THE YEAR OF THE CHOKO
This seems to be the Year of the Choko on Norfolk Island.
We are all eating them - in great quantities. Now, don't start pitying us for the lack of variety in our diet. We are eating them boiled, steamed, sauteed, microwaved. They are being sliced and diced into casseroles and stirfries. Some are finding their way into fritters and chutneys, while still more are being clothed white sauce. They are being tarted up with stocks and herbs and spices. And some of the young and tender ones are even being consumed raw.
Why this sudden enthusiasm for the humble choko, you may ask?
Well, there is little else in the salad and vegetable line around. Weather conditions have not been kind to the home and market gardeners this year. Some years the dry conditions make growing difficult. This year, constant fog and rain and overcast conditions have wiped out many crops, fungus has been rife, and even the those things that have survived have failed to mature and ripen without the necessary sunny days.
If we lived in Australia or New Zealand, we would be importing our vegetables from other places. But quarantine restrictions mean that almost everything is home and locally grown on Norfolk Island. Now that is what you could call a healthy and sustainable way of doing things. But if the season is bad here, then everyone is affected.
So this is the time when the chokos come into their own. They seem to thrive in these conditions. They may thrive in the good years too, but just get ignored in favour of abundant tomatoes and lettuce and broccoli and carrots etc.
This year, anyone with a choko vine has plenty of friends. They get handed round at meetings and get-togethers, shared between neighbours, left on doorsteps, and fill the vegetable and fruit racks in the stores. In the same way, recipes for different and interesting ways to cook them get shared around too. Actually, the choko is not a bad vegetable. It may be a little bland, but if it is not overcooked, it has a pleasant crunch, and absorbs the flavours of the foods it is cooked and served with.
Many years ago, Bernie and I had a learned Judge and his wife to dinner. One of the vegetables I served was chokos. They looked at it in some puzzlement, and asked what it was. I think they had their suspicions, but needed to confirm that I had dared to serve a common choko, a vegetable that in their minds belonged on vines that climbed over backyard dunnies. Both admitted they had never tasted choko before. I cannot recall whether politeness overcame their obvious feelings of distaste.
My dear friend Paulette grew up on one of the islands in Vanuatu. She recalls that when she was a girl, the chokos almost grew wild in the bush around their home. When one of the fruit dropped to the ground, it would take root and shoot up a new plant. They grew so thick they were almost like bushes rather than vines. Paulette said that you learn a great deal about how to grow things by observing how they grow in nature.
Now Paulette loves the seed of the choko, and I agree that its nutty taste makes it the best part. People save the older chokos with large seeds for her to eat. She tells how when she was young, she and her friends would go into the bush with their baskets, and pick the chokos in large quantities. They would take a knife and discard the flesh, and take home baskets of just the seed part to cook!!
My first acquaintance with chokos was when I was growing up in Kensington in Sydney. We lived in a 2 up 2 down block of flats, which was one block in a whole row of about 12 blocks. One backyard went behind the whole row. The man upstairs, a Bert Hislop, had a very healthy choko vine growing on the back paling fence. Because we lived not very far from Randwick Racecourse, and there were a lot of stable complexes in the streets around, there was always a good supply of manure. The chokos were shared around the neighbours. Sadly, in those days, no one had enough imagination to cook them in any way other than boiling them, and perhaps putting a white sauce over them. It may be a suburban myth, but it is said that this prolific but humble vegetable used to sneak its way into apple pies, because it was hard to tell the difference from the texture and appearance.
Apart from a brief period about 25-30 years ago, I have not had much luck in growing a choko vine until recently. I have planted several dozen over the years. They get so high and then die off. Bill Edward told me you should plant two together, diagonally facing each other, and the growing end pointing downwards. Someone else said the easiest way to grow a choko was to toss it over your shoulder into the bush and forget about it. In other words, it doesn't matter how hard you try, if it doesn't want to grow where you have planted it, it won't.
This year I have finally managed to grow not one, but two vines. And they are beginning to produce fruit! Soon I will be able to share some around. But perhaps by then, we will have a variety of vegetables available again, and everyone will be saying, with a sigh of relief "Thank goodness I don't have to eat another choko for a while!"