A HEALTHY RESPECT FOR TRADITIONAL TONGAN FOOD

Commentary

By 'Afa Palu

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (Ano Masima News, April 15) - One of the experiences that I had in Tonga was making and preparing many of our Tongan traditional food dishes. Some were easy to make while others were laborious; but in the end they all tasted so delicious that you often forget the agony from preparing them.

One of the foods that I often prepared and cooked on Sundays was faka-ovaka. Faka-Ovaka is one of our favorite Tongan foods commonly known as lo’ilesi or vai lesi. The thought of preparing this special diet is enough to make you salivate.

However, the questions that I often asked of my father and others in different islands in Tonga all come back to the idea that lo’ilesi is good for your health and that lo’ilesi will keep your digestive system healthy How did my father and others in different islands including our ancestors know that this type of diet is healthy? How did they know that eating lo’ilesi would strengthen our immunity and digestive systems?

These ingredients have documented health benefits recently uncovered by modern science. But our ancestors knew about the health benefits of faka-ovaka long before modern science stumbled upon it.

Right now you probably think that there isn’t any health application from our ancestor’s diet that we can use today to ameliorate some of our health problems. But I hope to convince you that there is a hidden application in it for all of us.

Faka-Ovaka consists of two ingredients, namely papaya and coconut milk. Let us look at these ingredients and the impact that they will have in our bodies and consequently our health today.

Papaya (Carica papaya L.) or lesi health benefits are well known and have been well established in the scientific literature to be high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and potassium while containing a smaller amount of calcium, iron, niacin, riboflavin and thiamine. It has also been shown to contain an enzyme known as papain, which helps facilitate the digestion of proteins in our stomach.

Lesi has also been found to have antibacterial and antifungal properties including a large amount of fiber.

Fiber from grains and fruits has been shown by scientific research to support and maintain healthier digestive and cardiovascular systems. The health benefits of Vitamins and minerals present in the lesi fruit have been established by researches that they are good antioxidant which helps reduce oxidative stress, strengthen our immune system, reduce inflammation, retard the aging process, improve vision, blood production and many other cellular activities in the body for overall health.

This is perhaps why our ancestors always insisted in eating lo’ilesi, because it will strengthen our bodies and clean our digestive systems (fakahinga). Does this sound like advice that you can only get, in our day, from our food scientists, doctors and dietetics? I believe that they are, but from reliable and familiar sources--our ancestors.

Faka-Ovaka can not be completed without the addition of fresh coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) milk to the lesi fruit much like icing on a cake. It enhances the flavor and causing lo’ilesi to become an "energy-rich" food, powerful enough to support and empower the Polynesian bodies.

It is interesting to note that coconut milk does not have any cholesterol or sodium. Cholesterol and sodium often contribute to increases in cholesterol levels, obesity and many cardiovascular diseases. Coconut milk has fatty acids, one of which is lauric acid which has been shown to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. It has also been shown in animal studies to reduce obesity. Moreover, studies shown that the fatty acids in coconut milk inhibit pathogenic bacteria but not the normal flora in the gut, protecting against induced liver damages and also improve the immune system’s anti-inflammatory response, thus helping us to maintain our health.

Coconut milk work synergistically with papaya to give us much needed health benefits in one total package, Faka-Ovaka, to make us strong and healthy. Faka-Ovaka may seem insignificant since we live in the land bountiful, filled with milk and honey and many varieties of food products, but let us not forget Faka-Ovaka as a healthier choice instituted by our ancestors long ago.

How did our ancestors know that Faka-Ovaka is good for our health? I am convinced that our ancestors were endowed with knowledge from God, a knowledge that we must learn to harness and rely upon today in our quest to live a healthier life style.

April 29, 2005

'Afa K. Palu is a molecular biologist at Tahitian Noni International.

Ano Masima News: http://www.anomasimanews.com

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