An Examination of the Relationship Between Tongan Food and Culture
The story of immigrants coming to the United States and starting restaurants around their native cuisine is a common one. People love the exoticism of “authentic cultural cuisine” as much as they love the taste – sometimes more, I would suspect. Here in Cache Valley, one restaurant I particularly love is Pauni Island Grill. My personal favorite dish of theirs is the Kalua Pork, but they have a wide range of authentic Tongan food to choose from.
“Authentic” may not be strictly accurate in the most definitional sense. Immigrants have to make use of the foods available in their new homes rather than those of their home countries. Nevertheless, they are authentic in that they are made using authentic recipes of immigrant families. They may not be how they’re made in their home countries, but they are how those people would make food using the ingredients of their new homes.
For example, when I interviewed Seneti Pauni she talked about her restaurant’s Lu Pulu dish. “The meal was taught to my mother by her mother, handed down by generations of cooks,” she told me. “It reminds us of our island home.” It’s not how she would make it back in Tonga, however. Back in Tonga, they used taro leaves, but it’s hard to get taro in the United States. Instead, they use spinach. This isn’t authentic, strictly speaking, but it does have authenticity in its intent.
Therein lies a subject that fascinates me: the way location and resources shape the development of cultures, but also how that culture in turn shapes the environment around it. It’s clear that the authentic food of any given culture is going to be shaped by what edible ingredients can be found, but those ingredients, the effort needed to cultivate them, and the way they’re cooked have a strong influence on the culture as well. In turn, that influence further shapes the way that food is cultivated, cooked, and eaten. This goes on to influence the environment, which then cycles back to influencing the culture.
So, with the help of Pauni Island’s owner, I’ve done some research into this subject to get a look at how Tongan food shaped Tongan culture, and vice versa.
Tongan food, like all Polynesian cuisine, is shaped by living on an island. There is limited space for growing food, which has to also be shared with space for living. Islands also have very specific types of soil that are good for certain crops and require unique agricultural practices to keep the soil good for growing food.
The coconut is often the first thing people think of when you talk about the Polynesian islands, to the point of stereotyping. While the coconut does have some value in Polynesian cultures – some refer to it as the tree of life – and it does provide many uses for them, it’s far from the most important crop. According to the Polynesian Cultural Center (2016), Tonga has a hierarchy of crops and livestock based around the difficulty of cultivation. The easier it is to grow something, the less valuable it is.
What Tongans value most as food then comes to certain root vegetables like yams and sweet potatoes. The yam is particularly important. The yam is easily damaged by the elements and a single bruise or cut causes it to rot. The leaves have to be kept from touching the ground during cultivation. It takes extreme care growing them and a single mistake can ruin an entire crop.
It therefore comes as no surprise that you see the yam appearing all over Tongan folklore and mythology. You see it mentioned in their creation myths, such as the story of the first Tui Tonga (Tongan king, essentially), where one of their deities specifically throws down a yam from heaven as a gift to the woman who bore his son (Gifford, 1924). This is one of many references to yams being a divine gift that must be treated with care.
This follows through with all of the food prepared in Tongan cuisine. The more difficult it is to grow, the more folklore you see about it and the more it features in their mythology.
The Pig: A Multipurpose Animal
Since I love the Tongan pork dishes, of course I’m going to talk about pigs. Despite pork being a dish routinely sold at restaurants like Pauni Island, traditionally, it’s eaten very rarely. Cooking a pig is usually reserved for special events, such as weddings and royal functions (Pauni, 2020).
While pigs may not be regularly eaten in traditional Tongan culture, everybody kept them. According to ChartsBin, 5 years ago there were more than 81,000 pigs on the island. For a small, island nation, that’s a lot. We can assume there are even more by now. So, if they weren’t eaten much, why keep them? You can’t milk them like cows, so what value did they hold? Pigs served two purposes: garbage disposal and food storage.
