I think this is a Samoan culture activity put in the school curriculum, because I remember cooking happening at school around this time last year. This year, I was warned ahead of time. One of my students told me the night before that cooking would be happening at school the next day, so I should bring my camera. Of course I forgot my camera, but I live close enough to the school that I was able to walk back to my fale after other teachers had arrived and pick up my camera before the big event started. Then everybody who saw me walking back to school asked if I was running late because I had slept in, but I assume everybody knows by now that I am always the first person to school.
Let me again reiterate that cooking in Samoa, which often feels like the hottest place on the planet, is the hottest possible thing to do in Samoa. It always starts with the fire. The fire has to be built up and is continuously added to until the very last thing comes out of the “oven.” You start with a base layer of lava rocks. Then pile on top of that all the coconut husks, palm fronds, and spare pieces of tree you can find. Let it burn until you can see a purple flame at the base of the fire, then add on more stuff and let it get hotter.
While the fire is going, some of the students are preparing the coconut cream. Coconut cream is one of my new favorite things, but I could probably never make it if left entirely to my own devices. I can do each individual step, but the amount of effort that goes into producing a full batch of coconut cream and cooking the food to go with it is…incredible. The students each brought coconuts to school, and they had already been husked so part of the process had been completed. Husking a coconut takes a lot of skill and quite a bit of effort. I tried it once with some of my Year 5 students. I was over at their house for a reading lesson, then they had to husk coconuts to take to the Samoan School (aka porch school at my fale). It was taking a long time, so I decided to see what they were up to. I asked them to teach me how to do it (which in itself was very complicated. They couldn’t exactly model the process because they are 10-year old girls who are at least half my size and don’t yet have the strength and skill to adeptly polish off a husk, and I’m not familiar with the language involved with husking a coconut). After several failed attempts, their auntie came out to demonstrate in one fell swoop, then I accomplished the same fantastic feat (it may not have been quite as graceful), and we went to my fale with our coconuts.
Anyway, step 1, husk the coconut. Then you crack the coconut in half, usually accomplished by whacking it with a machete. I am actually quite adept at this skill, but I was just a spectator in the cooking day – it was for the students to learn. Then you scrape the coconut. The exact verbage here is undecided – I go back and forth between scraping the coconut and shaving the coconut. You have this fancy stool that has a kind of grater (not like a cheese grater, but imagine the end of a grapefruit spoon – it’s got teeth like that) sticking off the end. So you take half a coconut and scrape it against the grater until all the flesh has come off the shell into the bowl you have carefully placed beneath the grater. (Coconut is a fruit, so you are scraping off the part you can eat – popo – which is also one of my new favorites.) After all the coconuts have been scraped, then you squeeze all the shavings to get the milk out of them. You use this thing that looks all stringy and scratchy. You roll up a bunch of shavings in there like a burrito, then squeeze it like you’re wringing out your laundry, and all the milk drops into the bowl, and you throw away the used shavings. Frequently pigs and chickens get the discarded shavings for their meal.
Meanwhile, while the fire is being continually built up, you put the breadfruit on top of the lava rocks and leave it in there to cook. This means the outside gets completely blackened while the inside gets ridiculously hot, and deliciously soft. After the outside has been sufficiently crisped, the breadfruit is removed from the fire, and the black shell removed from the breadfruit. This is often done with the use of sticks, but every once in a while, you run into that person who just scrapes it off with their bare hands. Crazy! I can hardly even look at these things because they’re so hot! However, hands are more effective than sticks because the goal here is to remove all traces of black. Any shell or ash left on the breadfruit leaves a funky taste, and fingers are a bit more adept at this task.
While the breadfruit is being crisped and de-crisped, the coconut cream is being turned into sugar. You put all the milk in a bowl, and then you add some lava rocks straight from the fire. As the mixture starts to bubble and boil, add approximately five pounds of sugar. I’m not actually sure of the correct amount, but you add sugar until it is deemed sweet enough, which is usually a sickening amount of sugar. It’s best not to pay attention if you’re concerned about cavities or diabetes or anything like that. The lava rocks are also a very effective method of heating. When you pour sugar onto the lava rocks, it melts immediately, producing liquid sugar that runs more like water than honey. This whole concoction is thoroughly mixed.
Once the breadfruits have been de-crisped, you then mash them in a bowl. You mash them using an uncooked breadfruit that has been speared on some sort of stick. This is my favorite part because not only do you make the food out of breadfruit, but you also use the breadfruit in the method of making taufolo. You don’t use potatoes to make mashed potatoes, but you use breadfruit to make a similar substance. As the breadfruit turns to mush, pour in the coconut cream/sugar. The whole thing gets a sticky sweet covering, which you kind of pull apart into bite-size pieces, then serve with a CHOO-HOO! My only problem with taufolo is that it reminds me so much of mashed potatoes – which I love and of which I have long been deprived. I always want to take over the production process at the point the sugar is added to the coconut cream. I would add some salt and butter, mix it all together, and eat mashed breadfruit because breadfruit tastes like potatoes. Maybe someday.