You don’t go to Papua New Guinea for the cuisine. That is at least if you’re looking for tourist-standard fare.
For sure, there are some restaurants and hotels that serve good food – meaning appealing to tourists. But often those establishments have terrible service. It took us an hour and a half to get served lunch at the Holiday Inn in Port Moresby. While the food was good, you’d think that the service would be up to standards befitting the room rates ($350 – $400/night – but the high cost of accommodations is a story for another time). Our meals were brought out one at a time so that by the time the last person was served the first person had long been done with his meal.
The problem of finding well-prepared and tasty food becomes doubly problematic when you’re a vegetarian (ahem, like me). While there’s a healthy dose of fruits and vegetables found in the Highlands, the variety and availability become extremely limited once outside of the mountains.
Without refrigeration or electricity, food for most New Guineans must be harvested or caught and eaten immediately (and of course shared with the village). Yams, sweet potatoes and coconuts are all typical of the local diet. As is sago, a starch extracted from a certain type of palm tree. It’s made into such things as flour and pancakes (right). The texture is VERY rubbery and really pretty tasteless. As a carb, it doesn’t provide many nutrients but it does fill the belly when you’re hungry. I found it to be just fine with peanut butter spread on top.
The conditions which most nationals have to prepare their meals are not unlike the home we stayed in along the Sepik River in the north. It was in this room where we ate and slept. This family was lucky in that they had a gas cook stove. Most families prepare their meals on the ground underneath the raised home using a fire and cooking pot.
It was really difficult for the cooks to come up with food for me. Although in the Mt. Hagen region, which is known throughout the country for having the best gardens, our cook did pretty well in serving up vegetables and rice for me each night (see the photo at top). The portions were huge and I discovered that if I added the sweet and sour sauce condiment that was available for meals this wasn’t too bad (though after three consecutive nights I was a bit bored and opted for a peanut butter sandwich).
To be fair, our cooks DID try hard. But in a particularly remote region, where we had to bring most of our food with us, I really did eat protein bars for most meals. The cook prepared tinned meat (spam, beef, etc.) sandwiches for the group while I received butter sandwiches and hard boiled eggs that were sometimes served like the one here.
After several trips to Papua New Guinea, I’ve learned a thing or two. I now carry a couple jars of peanut butter and a couple dozen protein bars. At the beginning of this most recent trip, I told one tour member that I didn’t mind living off of Clif Bars for 12 days. I explained that really, I could do anything for 12 days. But by day six I was begging people to swap their crunchy granola bars for one of my chewy Clif Bars. I had eaten one too many. I’m now unsure as to whether I can ever eat another Clif Bar again (sorry Clif!). Next trip I’ll bring more variety (bags of trail mix, Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter Bars, etc.).
I know. I’m painting a terrible picture here. On the one hand I feel that they shouldn’t be changing their culture to appease tourists so the inability for me to find suitable food is fine and really kinda humorous. But on the other hand, if they do want to see an increase in tourism, they really need to do something about both their food AND their service. Prices are way too inflated for the quality you receive.
Follow the links below to find out why you WOULD go to PNG; the culture, the history and the fact that these people are still living as an ancient society while the modern world creeps in around them. There’s nothing like Papua New Guinea and it is so worth a couple dozen protein bars to discover it for yourself
Huli Fortune Teller – Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea Huli Wigmen of Tari
Papua New Guinea Mt. Hagen Festival
Papua New Guinea Photos (part 3)
Papua New Guinea Photos (part 2)
Papua New Guinea Photos (part 1)