As I learned about the history of New Guinea and the Melanesians, I felt that it was critical that I speak with someone from the region. I came across Papua New Guinean Chef Donald David.
He provided me with so much insight into his country and its unique history and cuisine. I hope to have a chance to visit the island and try its food one day!
A Conversation with Chef Donald David
When did you start cooking, and what made you fall in love with it?
My interest in cooking started when I was helping out in church. Here in PNG [Papua New Guinea] we have 21 provinces [which are similar to U.S. states]. What our church does is it invites followers from each province to come to our province, East New Britain. Everyone comes from the other islands and we have church gatherings.
I normally wake up around 5AM and start the fire [to make Aigir, a local dish]. We don’t have gas or stoves. Everything is cooked on the fire. We boil hot water. We scrape fresh coconut. We peel the sweet potatoes. We have our greens and everything in one pot: bananas, sweet potatoes, chicken, fresh coconut cream from the store, and a bit of salt.
Bouillon (chicken seasoning) is famous here. We don’t really use pepper. PNG is not into spices. We prefer to use fresh ginger and garlic.
On Papua New Guinean Chef Donald David’s Professional Journey
Did you go to culinary school or learn the ropes in restaurant kitchens?
I learned cooking from my spiritual mothers [in church]. After that my interest grew. One of our pastors told me to look for a job. He wrote me a reference. I started to look for work on Rapopo Plantation Resort in East New Britain. In 2009, I went there and asked the manager for work. He told me to come back in the afternoon. I was just so excited like, this is my first job! I started boasting, “I’m going to work now.” The manager gave me an apron and told me I was going to become a bartender.
I started as a bartender, taking orders from the guests and taking them to the kitchen. I told myself, one day I will be working in here [the kitchen]. After two years, I asked the owner for a job in the kitchen. He had me alternate positions; one week I served guests as a bartender and the next week I spent working in the kitchen. I cut up all the vegetables, cleaned the floors. I was a [part-time] kitchen hand.
I did that for a couple months until they saw that I was very good in the kitchen. So they changed the roster and I became a full time kitchen hand. I was dealing with inventory and other issues. [I firmly believe that] if you are very faithful in the small things, then the big things will come.
The owner [of Rapopo Plantation Resort] established a new hotel in the capital city of Port Moresby [called] Sanctuary Resort Hotel and Spa. The owner called me up and asked if I was interested in going to Port Moresby for one month. I started working very hard and they did not want me to go back. I am now the head chef [of Sanctuary Resort Hotel and Spa].
What is it like leading a hotel restaurant?
In the mornings, you don’t have anyone in the restaurant. And then suddenly, bang. People are rushing in. The hotel industry is very unpredictable.
Normally we have tourists, but because of the pandemic that really disturbed everything. Now the borders are opening up and we have trekers coming in from Australia to go on the Kokoda trail. You have to be prepared every time, even if your occupancy rate in the hotel is not very high. There will still be walk-in guests.
Everyone is coming for the local legends that I created. As a chef, if you are from a place, you need to be representing who you are with your food. Here in Papua New Guinea, when you visit hotels they are only serving Western dishes. What I came up with are dishes from my own province. I created six dishes apart from our normal menu. When it came out, when everyone came, they were like I want my food, I want PNG food.
On PNG Cuisine, History, and Traditions
Can you talk more about Papua New Guinea cuisine? What are some of your favorite dishes?
The dish [described above] that we make for church gatherings is called aigir. It is creamed vegetables and protein (fish, chicken, or pork); a lot of people like it with chicken. There is also fish totogor, which is made when we wrap aigir in banana leaves. It’s kind of like a lunch box. Before, when my ancestors wanted to go to school or visit family, they cooked and wrapped things in the banana leaf.
Another dish is South Baining grilled lobsters with butter. We cut the lobsters in half. They are bloody big lobsters and we served it with local produce like bananas and sweet potatoes. We love sweet potatoes in PNG. You cannot go for any dish without sweet potatoes.
We also eat toma mumu pork. We do a shortcut here but the way we do our cooking is very unique. Mumu is with any protein and then with sweet potato. If you do not see any sweet potato on your plate the restaurant has an issue. We have our root vegetables like taro, cassava, carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkin as well as bananas and greens. We cut everything up and put it in the banana leaves along with the pork and coconut cream. We dig the ground up and fill the hole with firewood. We light it and fill it with special stones that we use for mumu. When it’s really really hot we take the stones out, add the banana leaves, and add stones back on top. Our cooking here is very very different.
What we have for our desserts is bariva, from sago [flour made from dried palm fiber]. We mix the sago flour with special bananas. We mash it up. If we don’t feel like mashing it up we blend it in the blender. My ancestors would mash it up with their hands until it reached a texture that they really wanted. The sago flour flavor is really nice; it’s like tapioca flour. We wrap the mixture in banana leaves and then we boil them. Then we take them out and let them cool. We top the mixture with coconut sauce made with coconut cream and sugar.
How does the history of Papua New Guinea influence the culture today?
The influence that Western culture has brought is the dress code. Clothing has really changed in the last twenty years. Before the ladies would normally wear lap laps, but now they mostly wear Western clothes. The older generations still speak the native languages but the younger generations are now into English and pidgin, which is the lingua franca amongst provinces. [In school] we are taught that our ancestors were like this and that the Europeans came in boats. Some came to do research on the land and [some] to spread the word of God.
Colonialism is here, it’s in disguise. In the old days you could see it with your eyes. Today, they come in disguise. Our government is very corrupt. We have had independence since 1975, but all our gold, all our copper, everything that we own here, I don’t see it.
Would you say that there is solidarity between the countries of the Melanesian subregion of Oceania?
There is a common identity among the Melanesians in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and neighboring islands like Fiji. A lot of things haven’t changed yet. In terms of cooking, our way of cooking is very similar. A lot of us use coconut milk in our cooking. A lot of us use the ground ovens, which is very good.
There are some things we normally do that we do not do now because the western culture brought in the blender. Before that we had our own ways of doing things. [Tradition] brings us all together and we are still one. The problem with the [Melanesian] islanders is the languages, that is what separates us. If we all can speak the [same] language and communicate with each other, we could be connected. Now we have English so that is what we can all use to communicate.