Vanuatu: Port Vila Market

11/22/2009 10:44:00 PM

Port Vila Market is a rather wonderful place. Located smack-bang in the centre of town, it sells an eye-popping array of local fruit and vegetables, flowers, delicious meals, laplap and other Ni-Vanuatu dishes. Business starts at 7am on Monday mornings, then continues around-the-clock until midday on Saturday. Yes peoples, that means it is a 24-hour market! Prices are clearly marked, there is no haggling, and no-one hassles you to buy anything. It is awesome.

And now for some close-ups of the produce...

Flowers, Stove Charcoal stoves

Coconuts; Eggplants and Capsicums
Papayas; Ginger

Guavas; Local Nuts
Woven baskets of yams; Taro and banana chips (oh yeah!)

Only 200VT for a whole punnet? Yes please!!!

These wild raspberries were gorgeous! I read that the season ends at the start of November, so we were lucky to find them. They were a little tart, the drupes were a lot finer than regular raspberries (it's a real word, look it up here), and they were also a lot firmer. (Most of them survived the day in a plastic bag in my backpack, without a proper container).
Lettuce and other veggies; some sort of root vegetable
Bananas; Pomelos with the prices written in marker pen

The LapLap Stands

Laplap, as I will have told you before, is the national dish of Vanuatu - a doughy paste of different root vegetables, wrapped in local cabbage and banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven. They will usually be cooked with coconut milk, and possibly a small piece of meat. A lot of work if you were doing it yourself, but luckily for us they can also be purchased for 200VT at the market. There is a whole row of tables selling various types of laplap, lined with banana leaves, and staffed by ladies wearing the traditional Mother Hubbard dresses and hairnets.

Laplap with chicken wing

Mixed root veggies with one chicken wing


Laplap with island cabbage and chicken wing - that's the one I chose!

I was very keen to try one, but also a bit nervous about eating them in front of the locals. What if I didn't like it? Or couldn't finish it? Or just made a douche of myself eating it the wrong way? In the end I took mine down to the nearby park to eat in relative privacy.

Here is the lady wrapping up my laplap:

And here it is!

I opened it up on my lap, and tore small pieces of it with my fingers to eat. This left my hands terribly sticky, and I later realised that you're supposed to wrap the banana leaf around the dough, like a pocket, and take bites off the side, like a sandwich or a souvlaki. D'oh! The dough had a slightly grainy texture, which reminded me of one of the kuih my mum makes with grated taro in it. It also had coconut milk soaked into it - delicious!

The dough, as you can imagine, was very dense. I could only get through about half of it before I admitted defeat. I have come to the conclusion that the Ni-Vans can do serious carbs.

The Food Stalls

Towards the back of the market are several hot food stands, with long benches and communal tables. We weren't quite sure at first how it all worked, as there are no signs or menus. We discreetly asked some Aussie tourists what to do. Each stall sells something different, just ask what's on offer and sit down! It was usually meat or fish, with gravy and rice, 350VT for a plate. (And if anyone is wondering, yes, this is the same price that the locals are charged - I looked!)

Please, please don't be like the snobby old couple we met on a kayaking tour. When we asked them, rather enthusiastically, "Have you eaten at the market yet?", the lady scrunched up her face in disgust and said, "Oh goodness, no!"

I don't get why you would go on holiday just to eat restaurant meals at your five-star resort. I mean, I know we don't all have iron stomachs like me (heheh), and it's important to be careful, but seriously, live a little! Or at least don't look so disgusted at what the locals eat. Sheesh. That lady does not know what she is missing.

On our first lunch-time visit, we went to this guy's stall, for veal chops.
I know, how good does that look! One plate was more than enough for 2 of us to share, and had meltingly soft veal chops, onions, deeply flavoured gravy and a starchy vegetable. (Possibly white sweet potato?) It was extremely tasty and comforting.

I loved his giant pot of stew, and thought it looked so cool! I was overcome with a sudden desire to wave a 1000VT note in his face and scream "ME ME ME!!!!", but I restrained myself, haha!! Anyway, he was super friendly, and letting us know that if we wanted any more rice or gravy, all we had to do was ask.

We noticed that the locals' plates looked a bit different from ours - for locals, he just plonked the rice and stew on the plate, but for us he made it all pretty, with the rice in an upended bowl shape and the stew arranged around it. How sweet!

Next time, we tried the food at this lovely lady's stall.

Her name is Malena, and we discovered that she makes the BEST steak. During our trip, we came back twice more!

She also has some pretty kick-ass chilli...

The top picture is Malena's chicken, with veggies and rice. She said she didn't have enough chicken to make up a full plate, so added some beef. (I'm not sure what part of the beef it was, I'm thinking it was something like knuckle - heaps of gelatinous bits and soft, soft meat). Below is her steak - one large thin piece of beef, with a delicious savoury sauce. Malena also served pickled veggies with her meals, which were delicious.

Like our first guy, Malena was really nice, offering us extra rice and gravy if we wanted it. She also made our plates pretty too, and sat down and had a chat with us. I've been to some countries where you get treated pretty shabbily if you're a tourist or foreigner, and I thought it was just lovely that these guys at the market were so friendly.

Another thing we tried was peanut butter bread. Odd, I know, but seeing those stalls just really reminded me of Penang and I had to try some. For 100VT you get 2 massive slices of bread with margarine and peanut butter (or jam), and a stein of (instant) coffee. Very simple, yes, but it made my heart sing.

Two massive pieces of bread after slicing.

The stein - you can see the stall in the background.


Coconuts are everywhere in Vanuatu, and super-duper cheap at the market! Depending on the size, they range from 20VT to approx 60VT.

These ones below are drinking coconuts. They're a bit older than the green "fresh coconut" we get in Penang, and you can't scoop out the insides with a spoon. They are, however, full of delicious coconut water!

If you ask, they will cut a hole in the top so you can drink it straight away.

This young dude, below, didn't cut our coconut, but I just had to share this picture with you. He was preparing coconuts. See that massive knife he's wielding? I was absolutely petrified that he'd cut his fingers, but of course, no such thing occurred. I'm in awe of his skill!

We couldn't finish the whole coconut at once, so we took it back to our resort, and Steve the barman very kindly cut it open for us. He split it in half along the middle, and cut the flesh into a big spiral shape. I wish I had that kind of dexterity!

Of course, we poured the rest of the coconut water into a glass first.

We took the coconut back to our room and ate it on the porch, watching the waves come in.
Very juicy, sweet coconut.

No thick brown skin on the flesh!

I miss the market now that I'm home!

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  1. dang! Look at all that corn. Holiday looks to be a hit! And that chilli...

  2. Nice photos. The "some sort of root vegetable" you describe in one looks to be taro.

    I never would have imagined Vanuatu as a producer of raspberries, but there you go.

  3. Very nostalgic pictures and writeup on the Vanuatu Market that I have visited several times while on work. Yes the Kueh like Pudding or LapLap is unique. Never tried it but tried the giant pisang - no such variety in tanah air, Wish i could have taken some anak to plant at home. on a similar strange note did you buy the 1943 coca cola bottles being sold on the roadside ?

  4. I'm in Vila as I write this ...23/12/19 ... loved your article ...
    Been to the markets etc etc...
    Great fun !

    1. Hope you have a wonderful time!



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