What’s in a name(us)

One of my all time favorite dishes is Ceviche, which comes from Peru. It’s a cold, raw fish salad, where the fish is ‘cooked’ by marinating it in vinegar and lime juice.


Torres Strait Islanders love their fish and they have a version of the ceviche called namus or numus 


However, I doubt they got the recipe of South America, its more likely it arrived in the Strait with the Japanese pearl divers and their dish of Namasu which is much the same thing as ceviche and numus. It seems the Japanese got it from China around 700AD. There seems to be versions in East Timor and Samoa,I guess great ideas get around.

What’s in a name, it’s a great recipe. I visit to the pier the other night was fruitless for me, but a Priest and his family from PNG who I have become fishing buddies with, hauled about 50 Queenfish using lure and jig lines, so they gave me five.


I followed the Strait recipe below, but put it on a bed of steamed sliced sweet potato and sprinkled fried corn kernels on top, similar to how the Peruvians serve it. Bloody awesome.


Here’s an Islander version of the recipe

  • 2 fillets of fish, sliced finely (trevally or other pelagic variety)
  • 1 large onion, chopped finely
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • peanut oil (enough to coat the bottom of a small saucepan)
  • soy sauce (Old Cathay is a favourite but use what you have available)
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 chillies (optional, but if your game use birds eye and chop finely)
  • brown vinegar
  • castor sugar
  • 1 orange, chopped in quarters and sliced width-wise with peel still on
  • 1 red & green capsicum, sliced or chopped
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • shallots, chopped (for garnish)

In a large mixing bowl (use glass or ceramic) place sliced fish. In a small saucepan or wok heat up the peanut oil until hot and pour in the mixing bowl. Stir the oil through the fish thoroughly. To that, add the chopped onions and garlic. Mix well. Stir in the lemon juice and vinegar (about two capfuls). By then the fish flesh should be turning a little white as the acidity of the lemon and vinegar start to “cook” the fish. Mix in the sugar (about a teaspoon), chillies, orange and red and green capsicums. Add a little soya sauce for taste and to add some colour to the dish – remember not too much. You can also add salt and pepper to taste, but you probably won’t need much salt because of the soy sauce. Refrigerate overnight or for at least four hours. To serve: place the namus in small bowls lined with lettuce leaves and garnish with chopped shallots.

Here’s Samoan version that adds coconut cream at the end.

  • 500 g white fish fillets
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 lemon, sliced
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 400 ml coconut cream, if it’s not too rich or 1/2 cup coconut cream, if it’s rich


Cut fish into cubed pieces.
Sprinkle with salt then lemon juice.
Cover and chill for 2 hours or overnight or until fish whitens, stirring occasionally.
Put in onion, coconut cream, tomatoes and cucumber, and garnish with 1/2 lemon slices.
Serve chilled.

Fisherman tails…

OK, so on the fishing front I have totally redeemed myself.

Maybe its because now, thanks to advice from the locals, I study the tides, the moon, the winds, pick my times, use different bait for different situations and have my lucky spot.

Yes it could be a combination of all those ingredients or could be that I have just been dumb-arse lucky.

First I caught a huge Snapper on the late night shift, then the next day on the sunset shift I caught another Snapper, a Jack Fish and a Coral Trout. The local Bronze Whaler shark, a lazy eight footer that lives under the jetty, made an appearance and very nearly robbed me of my Snapper off the line. A heart pumping kicker to the adrenaline rush of hooking dinner.

After the endless frenetic pace of manning a regional newspaper single handedly, dropping a line has become my daily decompression. The salty seabreeze, the blood-red sunsets that drain away to the spectacular big-sky of the Milky Way, while the Strait laps and licks at the legs of the pier, all give me a huge, collective sigh of relief.

Sometimes I catch myself, saying: “Fuck me this is beautiful.”

Beautiful in its simplicity, life reduced to an all-consuming lowest common denominator, that only Mother Nature can dish up. I would insert a photo of the glorious sunset here but I am too busy soaking it up – sorry.

Figured I’d let Otis set the sublimeness:


My time on the pier also provides for some off-the-cuff networking opportunities. I hear about juicy story leads, island gossip and plenty of ones-that-got-away, fishermen tales. Just the thing for an ever-hungry newspaper hack looking to fill endless inches of column space, just as one paper is filled, another deadline looms…

one of my catch, now on ice

some of my catch, now on ice

A couple of Islander blokes came up looking most envious at my haul, one of them having not caught anything. So remembering the generosity of other fisherman to my empty larder and the Ailan Kustom where nobody goes hungry, I gave him my Coral Trout, despite never having the luxury of tasting one. I just knew karmically it was the right thing to do.

“Cheers Ba’la, my wife will love this.”

I wondered if he told her if it was caught or gifted.

