for me. This is a skill I definitely have not mastered!
At 2:00 pm I trotted off to Mama Mercy's bush kitchen. She had agreed not just to let me use her kitchen but to help me make the whole thing as I have never made lap-lap with meat before.
First we washed the yam. They are grown in the ground and usually remain fairly caked in soil until required. Then we cut off their skins and grated them ("rus-rusem", love the onomatapea).
To get the mixture just right, we also mixed in juice from the coconuts. This makes it lovely and sweet.
During this whole process we had also been working on the coconuts. They are opened with the blunt side of a bush knife. The juice (which is not white like milk but clear like water, and delicious) is kept; some to sweeten and soften the yam (as described above) and some to make it easier to squeeze out the milk (see below).
Then the coconut is scraped, grated or scratched off the shell. The "scratcher" is quite an instrument! It is a little stool with a metal attachment like a flat spoon sticking out, but the spoon has small, sharp teeth all round it. The coconut shell is moved over this attachment, grating the coconut which falls into a bowl. It requires a fair amount of muscle and, while all the women can do it, if there are men around, it's their job. Here, Mama Mercy's son is learning. Then the milk is squeezed out of the coconut through cloth. The extra liquid from the juice makes this easier. You can see Sophie helping here (also learning).
Now all the ingredients are ready and we need to put the lap-lap together. I go outside to find lap-lap leaves. These look like banana leaves but are stronger and don't split as much as banana leaves. They are used a lot in cooking. Mama Mercy builds up the fire, which has been quietly smoldering away in the corner. The stones need to be quite hot.
The under side of the mid-vein of the leaves is removed. This makes the leaves easier to bend, and the off cuts are used to make a "rope".
Four or so ropes are laid out in a criss-cross fashion. Then the leaves are arranged over the rope, laid out on one another. Coconut milk is rubbed over the leaves, its oil working in the same way margarine does to grease a cake-tin. Then the yam is put on the leaves. Hot stones are carefully placed in the middle, on top of a folded-up lap-lap leaf. Then the chicken pieces are placed over the stones. This ensures that the chicken will be cooked properly. Onion, shallots and salt are sprinkled over the chicken. Finally, the whole thing is covered in coconut milk.
Then we fold over the leaves to wrap it up like a parcel and fasten it with the rope.
Stones are removed from the fire (now with no flame), the lap-lap placed carefully on the coals/ashes and covered with hot stones. Then the stones are covered first with more lap-lap and banana leaves, and then with old fabric. This all keeps in the heat.
Then we leave it for a few hours. We return, remove all the coverings and carry the lap-lap to the house. We open up our parcel and, voila!
It mightn't look much but it was delicious. The students who came for dinner loved it and so did Mama Mercy's family (at least everyone was polite enough to say so).
Thanks everyone for your help, especially Mama Mercy for your help and the use of your kitchen, and our friends in Weilapa for the fowl and yam!