In Pursuit of Panikeke Perfection
By Ruth Stowers
I am half Samoan and half New Zealand European and growing up as the daughter of a first-generation NZ-Samoan means I’ve struggled to find a place to ground my cultural identity. My dad is obviously brown, but the opportunity for him to learn his language was stripped from him under the guise of having the “best chance” in a nation supposedly known for its diversity. I can see him noticeably flinch when people refer to him as a ‘plastic’ Samoan.
But there’s no doubt that his appetite is that of an ‘islander’. For Samoans, that’s not a dig at gluttony, but a title to hold with pride. Food is a symbol of love, generosity, selflessness, god and family – all of which are values central to Samoa. The smell of chop suey is one that means my nana has spent hours in the kitchen. The palusami (coconut milk in taro leaves) and pani popo (coconut buns) are my auntie’s special. I often sit with my sisters, cousins, aunties and uncles around my nana's table and we talk and laugh and eat.
Food not only holds the power to create understanding between languages, countries and cultures, but it also connects you to your own culture. In Samoan culture, food is at the forefront of everything. Cousin’s baptism? It’s going to be followed by a feed. Birthday? Another feed. Marriages, funerals – you guessed it – food is a key part of these events. For me a ‘feed’ is more than just something to fill your stomach. It also feeds your soul, nourishes relationships and connects you to people.
When my nana got sick, my sister spent a lot of time helping her by taking her to the doctors, to various appointments and just being there for her. My nana speaks a broken sort of English, is always laughing and always asking whether I have finished ‘school’ or if have a boyfriend. I love my nana. She’s survived a lot. It’s hard to fathom how different her life could have been. She moved from Samoa to look after a stranger’s children with nothing, not even a birth certificate. She then had seven children of her own, worked for over 40 years as a cleaner and yet remains the most joyful and cheeky (approximately) 73-year-old I’ve ever known.
Here I am, almost finished a university degree, with no real responsibilities except myself and blessed with so many opportunities that she would have never even knew existed. How do I communicate how grateful, indebted, yet ashamed and angry I am? How I am here because of the sacrifices she has made? How do I express my culture when I can barely string together o lo’u igoa o (my name is)?
One afternoon, I went to have dinner with my younger sister Grace and my nana. When I walked in, I could immediately smell what was for dinner: chop suey. Grace was already there, stirring the giant metal pot with the old wooden spoon while my nana yelled out to add more soy sauce. I made Nana a cup of tea and we talked about how my classes were going and I tried to explain that I no longer hang out with that boy I brought around once.
Since then, I’ve tried to make some Samoan food. My first venture being panikeke – a donut-like banana fried pancake ball. And I’ve done everything wrong, including burning them, adding too much liquid and even using expired ingredients. But each time, I share them with my family and we laugh and talk about our day, Nana’s recipes and Samoa. I brought some into the final class I had for 2019 and when my lecturer asked what they were and why I had brought them, I told them that I’m Samoan and in my culture, sharing food is a way to say, ‘thank you’. And when I went to Nana’s later that day to tell her, she said, “Good girl, you should bring some palusami next time, my recipe the best.”