Pacific Islander cuisine and the impact of colonization

Story and photos by ANTHONY SCOMA

On the corner of Redwood Road and Paxton Avenue in Salt Lake City hangs a sign that reads “Pacific Seas Restaurant and Market” on a background of beaches and palm trees. While the sign is at odds with the landlocked, wintery Utah surroundings, the interior of the building is filled with the enticing scents, sounds and heat of a busy kitchen. Adults and children sit and eat at the tables or stand near the counter and order what is likely the most popular Pacific Islander cuisine in Utah.

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1151 South Redwood Road, Salt Lake City

“A lot of these customers that we receive come to the restaurant because it reminds them of their upbringing and their culture,” Maryann Tukuafu, the manager of Pacific Seas, said in a phone interview. When asked why food is so important she said, “I know for the Polynesian culture, it is a sense of togetherness, a unity. Food brings people together.”

At any celebration, from birthday to baptism to promotion party, food plays a part in recognizing good news. Tukuafu emphasized how these traditional dishes promote feelings of happiness and togetherness among Pacific Islander families and communities.

This shared experience and expression of culture is built on a history that stretches back to the first Pacific Islander communities. However, the diet of those who inhabited the islands originally had a much different makeup than what is seen today.

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A plate from Pacific Seas Restaurant consisting of lu sipi, a dish of lamb, taro leaves, mayonnaise and coconut milk; a lamb chop; fish with coconut milk gravy; and sweet potato.

According to a 1992 study by the Institute of Polynesian Studies, 85 percent of pre-colonial Pacific Islander diet was vegetable-based with 10-15 percent coming from protein largely sourced from the sea. More specifically, the Pacific Islander diet in the pre-colonial era was 60-78 percent carbohydrates, 10-15 percent protein and 7-30 percent fat. In comparison, the modern U.S. diet is 45-65 percent carbohydrates, 10-35 percent protein and 20-35 percent fat.

“Prior to colonization, refined sugars, deep frying, and trash foods like turkey tails and lamb flaps were not part of the diet,” said Jake Fitisemanu Jr., chair of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, in an email interview. “It reduced the prestige and perceived value of indigenous foods and enhanced the value of introduced and imported foods.”

It wasn’t just changes in diet that European missionaries and colonizers brought. They also introduced technology and economic systems that made the Pacific Islanders’ highly active farming, hunting and fishing lifestyle obsolete. As with most demographics, modern work has continued this shift to more sedentary lives.

“In terms of activity, westernization’s emphasis on cash economy devalued the traditional subsistence, hunting, and fishing lifestyles of [Pacific Islanders],” Fitisemanu said. “Modern transportation, heavy machinery and processed foods have allowed for sedentary lifestyles that are a far cry from traditional lifeways that depended on intensive manual labor, walking, paddling and physical activity to ensure survival on remote islands with limited resources.”

These factors have contributed to the rise in obesity and diabetes in Pacific Islander communities. According to findings shared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Pacific Islanders were “three times more likely to be obese than the overall Asian American population” and “20 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites in 2015.” In addition, “native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are 2.4 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as the white population.”

This phenomenon is not isolated to just Pacific Islander immigrants. According to a July 2010 bulletin posted by the World Health Organization, the abandonment of traditional diets for imported foods has led to widespread obesity, nutritional deficiencies, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and premature death throughout the Pacific Islands.

Local groups and events are working to improve the relationship between Pacific Islanders and their diet, exercise and health. The MANA 5K and Aloha 5K promote Pacific Islander health. Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition chapters in Salt Lake and Washington counties host a Health Week every year. They provide health resources, wellness screenings and demonstrations to promote Pacific Islander families’ physical activity. Weber and Davis counties will also host similar events after the creation of new UPIHC chapters there, Fitisemanu said.

For food and exercise, Fitisemanu recommended Pacific Islanders start with “small, incremental changes that reduce our reliance on processed foods in favor of more fresh foods and more varied diet.”

He also stressed “family-based and group-based efforts that play to our cultural values of social connection and mutual support. We need to learn lessons from the way our ancestors lived and thrived before colonization, and I believe those tenets are easier to integrate into our cultural worldview than new-fangled fad diets and celebrity-endorsed workout routines,” he said.

It must also be noted that health is informed by a culture’s values, history and ideals of beauty. Here again, we see evidence of the clash between pre-colonial and post-colonial ideas. For a Pacific Islander, what communicates health and beauty may be very different than what would be found in the pages of a western magazine.

When asked what the standards are for female beauty among Pacific Islanders, Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources, said, “For a Tongan, and Samoans, I’d say heavier-set. Our older elders, they love women with big calves.” She also said that being overweight in Pacific Islander culture “signifies that your family has money to feed you. … When you are plump, that is looked as your family having status.”

The role food plays in Pacific Islander culture and health is significant. Food is used to communicate love, togetherness, celebration and community. The traditional food practices of the Pacific Islands are being used as a model for improving diet and overall health of the community in Utah and the Pacific Islands. And the authentic food from Pacific Seas Restaurant has brought Utah Pacific Islanders together since 1991.

Maryann Tukuafu’s father, the founder of Pacific Seas restaurant, “didn’t realize that it would flourish the way it did,” she said. “There were no other Polynesian/Pacific Islander restaurants at the time. [In] 1991, you still had people migrating from the islands to America. So it gave people who didn’t have time … time to swing by and pick up a plate.”