Essays on the Marshallese Past

Arrowroot-Makm–k Famine food, clothes starch
or modern staple?

A number of food plants were traditionally utilised by the Marshallese. The main food plant was, and still is, without doubt, breadfruit, followed by Pandanus and, especially in the southern atolls where it could be grown, swamp taro . However, especially for the northern atolls in the Marshall Islands, another tuberous plant was one of the major suppliers of starch: arrowroot. The following is extracted from a comprehensive report by the Historic Preservation Office.

Polynesian arrowroot (Tacca leontopetaloides L.) or makm–k in Marshallese is a large perennial herb growing without much need for tending and annually providing a harvest of tubers. These are very acrid in taste and the bitterness needs to be washed out by a lengthy process.

Makm–k has been reported throughout the Marshall Islands, absent only on Wake (Eneen-Kio), Bokak and Bikar .

The plant is decidious, sprouts in early (northern) spring, flowers in the summer months and matures October to January, at which time the tubers have grown to full size. The tubers are commonly shaped like somewhat irregular flattish spheres, 0.5-4" in diametre with a thin, brown skin and whitish starchy interior.

An Arrowroot Plant (Tacca leontopetaloides O.Kuntze)

Arrowroot is common on the ground layer in coconut grassland/srcubland, if the cover with other plants is not too dense. The plant is said to have very good resistance to droughts. The stems and leaves above the ground may wither entirely, but the tuber soon sends up new stalks and leaves.

Nutritional Value

Arrowroot starch is the richest unenriched natural starch on earth. The starch content of the tubers varies from 10-25% of the tuber weight depending on growth location and soil substrate. Unprocessed tubers in the Marshall Islands contain approximately 80% water, 10% fibre and ~10% extractable starch. The fine crystal structure of arrowroot starch makes it easily digestable and therefore a favourite food for weak and sick people as well as small children.

Arrowroot production

Starting at plant cycle, the crop of the previous year is harvested. Only the large tubers are taken. The small tubers are left behind, acting as seedlings for next year's crop.

The collected arrowroot tubers are placed in a larger mesh bag (mˆdo) and cleaned in the lagoon of earth and sand. Thereafter every tuber is rubbed on rough but soft coral until it is reduced to a reddish mass.

A pit is dug 1-2m diameter and 0.5-0.75m deep. Sides and bottom of the pit are lined with coconut fronds and a large, strongly plaited mat which protrudes a good distance over the edge of the pit. This pit serves as a trough in which to catch the strained out flour.

Resting on the orifice of the pit is a wooden box, which acts as a strainer, and whose lower part is open and only covered with a mesh made from coconut coir. In order to prevent any large pieces as well as any foreign material from falling into the mat, the coconut mesh is covered with a sticky flexible creeping root.

Large-meshed netbag to wash arrowroot in the lagoon.

The red mass is wrapped in the net-like wrapper of young coconut leaves, which acts as a real filtering cloth. This is placed in the box and watered with sea-water and continuously kneaded.

A late 19th century, sometimes hand-held waliklik used to sift grated arrowroot tubers and to wash out the starch.

The water carrying with it arrowroot starch runs into the trough-like mat underneath, the starch gradually settling to the bottom. After two or even three hours the sifted starch is sifted for a second or even a third time, the last washing with fresh water. During this pounding and leaching process, the arrowroot loses its bitterness. When all the water is skimmed off or has dissipated, the flour is scraped together and hung up in the wrapping of a young coconut leaf, thus allowing the water to run off and drip out of the starch.

Schematic view of the arrowroot sifting process. 1-Mat with ground arrowroot tubers; 2-Mat with cleaned arrowroot tubers; 3-Pit excavted into the sand; 4-Coarse mat used as lining of the pit place above a layer of coconut leaves (not shown); 5-Heap of sifted arrowroot starch in the pit; 6-Arrowroot strainer (walikilik); 7- Ground arrowroot ready for washing with seawater.; 8-The excess water dissipates into the ground.

After about two or three days the hardened lump of starch is crushed on a mat and placed in the sun so to dry out thoroughly. Provided it is kept dry and away from weevils, ants, cockroaches and the like, the starch will keep indefinitely.

About seven baskets of unprocessed tubers result in one basket of processed dried flour.

A coconut shell serving as a trade container for arrowroot starch from Rongelap (1910)

"Makm–k does not grow large anymore"

Today, throughout the Marshall Islands there exists a notion that arrowroot no longer grows as large as it used to. Arrowroot, it is claimed, also no longer grows in some areas as tall. Both is brought into connection with the effects of the nuclear testing which took place on Enewetak and Bikini Atolls.

Based on archival and field research the following was found:

A future for arrowroot production?

Copra, for most outer islanders still the sole means of a cash income apart from handicraft production, has become a less and less lucrative commodity unless in times of very heavy government subsidies. Other income generating schemes do not always work, and in order to increase the standard of living, the lowering of expenditure by import substitution is a feasible option.

Previous botanical and agricultural studies had shown that arrowroot does very well under coconut, provided that competing vegetation is kept away. This arrowroot would be a very suitable intercrop in copra plantations.

Based on an analysis of arrowroot tending, production and starch extraction, the following economic calculation has been drawn up, based on a household comprising two able-bodied males (15-64 years of age), and two male minors. Female labour input, which would speed up the process, was not taken into account as this is not traditional "custom".

Based on the copra-income figures of 1991 (1 lb copra = 10 cents) seven days of labour invested in the production of 25lb. arrowroot starch are equivalent of at most $21.00 worth of copra production. Therefore, one pound of arrowroot starch costs the producer and self-consumer $0.84. In view of the fact that both the copra income loss figures, as well as the labour investment figures have been rather conservatively calculated, the actual cost of one pound of arrowroot starch is very likely substantially less than the calculated $0.84. For example, assuming that the weeding of the acre, as well as the drying of the extracted starch are done by children not involved in copra making, the labour investment is reduced to four days, resulting in a cost of only $0.48 per pound of arrowroot starch. Alternatively, the cost per pound of arrowroot starch is reduced to $0.37 using the avarge copra income, and to only $0.21 when using a 4-day labour investment figure and participation of children in the drying and weeding process.

This cost of $0.84 or less per pound needs to be compared with the costs of starch in Majuro $1.15 or more, and the coast in outer island retail stores ($1.50 and more). Given the remote location of the Republic of the Marshall Islands all imported foods are expensive due to transportation costs and mark-ups along the way.

Import substitution is feasible, and wide variety of traditional dishes were once made with arrowroot flour.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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