For health reasons, rotten food must be disposed of. Many fruits give off airborne chemicals as they go bad that cause other fruits to rot in response. Rotting meat spreads disease and attracts pests. Food that couldn’t be kept, or that went bad would be fed to pigs to get rid of the waste. It also helped the pig grow fat, letting them get more meat off of it when they did slaughter it. In that sense, feeding the pig food you couldn’t store served as saving up for a rainy day. Additionally, the consumption of pork at weddings and other important functions could be seen as a show of wealth, similar to the Tudor’s consumption of sugar in the 1500s. The more pigs one could afford to slaughter at a child’s wedding, the better off one was. It helped establish your importance to your neighbors. (Pauni)
So, does the pig appear in Tongan folklore? Yes. You frequently see it referenced as food being served to divine or royal guests. Additionally, one specific myth references the portion of a pig being given to the first Tui Tonga as a sign that he and his descendants were destined to be rulers of the island (Gifford).
Tongan Food As A Form of Social Cohesion
One thing about cultures that form on smaller islands is they are very concerned with resources. Food is especially important to Tongan culture partially because there is limited space to grow it, and many of their most important crops require a lot of care to grow. Naturally, a lot of folklore in Tonga centers around cooking and eating food.
The same holds true of behavioral folklore. Traditionally, dinner time is the only time in which the whole family gathers (Everyculture.com, 2010). During the rest of the day, food is eaten whenever one is hungry. However, these dinners have their own rituals. Each day, Tongan families would build their own earthen oven to prepare their meals. These meals would be large, as it was intended for the leftovers to be stored for consumption the next day, and also so it could be shared with neighbors.
Sharing food is an important part of traditional Tongan culture. Given the difficulty of growing crops and the limited land in which they could be grown, the danger of running out of food was always a very real possibility. As such, you make food in abundance and share it with those who ask. This encourages others to share their abundance with you should you ever suffer shortage. This act of sharing food serves to strengthen bonds between families and help avoid disputes over food during times of scarcity. As Mrs. Pauni told me, “Food is the way we show our appreciation to guests, and how they show appreciation for us. We build a bond by sharing with them, so they in turn share with us.”
Is that in their mythology? Oh, you bet it is! I couldn’t possibly recount all of the tales in the Gifford collection that revolve around or feature sharing food as a major part of the story. It constantly features in myths that center around the interaction between common folk and royalty or divinity. These tales also reinforce the importance of certain culturally significant foods by specifically naming the most important foods.
Then there’s the kava. Kava drinking is a ritualistic practice where kava roots are ground into a powder and mixed with water to form a non-alcoholic, but slightly narcotic drink. People form a circle and the drink is passed around, with the most important person drinking first. The person who passes the cup around also has their own special status in this ritual. This reinforces the social hierarchy, while also forming a bond between the diverse members of society.
The kava plant appears in Tongan mythology as well. The origin of the kava plant is associated with a major chief, sometimes called the Tui Tonga, although he appears to be a different person in some accounts (Gifford). Whoever is responsible for the origin, it is clearly established as connected with the upper levels of the social order. It is a sign of royalty that the royalty must share with commoners to reinforce social stability.
The Influence On The Land
While the environment of the island shaped the core of Tongan culture, it doesn’t stop there. The value placed on certain crops and livestock has gone on to help reshape the island itself. According to Encyclopedia.com, 36% of the land in Tonga is devoted to agriculture. By constitutional decree, all land is property of the crown, but all male taxpayers of Tongan descent are promised a small portion of farmland for family use. The very concept of growing your own food is so central to Tongan culture that it is legally guaranteed by constitutional law.
Not only is the act of growing ones own food important, but so is managing the land properly. Laws dictating its use can be grounds for eviction from this owed plot. These laws go so far as to dictate what percentages of the land can be used for certain critical crops. Currently, law mandates that 200 coconut trees must be grown by every citizen and the grounds must be carefully tended to keep free of weeds. While the choice of coconuts may come from trade pressures – coconuts are a valuable export from Polynesian islands – the idea that tending to the land and valuing certain crops has its roots in traditional culture.
