Saturday, November 5, 2011

Local Dining in Vanuatu

I hadn't been overseas before. At the age of 22 I had not stepped foot outside my home country. That was a big deal for me. I had the travel bug long before I travelled, and I had to stop putting it off and just pop the cherry. The trip was with my girlfriend and we discovered we both have different travelling styles. We met some fellow Australians, some Ni-Vanuatu (that's what you call people from Vanuatu) and not many other people. Believe it or not, the majority of tourists in Vanuatu are Australian.

The package deal we got from Air-Vanuatu had us staying at LeLagon Resort and Spa, which is a resort in Port Vila, the capital city of Vanuatu. We managed to get three nights free, which offset the otherwise expensive prices. The Aussie cent is pretty much equal to the Vatu, (the currency in Vanuatu) and the make up of the economy is such that you pretty much spend what you would in Australia for things. That is, if you do it wrong.

We started our visit by doing a quick tour of Port Vila, we saw the parliament house, the french schools and the english schools, some good places to eat (more on that in a bit) and had a chat to our tour guides. Vanuatu gained its independence in 1980 and they are still very proud of their accomplishments as young country and as a people. As part of the tour we even met the guy that designed the Vanuatu flag! He works in a small manual printing shop called "Handprints" on the main road in Nambatu area (I think). This may seem like kind of boring stuff to do when you're just getting into your first overseas adventure, and at the time I was a little restless, but I think it is very important to respect the history of the places you travel to, and to learn what you can before getting into the nitty gritty.

If you're looking for local restaurants in Port Villa it makes sense to stay away from the cafes and steak bars lining the main roads and obviously being run by off-landers. This was a little fact my travelling buddy didn't appear to realise. My Dad always told me that when you're travelling if you want the best experience to "go where the locals go" and this was great advice. On the girlfriends request, we stopped into one of the aforementioned foreignly owned cafes to get lunch and I promptly refused to buy anything. The burgers were around 1300vt, that's $13! There is no way that the people of Mele village, the largest village in Vanuatu (with about 3000 people in residence), living on their penance of an income and what the land provided them, would ever consider paying 1300vt for a burger and chips. This was decidedly not where the locals went.

When it was my turn to find somewhere to dine, I went straight for the local markets. The local markets in Port Vila are an amalgamation of homegrown food, flowers and snacks. There is enough exotic fruits and treats to keep any traveller happy. Since I have taken a particular interest in tropical foods for the past few years I recognised most of the fresh produce, but it was great to see the pre-prepared foods like dried salted Kumala chips which taste just like potato chips but have a nice finish. What better place to start my search for local restaurants?

After looking through some of the produce on display, we made our way to the back of the market building, where I spotted a lot of locals sitting at rows of tables. There were ladies standing behind portable gas cookers with utensils obviously brought from home, inviting aromas steaming from the pots bubbling on the homemade ranges. This looked promising.

After casting bewilderedly around at our surroundings - there were no signs or menus or indications that the place actually served food to people - one of the friendly old mums kindly asked us what we were looking for.
"Um, we're looking for something to eat" I proffered.
"I have beef or chicken" the lady said.
"Chicken it is then" My partner and I nodded in unison.
The lady sat us down at the table and shoved some glasses and a bottle of spring water (actual spring water from the islands freakin SPRING) into our hands. I could feel curious but benevolent eyes running over our backs. It seemed like people didn't do this often.

Within ten minutes we had an inverted bowl of steamed rice, a heaping of lettuce and chicken served in a stock and basil sauce staring at us from two mismatched plates. The chicken was small and had obviously been reared locally, and the flavour of it was very rich. In no way did it remind me of the hormone doused, flavourless, bulky steroidical mass of flesh that chicken is in Australia. It was petite, moist, lean and ever so tasty. The sauce was reminiscent of whatever Maggi must have originally based their chicken noodles flavouring on, and had a fresh kick to it that could only be delivered by locally grown ingredients. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal.

When we were done wiping the sauce up with fresh local bread (the French influence in Vanuatu has instilled a hint of pride in the local bakers) I looked up at our provider and extended our thanks.
"That was very good, thank you"
The lady nodded her head and smiled. I'm not sure if she was nervous or stunned to have two very tall, very blonde, very white, very obvious tourists in her service.
"How much?" I asked.
"umm, 400 vatu each"
4 bucks! I was stoked. I gave her a 1000 vatu note and walked away. I'm not sure what the custom is with tipping over there, but to be given such a nice meal in such authentic surroundings and for such a price, invoked a desire to return some sort of favour.

If you are looking for a local restaurant overseas, you might not have such a nice experience, or you might not be the person to appreciate the moment when it is happening, but the markets seems to be a good place to start.

Like Dad always said, go where the locals go

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