Here’s a dish inspired by a small island nation in the South Pacific called Vanuatu. When people ask me what my food blog is about, I tell them that my mission is to find great recipes from every country in the world, and their next question is usually: “how do you find the recipes?” There’s no simple answer to that question. Sometimes I’ll feature a recipe that is one of my long-time favorites. If it happens to be from a particular country, I’ll do research and see what interesting facts I can share, along with the recipe. Browsing through cookbooks and magazines is another great source of inspiration. Occasionally I actually get out of the house and travel somewhere and discover an exciting dish. Often I look at a list of all the 196 countries of the world, pick one randomly, and start researching it. That was the case with Vanuatu.
Sometimes a country’s national dish will interest me. But Vanuatu’s national dish, called Lap Lap, is way too labor intensive. It starts with the difficult task of pounding taro root into a paste, and that’s just the beginning – the rest involves layers of cabbage and meat and a banana leaf – and my research tells me that Lap Lap is not a dish that everybody loves. What got me excited about Vanuatu cuisine was thinking about how to combine the popular local ingredients to come up with something fun and tropical. Coconuts are their largest agricultural commodity. Coconut milk is used to cook almost everything. Sweet potatoes and yams are also an abundant and popular year-round crop. Since Vanuatu is an archipelago, consisting of over 80 islands, there’s no shortage of fish and seafood available. So there you have it – the inspiration for Coconut Sweet Potato Soup with Spicy Shrimp from Vanuatu.
The people of Vanuatu are called Ni-Vanuatu. It is an extremely diverse culture with over 112 different languages spoken on the islands. In fact Vanuatu is the most language-dense country in the world. But in addition to their unique languages, the majority of the Ni-Vanuatu share a common language called Bislama. It’s a form of Pidgin, based on English vocabulary. But the language has taken on a life of its own, due to traders traveling around the Pacific, picking up bits and pieces of dialect and grammar from here and there. TripAdvisor has a good explanation of the language with some interesting examples.
Here’s a phrase of the language to give you a sense of it: I am very happy in Bislama is mi glad tumas (me glad too much). That’s how I’m feeling about this soup!
- 1½ pounds medium shrimp (18-24) peeled, deveined, tails removed
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 1½ teaspoons cumin
- 1½ teaspoons coriander
- ¾ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ⅛ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
- 6 cups low salt chicken broth broth (I recommend Swanson's)
- 3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed (about 9 cups cubed)
- 1 13½ ounce can unsweetened coconut milk (shake can well before pouring)
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 ounces fresh spinach leaves, slivered (stack leaves and slice them thin)
- Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
- SHRIMP: Mix spices in a small bowl. Put shrimp in a medium sized bowl. Toss to coat with spices. Set aside in the fridge while you start the soup.
- SOUP: Bring the broth and sweet potatoes into a medium pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes, until potatoes are cooked through. Puree the soup, using an immersion blender or by transferring the soup to a food processor. Return the soup to the pot with the heat off. Add coconut milk, lime juice, salt and cayenne. Stir to combine. Set aside while you sauté the shrimp.
- SHRIMP: Heat 2 teaspoons oil in large skillet until hot but not smoking. Cook shrimp for about 2½ minutes per side over medium-high heat, or until there's a nice brown spice crust on the outside and the shrimp is just cooked through. Tent with foil to keep warm while you heat the soup.
- Heat the soup gently until it's hot. Ladle into shallow bowls. Place 3-4 shrimp in each bowl. Add a small pile of shredded spinach to the center of each bowl. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Enjoy!