The value placed on certain crops and the effort required to cultivate them has shaped public policy, which in turn has shaped land usage. Before people came to Tonga, it was a wild island; plants and animals grew everywhere, guided only by random chance. Now land is divided by its usage, reshaping the landscape to suit what that environment encouraged the people to value. You can see the island’s landscape being altered to reflect what the people value.
In recent years, however, the limited space on the island and its continually growing human population has made it impossible to keep guaranteeing the minimum amount of promised land to every citizen. As a result, emigration from Tonga has not simply become more common, but an important part of its economy. According to David Dixon (2004), imports have exceeded imports since the 1960s and the island’s economy now relies on those who emigrate to stay afloat. Fully 50% of the country’s economy is supported by remittences from Tongan citizens who have moved to other countries. As you can see, the influence of the culture on the land development is now running up against the limitations of that land. Now, the cycle is coming back around and the environment of Tonga will begin to dictate the cultural evolution of its people once again.
While Mrs. Pauni never framed anything she said in that exact way, this influence was clearly visible. She told me that the act of cooking and eating by itself can be viewed as an act of renewing one’s connection to their family and cultural history. She speaks of food as helping connect to her family and friends, but equally important is the connection it provides to her home. Remembering her culture is not framed as some kind of nostalgia for a life left behind, or an abstract notion of cultural heritage, but as an obligation to the people of Tonga itself.
The most interesting part is that this aspect never appeared to be a conscious thought. The idea of using money made in the United States to help people back home never was anything more than just a natural thing to do. Tongans value family – even family who live half a world away. The situation seems to have evolved as a natural outgrowth of the culture itself and the needs of the environment.
Now that several decades have passed since this practice began, the number of people of Tongan descent living outside of Tonga now counts those born overseas higher than those born in the country. As the new generations become more detached from their island homeland, the state is taking notice and new policies are being written to address the concern of declining remittances (Dixon). The cycle continues.
A Cycle Of Influence
Time marches ever on and many of the traditions of Tongan culture have significantly changed from how they were originally practiced. The eventual contact with other cultures brought new crops and livestock. Some of them thrived, such as corn beef becoming a particular favorite in Tonga. Others did not, such as when attempts to introduce sheep on Tonga ended with the herds all being slaughtered in 1956 (Encyclopedia.Com). These new foods and trade with other cultures have changed many specifics of Tongan culture, but the foundations of their use of food as source of bonding and social cohesion remains a strong element.
The foods available on the island and the care and effort required to grow them made the act of cultivating food of paramount cultural significance. Their legends and myths reinforced this by placing the crops most difficult to grow in close proximity to kings and gods. The possibility of starvation in times of scarcity encourages sharing food to help avoid potentially devastating social conflicts. Food was used to shape Tongan culture, and in turn, their culture shaped how they view and use food. These elements remain today, even after centuries of cultural evolution and contact with other cultures. They change in the specifics, but the importance remains clear.
This shaped public policy and altered the island to suit what the culture valued. As public policy and culture now comes up against the limitations of the environment, new policies and cultural behaviors are rising out of it. It was first shaped by its environment, then it shaped its environment, and now the environment is forcing it to change to suit itself again.
It’s this element of culture that I find so fascinating. It’s a kind of “chicken and the egg” scenario. You can ask which came first, the food, or the culture surrounding it, but to ask such a question misses the point. There’s a kind of feedback loop, where the foods available first shape the culture, but then the culture shapes the way food is viewed. This cycle of influence holds true across all aspects of culture, regardless of which culture you’re talking about.
Culture does not exist in a vacuum. It’s a living, breathing thing, always changing, but usually retaining its most core aspects. It’s both a product of its environment and an influence on it. You can’t understand one without understanding the other. To study only one or the other leaves us with an incomplete picture. If we wish to really understand and appreciate the cultures of the world, we must study this cycle of influence.