Not long after they left the universe repaid my generosity with a big White Trevally, so now I have freezer full of fish, none of which I have paid for, ready to feed my family when they arrive in a couple of weeks. Now I’m, no Bear Grylls, nor do I wear Khaki or camo print, but there is something ‘bloody’ satisfying  about catching your own protein to feed your clan.


Done and dusted...

This was a Jack Fish, which is often used as live bait, but I think its a good eater, obviously…

Life is good.

On the lighter side of things

July 1, 1871 is the day that God came to the Torres Strait, that is as delivered by the Missionaries. It’s a date that has since been celebrated every year by Torres Strait Islanders as “The Coming of the Light.”

Now raised a strict atheist, where the ‘G’ word was a dirty one, I squirm a little when I hear of the work of missionaries ‘saving the savages’. That said, it is largely accepted in the region that by converting to Christianity, and the syncretism of their previous belief systems, allowed for a peace to endure, end inter-island raiding, head-hunting and unified the region, that is, to bring them out of the ‘darkness’ of heathenism.

I guess learning of the original sin, guilt and the shame of their nudity are a small price to pay for peace, especially considering it would have had to been paid in human heads, the best form of currency prior to the Missionary’s arrival.


Before God


After God

Now I am not out to bash the Bible Bashers. The London Missionary Society (LMS), that arrived on this auspicious date, in their boat aptly named the “Surprise”, did have some heady if not misguided ideals, such as abolishing slavery for one. They also made an effort to assimilate into the culture and learn the lingo.


It should also be noted that the LMS are also a different mob to those Missionaries involved in that abomination that assisted in the Stolen Generation. They were the missionaries in the Northern Territory who were members of the Lutheran Church from Germany.

The LMS  was a non-denominational missionary society formed in 1795 by evangelical Anglicans who sent missionaries all over the world, notably to India, China, Australia, Madagascar and Africa. The LMS missionaries had a huge influence on the spread of their largely non-denominational approach to Christianity throughout the world. However there have been some claims of a Papua New Guinean Stolen Generation, instigated by the some members of the LMS.

In 2012 PNG’s oldest newspaper journalist Biga Lebasi asked the Queen, the then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the premier of Queensland to apologise to him and other descendants of the 100’s of South Pacific islanders black-birded in the 1880’s to help establish Australia’s sugar industry in colonial Queensland.

The LMS had been busying themselves throughout the early 1800’s in the Southwest Pacific trying to convert Islanders to Christianity. By the time they arrived at Erub (Darnley Island) in the Torres Strait they had some thirty years experience ‘spreading the the word.’  They played a significant role in encounters between the West and peoples of the Pacific islands.

However, it wasn’t all beer and skittles for the LMS. Their vessels were raided by French Privateers, the government condoned pirates, they suffered funding issues and not all the ‘savages’ were as welcoming as they had hoped.


John Williams (depicted above), had been working in the Pacific for more than 20 years when he visited the island of  Erromanga (later part of Vanuatu) in 1839. The islanders had recently been cruelly treated by traders looking for sandalwood. They killed Williams and his companion James Harris. This 1841 painting shows other LMS missionaries escaping by boat in the background.


LMS missionary James Chalmers and his missionary colleague Oliver Tomkins, met a similar grizzly fate at Risk Point on Goaribari Island, on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1901. Lured ashore, the villagers were rejoicing their arrival, not to share the good book, but to be the ceremonial dinner. Their newly constructed dubu, a communal house for fighting men  could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice. It must have been an awful moment of realization for Chalmers and Tomkins when the knives came out and the smiles fell away.

One would expect then that LMS Reverend Samuel MacFarlane must have been on edge when they anchored at Erub, accompanied by converts from the Loyalty Islands. When they landed at Kemus Beach, a bare-chested and fearsome warrior, Dabad, who at first approached them aggressively, finally allowed them on the island and broke tribal convention. Praise the lord…

Federal MP Warren Entsch and Leo Akee re-act the landing on TI 2013

Federal MP Warren Entsch and Leo Akee re-act the landing on TI 2013



A research paper by David Salisbury at the 7th International Small Islands Conference in 2011 looked into what this celebration means to Torres Strait Islanders. He interviewed Father Elemo Tapim a Torres Strait Islander Anglican Priest from Townsville about the significance of the celebration.

“For us the celebration of the Coming of the Light is just like celebrating Christmas Day. On Christmas Day God came to us in the form of a baby and on July 1 God came to the Torres Strait in the form of a book,” Father Tapim said.

Father Tapim described the importance of the celebration  as representing the beginning of new era or the beginning of a new life.


However I share the views expressed by Paul Newbury: 

“Islanders identify strongly with the missionary metaphor of the darkness of ‘heathenism’ and the light of ‘salvation’. Islanders refer to the time before 1871 as ‘Darkness Time’. It is a sad fact throughout Melanesia that a devalued past is the legacy of missionary endeavour.

