Cocos Keeling Islands: Passionate Foodie

Cocos Keeling Islands: Passionate Foodie

Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around.

The Cocos Keeling Islands are Australian external territory atolls in the Indian Ocean. They lie between Australia and Sri Lanka, a little off to the west of Christmas Island and relatively close to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The dual names let us know that at different times, these islands have been known by “Cocos” or “Keeling” Islands. Although small, these islands have an interesting history.

Discovered in 1609 by British sea captain William Keeling on his return voyage from the East Indies, he planted a flag but did not set up a settlement. The islands were noted as a sketch drawn up by a Swedish captain in 1749, but only appeared on charts produced by the British in 1789.

The islands have been called the Cocos Islands since 1622. Later, they became known as the Keeling Islands from 1703. Around 1805, they were called by the double barrel name of Cocos-Keeling! Cocos of course refers to the many groves of coconut trees – Keeling refers to the man who “discovered” the islands in 1609.

There are no rivers or lakes on either atoll. Fresh water resources are limited to water lenses on the larger islands, underground accumulations of rainwater lying above the seawater. These lenses are accessed through shallow bores or wells. The inhabitants of these islands are mainly Cocos Malays. They are mostly Sunni Islam and their dialect is Malay.

Life became quite interesting on these islands from around 1825 when a Scottish Captain, John Clunies-Ross, stopped off on his way to India. He planted the Union Jack (the British flag) and stated he wanted to return with his wife and children planning on settling there. However, another British gentleman had similar plans; he hired a captain (who turned out to be Clunies-Ross’ brother) and moved to the island with his retinue of 40 Malay women! It is noted that Hare lived in Borneo for a time and it was here he found he could and therefore did live with many “wives” – many of whom were happy to move with him.

Clunies-Ross did return to the islands, just two years later, with his wife, children, mother-in-law and a retinue of workers. Imagine his surprise when he found the Hare hareem already there! Naturally, this encouraged a serious feud between the two men. Clunies-Ross’ sailors were all into helping by claiming many of Hare’s hareem, who appear to have been quite satisfied by this turn of events.

A dejected Hare left the island. The story of a good life on the island encouraged other Malays to move there to work on the plantations as well as to find a “wife”. Many of the island's current population are descended from the Malay workers that worked the copra plantation.

We are familiar with a local story about currency paid to workers and only redeemable from the company store on Flat Island – seems the sailors of yore were very into this type of thing – Clunies-Ross paid his workers in a currency called the Cocos rupee. He minted this himself and these could only be redeemed at his company store.

The Clunies-Ross family ruled the islands as a private fiefdom for almost 150 years. The British annexed the islands in 1857. For the next 100 years, the islands were run from either Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or Singapore. Most of the real estate on these islands belonged to the Clunies-Ross family until the territory was transferred to Australia in 1955.

“The islanders do have a degree of self-government through the local shire council. Many public services – including health, education, and policing – are provided by the state of Western Australia, and Western Australian law applies except where the federal government has determined otherwise. The territory also uses Western Australian postcodes.” – Wikipedia

The islands are picture-book perfect:

The Cocos Islands are made up of 27 coral islands with only two of the atolls inhabited. Called West Island and Home Island, only about 600 people live there these days. The Cocos Islands are low-lying with the highest elevation being 16ft. These islands are lush with coconut palms and other vegetation. But there is the chance of hurricanes (called cyclones) around the beginning of the year. The Cocos Malays maintain weekend shacks, referred to as pondoks, on most of the other larger islands.

North Keeling Island is a C-shaped atoll. This land almost closes around a lovely lagoon that is about 160ft wide at one end. This island is uninhabited – the area was proclaimed the Pulu Keeling National Park in 1995. It is home to the only surviving population of the endemic, and endangered, Cocos Buff-banded Rail.

A British ship called HMS Beagle arrived in 1836 to take soundings and establish a profile of the islands. Charles Darwin, the naturalist, was on-board. The results of his findings supported a theory he had developed of how atolls formed – later published as The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. He collected specimens, as we know, but one of his assistants noted that “an Englishman and his family of about 60 or 70 mulattos from the Cape of Good Hope, live on one of the islands. Captain (Clunies-)Ross, the governor, is now absent at the Cape.”

In 1901, a telegraph cable station was established on Direction Island. Undersea cables went to Rodrigues, Mauritius, Batavia, Java and Fremantle, Western Australia. In 1910, a wireless station was established to communicate with passing ships. This cable station ceased operation in 1966.

World War I entered this pleasant enclave when a landing party from a German Navy cruiser arrived in 1914.

“On the morning of November 9, 1914, the islands became the site of the Battle of Cocos, one of the first naval battles of World War I.” These Germans captured and disabled the wireless and cable stations, but not before the station was able to transmit a distress call. A passing Allied troop convoy heeded the distress call and a battle ensued between them and the German ship. There were deaths and casualties and German survivors were taken on board the Australian ship, transported to Malta and handed over to the British Army.

World War II also made itself known to these islands where the cable station was once again a vital link. The Cocos were valuable for direction finding by the Y service, the worldwide intelligence system used during the war. Allied planners were worried that the Germans (and the Japanese when they entered the war) would be interested in claiming the islands, but it appears not to have happened.

One night in 1942, a mutiny ensued between members of the garrison from the Ceylon Defense Force – they attempted to take control of the gun battery on the islands. The mutiny was crushed and seven mutineers were sentenced to death, which was later found to have been a trail in haste, and only three of the seven were executed.

Later in the war, two airstrips were built, and three bomber squadrons were moved to the islands to conduct raids against Japanese targets in South East Asia and to provide support during the planned reinvasion of Malaya and re-conquest of Singapore. War ended, and in 1946, the administration of the islands reverted to Singapore. In 1955, the islands were transferred from the United Kingdom to the Commonwealth of Australia.

As this is mostly an Asian island with regard to culture and cuisine, one finds many Malay dishes with many using coconut in all its forms.


Nasi Uduk – Coconut Rice

This dish is eaten as a main and as a side. As a main, one sets the rice in the centre of a serving dish and surrounds it with delicious morsels. Serve this with mei goreng (Asian noodles) on the side.


3 cups Jasmine Rice

3 ½ cups water

½ cup coconut cream

1 stalk lemongrass

1 inch galangal / ginger thinly sliced

4 bay leaves

2 pandan leaves knotted

1 tsp salt


Egg omelette strips made with 4 large eggs beaten

Pinch ground black pepper

¼ tsp salt

1 TBL cooking oil

1 cup dry roasted peanuts

1 cup dried anchovies

2 tsp cooking oil


Wash rice until water runs clear.

Place ingredients, except rice, in a pot and bring to a simmer.

Add rice, stir well.

Cover with a lid; turn the heat to low and cook 5 minutes.


Cover with lid and cook another 5 minutes.

Turn off heat – do not lift the lid.

Sit for 10 minutes.

Cover off and remove all herbs etc.

Fluff the rice with a rice paddle.

Make an omelette with the eggs and salt, and fry in a little oil.

Roll up omelette and cut into strips.

Add anchovies to hot pan with 1 tsp oil; fry until crispy.

Add another tsp oil.

Add peanuts; cook until lightly brown.

Serve warm rice surrounded by a choice of omelette strips, fried egg, sliced cucumber, pan-fried peanuts and anchovies, mei goreng, chicken, krupuk, sambal oelek or anything Asian.

Photo credit: Endeus TV

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