Saturday, November 26, 2011

Fishing for Local Food, Fruit, and Betel Nut in Palau

By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri KrasovWhy travel to remote destinations if not for exotic foods as well as for many other splendored things to see, hear, smell, and touch.
A trip to Palau is as much a culinary adventure as it is a discovery feast of diving, snorkeling, boating, and jungle-trotting.
Located in the Western Pacific, Palau absorbed culinary influences of Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the USA, creating a fusion cuisine of rice and sea food, barbequed chicken and pork, root vegetables, fresh fruit, and spices.
Out of 21 species of spiny, seedy, and sweet-fleshy tropical fruit growing here, I can now easily identify jackfruit, breadfruit, starfruit, dragon fruit, passion fruit, mangosteen, rambutan, and soursop.
I can also brag about having a full serving of stinky tofu (thankfully, the serving was rather small) that smelled like garbage during garbage collectors’ strike, and looked and tasted like fresh asphalt – not that I ever tasted the latter.On an ATV-driving excursion with a famous local tour operator, Fish n’ Fins, while traversing the muddy off-roads of Koror, our group caught a glimpse of a statuesque fisherwoman pulling out a silvery-green needlefish, later cut in half and thrown on a grill for an outdoor lunch in a public park.Our own lunch at the recently open Ngellil Nature Island Resort in Airai featured sweetlip fish, also thrown on an outdoor grill behind the restaurant building. Designed to blend with the tropical environment, the resort has only two traditional architecture buildings – one an eight-room guesthouse, another reception area and restaurant.Chicken leg quarters, pork skewers, and mussels were grilled with barbecue sauce the way meals are prepared for the overnight guests in this all-inclusive resort.My favorite part of the meal was a toy-like leaf basket for steamed rice, suspended on a long string for dipping and pulling out of boiling water.A handsome lunch plate covered with banana leaf contained an American touch – deliciously charred corn on the cob.At a formal dinner at Taj Restaurant in the capital city of Koror, we were treated to the best of Indian cuisine – garlic naan, tandoori fish, saffron basmati rice, mango chutney, and mint yogurt raita.I couldn’t leave Palau without getting a taste of the famous betel nut, widely used throughout the Asia-Pacific as a mild stimulant, energizer, alertness enhancer, and whatever-you-name-it exciter.During an improv hands-on demo in an undisclosed location, a fruit of areca catechu palm (the betel nut) was cut in half, stuffed with a tiny amount of lime from dead corals, some tobacco from a cigarette, and wrapped into a piper betel leaf. I put the thimble-size package in my mouth, and started to chew. It was bitter and puckering. Soon I was foaming at the mouth with bright-orange betel juice, which I was warned not to swallow. I had to run off, hide and spit. And spit, and spit, and spit some more. Suddenly I felt flushed, dizzy, and too warm even for the Palauan 85-degree weather. Was it because of the betel nut or because of embarrassment at my unladylike behavior, I might never know. For more information about traveling to Palau, go to: www.visit-papau.com.

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