The late Ephraim Bani is a well-known Torres Strait Islander academic and commentator on Torres Strait Islander culture. He attempted to combat missionary influence on his people’s culture by initiating the Torres Strait Cultural Festival. He dedicated his writing to his elders who taught him: ‘the ancient ways of survival, spirituality and affiliation with nature’.”

Ephraim Bani

Ephraim Bani

The Torres Strait Cultural Festival is held every two years on Thursday Island and attracts around 4,000 people, the week includes entertainment, cultural activities, sporting events and Islander art exhibition as well as novelty competitions such as coconut husking contest.

Ephraim Bani was also instrumental in establishing the Gab Titui Cultural Centre, a name The name, Gab Titui, represents both Eastern and Western language dialects of the Torres Strait.  ‘Gab’, interpreted as journey in the eastern island group language and ‘Titui’ from the western islands group language meaning stars. The combined name, Gab Titui, is translated as ‘Journey of the Stars’. 

When I look outside each night up here in the Strait and look at those stars, I know that’s all the God I need…

Cooking up a storm

With sound of knives on chopping blocks as a group of young men dice a mountain of garlic and ginger, the air is rich and sweet with its bouquet.


Walking back from a tombstone unveiling ceremony, I inadvertently pass the preparation of not one but five Kupmurries, the Strait’s version of a Hungi or ground oven.




I watched as the men (who traditionally prepare the meats and tend to the fires) prepared a combination of bush food, including deer, wild pig, dugong and turtle.

With the turtle, everything is used, the flesh, the organs, the blood. One of the delicacies is the freshly butchered liver slapped straight on the BBQ, which the men ate for lunch to sustain them during their preparations (which actually goes on for days).

I watched the young kids play with the turtle eggs, rubbery ping-pong-ball-like things.

The meats are marinated with the garlic and ginger, malt vinegar and soy sauce, the latter I’m guessing is the influence of the Malay and Japanese ancestors who came to the region as part of the pearling trade


  Pearling lifestyle, by: Joey Liafoo, 2004. 

Three of the kupmurries were dedicated to cooking meat, while the other two were for damper bread and Sop Sop, which is yams, red and orange sweet potatoes doused in coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves and foil. These dishes were prepared by the women.


The science of the Kupmurrie is simple but elegant:

  • dig a shallow hole in the ground
  • layer it with kindling and stones
  • set fire to it and let it burn down


The hot rocks are then spread out


A layer of split banana tree trunks are laid on the rocks and the food placed on top.IMG_7122

The food is then covered with leaves which both help trap the heat and provide a source of steam.


This is all covered with a blanket.


And then plastic and sand…


Then leave for an hour and 45 minutes…


Bush foods such as turtle and dugong have been hot beds of contention, as both animals are endangered, many environmental groups are outraged at this traditional hunting practice.

And with the onset of social media, where young hunters have posted photos and videos of their kills, has further aghast the latte-sipping metrosexual middleclasses…

Tensions are high on the islands too. An elder told me in no uncertain times “That all eyes are on you.” I was forbidden to take photos of the turtle being slaughtered and told I would be run out of town if I posted anything negative about their hunting practices. But that is not why I have written what I have below…

Well peeps, Aboriginal hunting rights allow traditional and not commercial hunting, for their own consumption. Us whities have done a damn good job of fucking up the majority of the planet, so it’s hardly surprising they get more than a little miffed at their traditional practices being under threat.

The fine print here in Qld:

In Queensland, Aborigines living on trust lands are exempt from hunting and fishing legislation under the Community Services (Aborigines) Act 1984 (Qld) s 77 and its Torres Strait equivalent. This exemption allows for traditional hunting for consumption. 

There is actually no solid evidence their hunting these tasty, yet endangered sea morsels is to blame for their dwindling numbers. Read this conversation, and this one too.

Now I am, have always been, an avid conservationist, with political leanings to, libertarianism. a dash of anarchy and enviro-terrorism, but getting emotional over saving the cutesy animals based solely on emotional responses is not on. Stop the Japanese killing thousands of whales commercially under the farcical banner of ‘scientific research’ yes – harpoon the fuckers and feed them to the sharks,  same with the Chinese shark fin industry, fur pelt industry and the  ivory peddling industry. Kill ’em all and let God sort them out. But the key word here is industry – Indigenous hunting practices are a tradition, not an industry, that’s the difference.

Hell, who knows, if we let them carry on as they have for millennia, maybe they we look after their resources sustainably.  

And remember, if you think you are doing the world a favour eating your soya-based meat supplement, think again.

Rest in Peace

As the editor of the local paper, I get to step into worlds many of the whitefellas up here don’t get to experience, or at least not with the frequency that I do.

