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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Papua New Guinea

Historic Diet

The historic diet of Papua New Guinea is quite diverse as the lands are very fertile and many plants originated on the island of New Guinea or made their way to this island very early in history. The animal life isn't as diverse as the plant life, but with a huge number of plants many animals have made their way to the islands and call them home, giving the people additional food sources.

This historic diet, and the diet today are heavily reliant on the plant life, not the animals, but the plant life is incredible diverse as coconuts, sugarcane, breadfruit, and taro are all believed to have originated on New Guinea. Additionally, bananas, yams, and lemons originated from the region as well (likely from Indonesia or Southeast Asia) and in early history these plants made their way to what is now known as Papua New Guinea. By the time the earliest settlers arrived to the islands it is not known what foods were already present, but the native plants alone were enough to sustain a large population and these very early introduced plants would have made New Guinea and the surrounding islands even more livable as these foods formed the core of the historic diet.

Animals were a supplement to the plant-based diet of the people as the major sources of protein came from rodents, pigs, and sea food, including small animals found in the rivers. The pigs almost definitely arrived with the first settlers, but the rodents may have arrived to the islands on their own. Fish and sea food were also common in the surrounding waters, while the rivers and lakes are also home to huge numbers of small animals. Again these animals supplemented the plant-based diet as did reptiles and other animals the people could find.

Culinary Influences

From the time the first people settled the island of New Guinea little changed in the way of their diet. The island and region had so many plants that acted as excellent sources of food there was little need to change. These people may have brought with them some plants and animals, such as pigs and bananas in order to expand their foods, but the islands were fairly isolated for much of history so few changes took place.

The people were primarily hunters, gathers, and fishers and over time they became farmers to a degree. Their cooking techniques also changed over time as they eventually developed a cooking technique that involves putting meats or other foods into a hot earthen oven underground, a technique used throughout the south Pacific.

The next great outside influence to the local diet began in the 1500s when the Spanish arrived. However, the Spanish and other Europeans stayed primarily on the coasts and little effort was made to settle the islands. It wasn't until the 1800s when the Germans and British began settling the islands that the diet truly changed and these changes were primarily based on European foods being added as opposed to changing the local cuisine.

The German, British, and other European settlers sought their foods from home so began importing plants and animals that they demanded. This led to the importation of many foods that are still eaten today including chickens, sheep, cattle, wheat, potatoes, pineapples, and cocoa, which was an important cash crop for the Germans. Despite these introductions, most of these new foods were consumed only by the European population along the coast, which was where they were based.

The local diet remained much as it had in the past throughout this colonization period, essentially creating two diets, one the locals ate and one the Europeans ate. These changes were slowly magnified throughout this time since the technology from the Industrial Revolution was beginning to reach the country and this strongly affected the foods of the Europeans. Due to improved transportation and storage methods, these Europeans had greater access to foods from Europe and elsewhere, only encouraging the divide between the diets of the two groups.

In recent decades there have been additional changes and additions to the cuisine, but most of these changes have affected the cities and coastal areas. Ethnic restaurants, including Chinese and Indonesian, are growing in popularity, especially in Port Moresby. Better technology has also changed the local foods and how they're prepared, shipped, and stored giving many foods a longer shelf life and giving the people greater access to a variety of foods. Despite this, the local diet remains tied to pork, yams, rice, and local fruits and vegetables, while the ethnic Europeans tend to rely on a more European-styled diet.

When & Where to Eat

Most people in Papua New Guinea start the day with coffee or tea and a small breakfast, such as cakes, pastries, fruit, or even fish and rice. Breakfast is usually eaten at home prior to school or the workday.

Lunch was traditionally the largest meal of the day in Papua New Guinea and for many people this is still true. For these people, lunch is a large feast at home with family, which can last a couple hours. The foods served for lunch tend to be local foods, including vegetables, fruits, fish or chicken, as well as rice; soups and dessert are also common. For the people who have a more rigid work schedule, most commonly in the cities, lunch tends to be smaller and is eaten at work, often times consisting of the previous day's leftovers.

For those who have large lunches, dinner is the secondary meal as it tends to be much smaller, often just consisting of leftovers from lunch. For those who eat lunch at work dinner tends to be the largest meal of the day and can go on for hours as many of the above mentioned foods are served. Dinners are often eaten in the home.

Staple Foods

Breadfruit (ulu): this fruit is very common
Coconut: coconuts are used for their milk and flesh
Rice: a common base or side for many meals
Taro: taro root is prepared in numerous ways; it is one of the main staples in the South Pacific
Yams: yams, a member of the potato family, are found in many meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Mumu: this dish consists of pork, yams, rice, and vegetables

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Papua New Guinea is generally very relaxed as rules are scarce, dress is usually casual, and tardiness is expected (although business settings may be more formal). More importantly, the dining experience vastly differs across the country as people in Port Moresby may eat in the continental style and restaurants may appear no different than those in Europe. On the other extreme there are people in the villages who eat with their hands, sit on the ground, and caught their meal just hours earlier. Due to these extremes the most important thing to remember is to follow your host.

No matter the setting, most people arrive about 10-15 minutes late and you can do the same. If you know where you're dining prior to going out ask your hotel or a local acquaintance what the dress is for that place; some restaurants in the cities can be fairly formal and you should dress to match. Once there let your host show you a seat and follow their lead. Most people belief you are a guest in their country and they will go out of their way to cater to you and your needs. Return this favor by trying everything served to you and graciously accepting their hospitality.

How you eat is again a question as many people eat with their hands, but in the nicest restaurants you are expected to follow international dining etiquette, including eating in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left). As you may be overwhelmed with foods and may not like some of the foods served, it's nice to know few people care if you eat everything or leave some food behind, but again follow your host's lead and if eating with an ethnic Chinese be sure to leave some food on the plate when you're finished. You may also notice that in villages some food will be ignored; this is for the chief and his family so don't touch it.

Generally, if eating in a restaurant, the host is expected to pay for everyone present. If you are the host do not leave a tip no matter how good the service was. This is a request commonly made by the people of Papua New Guinea as well as tour companies based in the country; tipping creates jealousy and is not a healthy practice in the country and they prefer to keep it that way.

Drinks

Papua New Guinea has most international brands and drinks, especially in the larger cities. This includes juices, soft drinks, tea, and coffee. However for a more authentic taste of the South Pacific try kava or waild koniak. This drink (known as kava in most of the country, but as waild koniak in others) is made from the kava plant's roots, which are ground to release liquid, then water is added and the juice is drank. This drink gives a very relaxing effect, yet is not considered a drug in the countries of the South Pacific.

The most popular alcoholic beverage in Papua New Guinea is beer, however many of these beers are imports and many of the local beers are not worth special mention. Wine and liquors are also available in Papua New Guinea, but again these are generally imports and are primarily found in hotels and restaurants catered to foreigners.

The tap water is not safe to drink in Papua New Guinea, despite what your hotel or guesthouse may say. You should entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads.

This page was last updated: April, 2013