We were sitting at the “Sugar Blue’s Cafe” swishing the flies away from our dhal-rice lunches, trying to decide where to eat dinner. In the thriving megalopolis of South Tarawa, Kiribati (population some 40,000 spread over a long atoll) we were spoiled for choice. At the east end of the island was the government run Otentaai Hotel where we had suffered through a meal the night before with service that was even more forgettable than the food. This left us to choose from the Chineese Restaurant (and yes, that is how they spelled it), Sugar Blue’s Cafe, the Fair Value Restaurant, Mary’s Hotel, Aboy’s Chinese restaurant and the Japanese Curry house. After almost two weeks of missions, with only seven restaurants to choose from, things were wearing a bit thin … and that was without considering what was on offer at these restaurants.
Enjoying White Rice As A Starter
Many World Bank missions visit countries which are very impoverished and that is true hardship. Then there are countries like China where they take banqueting to unimaginable heights. For most of us, the choices are somewhere in between those two extremes. And I’ve learned to live with that. But as a vegetarian I often have real challenges finding anything to eat, and I must admit sometimes it becomes a bit tedious.
As an island nation, fish forms an integral part of the Kiribati diet. Vegetarian? That is an old e-Kiribati word for “cannot fish”. The fact that the islands have very little fertile soil which is so alkaline that few things grow well, does not help the situation. The main crops here seems to be cabbage and taro. Fortunately, there is the old fallback of frozen vegetables brought in from Australia, but if the boat is delayed they run out. Along with milk and other staples such as beer. But not Milo. There is enough of that on the island to last for years. And it qualifies as vegetarian. Just.
So over lunch I inventoried my meals since arriving 12 days ago. I bring cereal for breakfast so that doesn’t count. Of the 23 meals, I have had 9 x omelettes, 5 x chow mein with rice; 3 x breakfast cereal (days when I couldn’t face an omelette or chow mein); 2 x dhal with rice; 2x vegetable curry with rice; 1 x pancakes; and 2 skipped meals. It’s no wonder than when I get home I hoover up my wife’s cooking like a man who has been on some tropical island …
Even my colleagues here feel sorry for my lack of choice. What is funny is that so do some of the restaurant proprietors!
We are still chuckling at our first visit to the Japanese Curry House. The fellow who runs the place happily took the order of my colleagues but when I asked for something vegetarian this horrified look came over his face and he said “But it will not be delicious!”. I told him not to worry and to do his best. After giving up on persuading me that it would not be delicious he retreated to the kitchen shaking his head in dismay. As it transpired it was very tasty, even better than my colleagues meals. He was still concerned when we returned the next night and I ordered the same thing. Poor fellow will probably never recover…
However, in many respects I prefer this to what had happened to me in other countries such as Georgia and China where they take pride in the surfeit of food that is provided. I find it depressing how much is left on the table afterwards. But what I would give right now for some of that delicious Georgian bread.
So tonight was decided to head back to the Japanese Curry House. I may try and call ahead and see if they can do me a pizza. Failing that, it will be the “not delicious” delicious curry with rice. Could be worse, I could have nothing and this time in two days I’ll be heading home. Yum.