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  • The Paleo Diet Versus Samoan Cuisine: The Chicken or the Egg?

    I recently returned from a two week business trip in American Samoa wherein I was fortunate to learn about the traditional cooking techniques of the island community. What struck me the most is how connected the island culture is to their food sources. Prior to my trip to American Samoa, I had never seen bananas, mangoes, papayas or coconuts growing on trees. I had only seen the fruit in the produce aisles of my local grocery store. Before traveling to American Samoa, the last time I saw chickens roaming free was in the first grade during a family vacation to rural China. American Samoa was also the first time I had ever encountered wild eels which were fed left over fish heads by the owners of the property where the eels lived.

    Needless to say, a lot of first encounters took place during my trip for which I am incredibly grateful. My favorite first encounter was the Samoan umu at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar. An umu is a type of above-ground earth oven wherein various dishes are cooked. Per the owner of Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, the umu takes two days to prepare. In the old times, Samoans used this type of oven three to four times a week but currently, the umu is primarily utilized on Sundays.

    So what types of delicious foods are cooked in an umu? The carnivore in me loved the pork and turkey which had a great smoky flavor and little seasoning outside of that. There was also shrimp cooked in coconut milk and fish cooked in coconut milk. The best coconut milk dish was called palusami which consists of spinach leaves cooked in, you guessed it, coconut milk. I also loved the papaya which was seasoned with cinnamon. Our wonderful host also served us taro root, spinach leaves with onion, and lamb. Roasted banana and breadfruit also graced our banana leaves which functioned as our plates.

    Samoan cuisine Given the aforementioned menu, both Paleo lovers and adversaries might notice that all of these dishes essentially fall in line with what the Paleo diet advocates. There are no refined grains or sugars and dairy isn’t utilized at all. Although no potatoes were present, taro root was served. And let’s not forget the fact that all of the prepared foods fall in line with the hunter-gatherer concept because they grow all over the island.

    As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I cannot say that I am an advocate of the Paleo diet nor do I agree with everything that the diet encourages. For one, there are numerous grain and dairy products from which I refuse to depart. But I don’t completely disagree with some of the aspects that the Paleo diet advocates. More importantly, I don’t believe in labels. Rather, I believe in eating and living a healthy lifestyle that works best for the individual.

    What I do find interesting is the fact that Paleo appears to be the new thing, the trendy thing. The diet to shame all diets. But the reality is that there are cultures all over the world that have eaten in the hunter-gatherer manner long after the Paleolithic era. But you won’t find NY Times Best Sellers that talk about the traditional Samoan diet. You won’t hear people praising the diet because it is inherently gluten-free and therefore won’t give you the dreaded grain brain or wheat belly to which gluten-free advocates constantly refer. You won’t hear theories about how reverting to the pre-Colonial way of life will solve the Samoan obesity epidemic. What you will see is an incredibly generous, hospitable culture quietly continuing their way of life as they have done for millennia while us Westerners continue to make claims, year after year, of what are our dietary pitfalls.



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