November 2012 Volume 9

Fortis From the Land of Your Breadfruit Ancestors – Rundown and Coconut

Michael O. Walters
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I was in a marketplace one Friday night in June, 2012 in Pago Pago, American Samoa, purchasing and sampling some of the local food.   As instructed by a vendor, I dipped my roasted green banana (photo 1) in a white speckled, brownish pasty main course in half of a coconut shell (photo 2), and tasted.   I paused as I reflected on both the taste and the look which told my senses that this was, in fact, rundown, albeit not as spicy.

 I asked what was in it and sure enough it was coconut and mackerel, the same ingredients as our beloved Jamaican rundown.  But how could this be?  I was in the southern part of the pacific where Polynesians live on a small island as remote from Jamaica as could be.  Yes, we know Captain Bligh brought the breadfruit from the Pacific to Jamaica, but rundown?

I had always assumed that rundown was a Jamaican thing, but why should it be?   After all, the coconut is not indigenous but was introduced to Jamaica in the 16th century.  Therefore, coconut-laced rundown could not have come from our Arawak ancestors.   It is reported that Captain Bligh transported coconuts to the Caribbean from the Pacific but coconuts were also introduced from West Africa to the Caribbean by the Portuguese

Could our African ancestors then have brought in a recipe for rundown?  Dennis Dick, a Jamaican friend who lives in the Gambia tells me that it is only people of Jamaican heritage in the Gambia who make rundown, and he does not think it is eaten in the West African region. Furthermore, he has not seen it in the Francophone area of Central Africa.  Therefore, the Jamaican rundown may have been the modification of an imported recipe from Polynesia, or created independently in Jamaica. 

It is logical to believe that, like the breadfruit, the knowledge of various ways of using coconut would have been transported across the seas.   It does not seem prudent for one to transport fruits to be established in another region without first checking with the natives as to its use.  In other words, recipes must have also been transported from Polynesia and subsequently modified to satisfy the Jamaica palate of peppers, other spices and salt.   Although the one I sampled at the Samoan marketplace was coconut and mackerel (fai'ai pilikaki), other meats can be used e.g., coconut and octopus (fai’ai fee) as described in the following link.

 These people have been living in Samoa with the coconut for thousands of years compared to approximately 500 years since the introduction of coconut to Jamaica, and certainly they could have taught us (through the people who shipped it)  the various ways that they used the coconut.   

The dry coconut (popo in Samoa) and process of grating/blending and boiling used to make rundown in American Samoa is similar to that in Jamaica, but in American Samoa the grated coconut meat is squeezed in fibers from pounded hibiscus branches, whereas in Jamaica it is typically squeezed by hand pressing in a strainer.  However, the jelly coconut the Samoans drink is different.  The coconut (nui in Samoa) is more mature than that used in Jamaica and consequently the jelly is much harder, yet softer than a dry (popo) coconut.  The coconut is husked and a small tuff left over the eye (see photo).  When one wants to drink the coconut the tuff is removed with a knife, and a hole is punched into the eye of the coconut.     The coconut water is then sucked out through the hole.  

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