One of the more interesting cultural insights I have experienced a few times in the last five weeks is the tombstone unveiling celebration. This is the ‘Christianization’  of older Islander customs.

In earlier times when an Islander died, the family would place the body on a platform and allow the elements to reduce the remains to bones. When the skull naturally disconnected from the body it was considered the sign when the family was to collect the remains and place them in a sacred place. The skull was given to the  spouse or next of kin of the deceased.

An Elder told me that Human heads were once used as a form of currency throughout the Strait as well as once considered to have magical powers. Often tribes would conduct raiding parties on enemy tribes to collect heads. They were often used in ceremonial dances as a show of a tribe’s strength or traded for permission to marry an Elder’s daughter.

By Dennis Nona.  Headhunter consults his ancestors

By Dennis Nona.
Headhunter consults his ancestors

Badu Island (Mulgrave Island), 60 km north of TI, in particular once had a feared reputation as an island of headhunters until the 1870s with the adoption of Christianity.

July 1 1871 is today the symbolic date Christianity was accepted as the dominant paradigm for religious faith in the Strait when the London Missionary Society landed on Erub island and ‘gave them the light.’ It’s celebrated every year as the ‘Coming of the Light Festival.’

So with the acceptance of the Christianity, Islanders began to bury there dead. But in true Islander style, they managed to merge elements of their older culture. The inlaws of the deceased would organise the funeral, as the family was busy in mourning.


Traditionally, some years later, when the coffin collapsed in the grave, the grave stone would be erected and the family would have a ceremonial unveiling of the tombstone and throw a big party, with singing, dancing and feasting.



Much preparation go into these events and family are expected to travel from all over the country to attend.



The grave sight is condoned off with palm fronds and a ribbon, to be cut by the priest after his blessings.


Inside the grave is covered with material and gifts, which are divvied up between the inlaws – it’s the family’s formal presentation of gratitude for their help while they were mourning. Some of the gifts included Dugong and turtle harpoons, cloth, clothes and toys. An Elder told me in earlier days money was also pinned to the cloth and the hall where the subsequent feast was held was decorated with more gifts for everyone who attended the feast.


It’s quite a heart-warming spectacle to watch. I do wonder though of the financial hardship they must create on the family, the granite tombstone, feeding 300 people, transport costs from all around the country, it must be a serious financial burden. I have heard of it creating tensions in some families for this reason.

One Islander told me, “In these modern times some people just want their cultural obligations to be over with quicker, its like everyone is in more of a hurry these days.”

It’s seems the ‘hurry disease’ that affects so much of the world is also permeating ‘Island Time.’

The (lemon)grass is always greener…

OK so I have started exploring TI on the ‘company mountain bike’ (yes I get a company bike!). On my circuit of the island I have discovered a scattering of community gardens with chili bushes, lemongrass, paw paw, pineapple,  some immature orange trees, watermelon, pumpkin and taro.

Thursday Island is a difficult place to have a garden – poor soils, prone to waterlogging in the wet and baking in the heat, not least of the challenges gardeners face. Local identity George Ernst, who has lived and worked in the Cape and Torres Strait region for many years, has developed a garden system that has proven to produce fruit, vegetables and flavourings and can be adapted to ornamentals, medicinals and other plants.

The ‘donut garden’ name extends from the round mound of mulch and compost that reduces weed growth, retains moisture and breaks down to provide food for the plants. The distinct shape and relatively small size, between 3 and 4 metres across, also helps to define these gardens.


One of the gardens is next to a rocky beach, where I spotted some other fellow foragers, small reef sharks patrolling a couple of metres from the shore. This area is called Quarantine Point and it is where Islanders slaughter the dugongs they hunt.

As the name suggests they are for anybody in the community, so I grabbed some fresh chilies and lemongrass to spice up my dinner.


It was dark by the time I got home and when I entered the house and turned on the light I realized I had picked up a tiny hitchhiker sitting on my arm.


He must have crawled out of the clump of lemon grass I picked.

I figured I had enough protein with the fish I caught recently off the pier. So the gecko got a reprieve from my skillet.  

The fish is something mob here call ‘blackfish’ – apparently a tasty little morsel with poisonous spines on its dorsal fins. The only cure, I am told is to either piss on the wound or rub the fish’s liver on it – needless to say I was very careful to gut it.

So my new impromptu recipe:

Chilli and lemongrass blackfish

  • couple of red chillies, finely chopped
  • two lemongrass sticks, finely chopped
  • a crushed garlic clove
  • splash of Hoisin sauce 

lemongrass chili

Fry the spices in oil, chuck in the Hoisin sauce and stir. Add fish, frying both sides till crispy and serve with the fried spices on top.


I’ve heard a great meal needs only four principle flavours to make it work, I guess its true.