Sweet Coco Pumpkin with Pandan Leaves

Sweet Coco Pumpkin with Pandan Leaves 1

Have you ever heard of Kiribati? I can’t say that I haven’t completely. I’m sure it’s been mentioned on NPR at some point. Or in some James Bond movie. Or it’s just something you know is there, from your geography lessons or scanning the world atlas (guilty as charged, I liked doing it as a kid) or just someone saying something about tourism, foreign aid, colonialism. Maybe.

But none of that is important. What’s important is that Kiribati came up in the media and on the web quite a bit over the last two weeks or so. And the reason for that is sad and profoundly unfair – Kiribati is the first nation in the world expected to drown thanks to global climate change. According to some sources, it could happen as soon as 2030, and the effects are already seen in that Kiribati’s highest point is just 3 meters above the ocean.

It started for me with a NPR special about a Kiribati family that sought refugee status in New Zealand on the grounds of global warming. They were actually denied it because immigration laws simply don’t have a clause for climate-related immigration.

The climate change caused by melting of the ice cap and the greenhouse effect (that in turn are caused by industrial emissions of major powerhouses – China, US, Japan, India, Russia) makes the waters of the world ocean in general, and the Pacific in particular, rise at a higher rate than ever recorded. It is not even debatable that Kiribati will drown, it’s a known fact. It’s only a matter of time.

Before I started reading about it, I imagined Kiribati as a tropical paradise, engulfed with palm trees, beautiful people dancing and singing in the streets, blindingly white sand beaches, turquois ocean waters, succulent and healthy cuisine, a highly spiritual nation with long-standing democratic and piece-loving traditions. I thought of flocks of Japanese and German tourists crowding the beaches and ocean side boardwalks, group photos, Frisbee, locals selling fresh fish and oysters, and coconut juice. I dreamed of maybe taking a trip down there one day, and enjoying all that and more.

Well, thanks to a recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, almost none of that is true, and that is the saddest part of this whole story. Consider these facts:

  • Diabetes, tuberculosis and leprosy are ubiquitous; there are currently 200 cases of leprosy; 20 to 30 people lose their feet and legs to diabetes monthly
  • Diarrhea and food poisoning is an everyday reality affecting almost everyone
  • Aside from rainwater, a reservoir 6 feet underneath the capital city of Tarawa is the only source of fresh water; it is increasingly being polluted, with sea levels rising, but more importantly, with the waste of the city above it, including human waste (it’s estimated that as much as 60 percent of the population defecates regularly outdoors and in the ocean)
  • Most families bury their dead in their backyards, dangerously close to the wells connected with the reservoir
  • The country’s entire budget is $130MM and $30MM of that is brought in from fishing license fees sold to Japanese, Korean and American fishing industries (it is also widely believed that the rich wildlife surrounding the islands, the area roughly equivalent in size to India, is worth a whole lot more than $30MM a year)
  • 25% of women under 25 engage in prostitution
  • Alcoholism is common
  • The country has very limited healthcare services, and most serious cases are sent abroad – 10 or 12 a year; with limited medical budget, cancer patients are not sent or treated since cancer is considered non-curable

Most of Kiribati’s troubles originated from the colonial times. Diabetes is a direct result of the Western diet which was introduced here and not on its best side – the most popular dishes include Spam and other tin meat. Tobacco was the West’s heritage too, a lot of people still smoke, and men don’t leave past their 50’s. Venereal diseases are plenty. If you look at the photos in BusinessWeek, they are not pretty – the beaches are nowhere close to my blindingly white sand dream.

Kiribati used to be called The Gilbert Islands under the British colonial rule. Coincidentally (was it really a coincidence???), the last of any mineral resources ever on these islands, phosphate from bird guano, were extracted by the British mining companies in 1979 – the year of Kiribati’s independence.

All in all – poor, isolated, decease-stricken, forgotten, drowning nation. There are about 130,000 i-Kiribati and they have – without false over-dramatization – nowhere to go at the moment. Who needs a large number of barely educated, sick, remote people in the contemporary world?

This is by no means a left-wing message. Nor is it geared towards ceasing industrialization. After all, many of the benefits that i-Kiribati enjoy as well as even the knowledge of the world outside the atoll wouldn’t have been possible without modern industry.

What this is about is a simple realization of how unbalanced the world is, and how individual destinies are predetermined by events that happened long before we got here. More importantly, how inevitable and irreversible these paths have become for many, if not for most, equally disadvantaged nations the world throughout.

My only hope is that BusinessWeek had a bit of a radical view of the reality, and that there are things that i-Kiribati should be proud of. That there are better-looking beaches and deeper realization of what a healthy lifestyle should be like. And that, of course, they find a new home, wherever that might be, and won’t go extinct.

We’ve searched the web for traditional i-Kiribati recipes. Their staples are coconut, pork, taro, Spam, and rice. We found one recipe that with all my heart I wouldn’t call a remotely tasty culinary experience but this is our tribute to this nation, after all. We narrowed down our choices to a dessert called Sweet Coco Pumpkin with Pandan Leaves, compliments of Global Table Adventure.

Sweet Coco Pumpkin with Pandan Leaves – Ingredients

5 cups cubed kabocha pumpkin (2-3 pound pumpkin)
1 15 oz can coconut milk
1/3-1/2 cup sugar
5 pandan leaves, or more to taste


  • Cut the pumpkin in half and remove seeds. Cut each half into strips, peel the strips and cut them into cubes
  • Tie about 5 pandan leaves into in a knot
  • Add pumpkin and pandan to a medium pot
  • Pour coconut milk and sugar
  • Cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes or until tender

Sweet Coco Pumpkin with Pandan Leaves 2


  • You can buy kambocha pumpkin in an Asian store; look for Japanese pumpkin or simply kambocha. Don’t be confused by the fact that it’s grown in Mexico (mine was)
  • Pandan leaves – I found mine in the same Asian food store, in the frozen section wrapped in plastic. Let it thaw overnight.
  • I used up 1/2 cups of sugar and added just a little bit more. Don’t overdo it though.

Closing Remarks

It is unlikely that we will cook this recipe again. I was sceptical about pumpkin for dessert and for a good reason. But again, it could be just me.

We’ll continue seeking interesting places, facts, news and, of course, food attributable to them. I believe this is called food journalism but let’s not label things – let’s just have fun. As for Kiribati, it’ll be now my duty to follow that nation. Stay tuned for more and stay warm.

This entry was posted in Dessert, Polynesian. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *