Traditional foods of Papua New Guinea are Eastern New Guinea island’s local foods. While Southeast Asian food has little influence in the cuisine of Papua New Guinea or PNG, the food sees the most similarities with western New Guinea as well as the surrounding Oceanic countries. Papua New Guinea’s food is, surprisingly, largely vegetarian and based on agricultural crops such as sago, rice, taro, and yams. Travelers to the country will be enamored by the vast variety of fruits used in eastern New Guinea’s cuisine, including pawpaws, pineapples, passionfruit, and, particularly, mangoes. With 82% of the island’s populace being rural, the menu becomes basic when you travel to the country’s remote parts.
So, what local food specialties should you be looking out for? Check out our list, below, of traditional food in Papua, New Guinea.
1. Kaukau (sweet potato)
In a country whose roots go back to more than tens of thousands of years, it is heartening to see the Kaukau become a prevalent ingredient to Papua New Guinean’s cuisine in less than 500 years. Within 400 years of cultivation, 417 species of Kaukau were grown in the country, with it representing 90% of all calories consumed daily on an average today. Kaukau actually refers to the sweet potato element in dishes and can be cooked in numerous ways. The commonest, most popular way of cooking it is with coconut, which is everyday food as well as food for special occasions and ceremonies.
2. Kumu (edible green vegetables)
In Papua New Guinean, edible, highly nutritious green vegetables are known as ‘Kumu’/'Kumus’. These include leaves such as Rungia, Kangkong, Amaranth, Aibika, and more. Grown by about a third of the rural population, cooked young leaves are eaten along with raw fruit of numerous fig-bearing trees, with kumu musong (hairy vegetables) frequently eaten. A common Papuan saying is 'No kumu, no kai’ which essentially translates to 'No greens, no dinner’. Hence, the importance of green veggies which, along with a protein such as fish, makes for a complete meal.
3. Taro (root vegetable)
In many Papua New Guinean regions, Taro corm, along with the leaves, is a staple crop and a part of the traditional diet. In fact, taro is known as ‘ima’ amongst the Urapmin people of PNG and is one of the main sources of sustenance. In Papua New Guinea, foods for special events often comprise the same food items eaten usually, but prepared in a different way. Taro, for instance, is pounded with much more preparation than usual, and then mixed with coconut oil. In certain regions of the country, taro and pork are considered as 'special foods’ and are even used in ceremonies.
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4. Saksak (sago pearls dumpling)
Saksak is a traditional dessert from Papua New Guinea made from the starch ‘sago’ extracted from the spongy centre of numerous tropical palm stems. The sago pearls, when cooked with banana pieces and steamed in banana leaf, turn translucent and take on a rubbery, jelly-like texture. Saksak, which is an integral part of the local diet in Papua New Guinean, is essentially a dumpling of sago, mashed bananas, and creamed coconut milk. Since the dumpling itself doesn’t taste too sweet, saksak is traditionally eaten drenched in coconut milk. Yum!
5. Mumu (earth pit oven)
Fuss-free, low-calorie, healthy - the traditional Papua New Guinean cooking method Mumu is everything rolled into one. Mumu is a Papua New Guinean method for cooking food in large quantities for traditional celebrations. A typical mumu is a ground oven/pit containing fiery hot coals, on which banana leaves are placed. The food, which is the meat, starches, vegetables, and fruits, goes in last at the bottom. The whole lot is further in a banana leaf for the food to steam properly. buried for hours so it can cook. Some tribes even cover the top with soil, while for some, that is considered taboo.
As described earlier, sago is the starchy substance extracted from the sago palm and is one of the most common, traditional food items in Papua New Guinean cuisine. Sago is usually used to make bread and puddings and is a common ingredient across many popular dishes in Papua New Guinean, including Saksak (sago dumplings), Rebi (sago with creamed fish/chicken), pancakes topped with coconut milk, etc. In fact, fried sago in the morning, usually with meat, continues to be a staple diet for those who do traditional work, since this digests slowly and keeps one satiated through the day.
7. Kokoda fish (PNG raw fish)
The Kokoda fish is popular in numerous island nations in the Pacific. Kokoda fishes, which inhabit the clear streams in the rainforests of foothills, are very popular as appetizers or snacks. The best way to eat the Kokoda fish is to pair and serve it with plantain or sweet potato chips and taro which, together, scoop up all the goodness of the Kokoda fish. The Kokoda is cooked in either lime/lemon juice for about six to eight hours to really enhance the fish’s taste.
8. Dia (sweet sago dish)
Editor's Note: There's no photo available at the time of writing
Another Central District delicacy similar to the Saksak and combining the ingredients of sago and bananas cooked with thick coconut cream, instead of the coconut milk, is Dia. Sometimes, the Motu people of southern Papua New Guinea call the Saksak as Dia, using them alternately due to differences in cooking styles. In some traditional cooking styles, sugar isn’t used at all; instead, the sweetest of the bananas are used to lend sweetness to the dish.
9. Chicken pot
Editor's Note: There's no photo available at the time of writing
The chicken pot is a simple, traditional Papua New Guinean dish infused with the island’s flavors and is reminiscent of the meals eaten by ancestors. Firstly, the chicken is placed along with oil in a pot, before adding to it chopped kaukau, green onions, and corn. Next, coconut milk is poured over the vegetables and meat and covered to be brought to boil. After it is cooked for about 30-40 minutes, curry powder and salt are added for flavor. When served to you, the meat and vegetables are separated and the liquid is even served as a soup/sauce.
10. Cassava leaf
Many new vegetables and fruits were introduced, grown, and subsequently liked in PNG in the last century, but cassava is the only important addition to the list of starch-based staples. Cassava is an extensively cultivated annual crop in PNG and is known for its starchy, edible tuberous root which is a major carbohydrate source. The dried, powdery/pearly extract of cassava is known as tapioca, which is again very popular in the dishes in Papua New Guinea. Tapioca can be used as an alternate to sago in saksak.
Staying in hotels in Papua New Guinea might get you European, Asian, and Western cuisine, but the real flavours lie in local food which can be found in the many restaurants and street stalls. That being said, Papua New guinea’s cuisine is also as healthy as it gets!
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