Today is Independence Day in Kiribati (a local pronunciation of “Gilberts,” by which the islands may be better known in the Western world). The islands are located roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia in the tropical Pacific. They were first inhabited several thousand years ago by Micronesians, and the dominant language, Gibertese, (spoken by 97% of the inhabitants) is a branch of the Micronesian family. The islands were never especially isolated. Invaders from Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji at some point (no dates are exact) introduced Polynesian and Melanesian cultural traits. But constant intermarriage between Micronesians and newcomers maintained a level of homogeneity of culture.
The islands were first sighted by British and American ships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The main island chain was named the Gilbert Islands in 1820 by a Russian admiral, Adam von Krusenstern, and French captain Louis Duperrey, after a British captain named Thomas Gilbert, who crossed the archipelago in 1788 when sailing from Australia to China.
From the early 19th century, Western whalers, merchant vessels, and slave traders visited the islands. The first British settlers arrived in 1837. In 1892 the Gilbert Islands consented to become a British protectorate together with the nearby Ellice Islands which became the crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1916. The Gilbert and Ellice Islands gained self-rule in 1971, and were administratively separated in 1975. The Gilbert Islands became fully independent of Britain as Kiribati on 12 July 1979.
Almost all of the plants and animals of Kiribati are non-native. The only endemic land species is the Bokikokiko (pictured). Coconuts are plentiful and were available in large numbers before the first Micronesians arrived. Otherwise the heavily salinated soils do not support much in the way of plant life. Pandanus palms and breadfruit trees are most common wild plants. The five most cultivated crops are Chinese cabbage, pumpkin, tomato, watermelon and cucumber.
There are 600–800 species of inshore and pelagic finfish, some 200 species of corals and about 1000 species of shellfish. Fishing mostly targets the family Scombridae, particularly the skipjack tuna and yellowfin tuna as well as flying fish.
Naturally fish and shellfish have dominated the economy and cuisine of Kiribati for centuries. Rice is the main staple. Coconut flesh and milk are also fundamental ingredients. So, a common dish is rice cooked in coconut milk and mixed with flaked fish (sometimes all given a final grilling in palm leaves). But the cuisine of Kiribati, like all the island cultures of the Pacific, has come under numerous influences – Chinese, Filipino, U.S., Britain to name a few. SPAM is a popular ingredient (as it is in Hawaii), because of the lack of reasonably priced fresh meat. So, another common dish is rice with coconut milk with a fried egg and some fried SPAM slices on top. Or, one could be a bit more imaginative using local ingredients and make Te bua toro ni baukin. If you do not like SPAM use canned corned beef.
Te bua toro ni baukin
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
6 tbsp. powdered milk (or 10 tbsps soy milk)
1 ½ lb grated pumpkin
1 ½ lb shredded Chinese cabbage (napa)
salt and pepper
1 (12 oz) can SPAM
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Mash the SPAM so that it resembles ground meat.
Put the pumpkin, cabbage, flour, milk, SPAM, and baking powder into a mixing bowl and toss the ingredients well. Season with the juice of a lemon, plus salt and ground black pepper to taste.
Put the mixture into a greased baking dish, and bake until the top is golden brown (35 to 40 minutes).