...because life is delicious

Nateea’s Quest

Dec 17, 2018 | Middle grade, Short Story

illustration by Papang Jakfar

“Why doesn’t anyone want my help? Don’t they like me?” Nateea asked. She tried to sit still as she felt the strong but gentle tugging as the Elder braided her hair behind her.

“Don’t focus on them. Just focus on what you can do,” the Elder said, her voice warm. Although Nateea could not see it, she knew that at this moment, the Elder’s eyes were filled with kindness. She never looked at Nateea like she was worthless like the others did. “There is only one you in this world. You are special, remember that,” the Elder soothed.

Nateea’s frown softened and her shoulders relaxed. “But how can I do anything if they don’t give me a chance? I ask if I can help but now they won’t even look at me. I feel so invisible.” Nateea looked at the floor and mumbled.I’d almost rather they make fun of me like they did before… not that I like it.”

“I know you are brave, Nateea. But you’re not very patient. You have to be patient and wait for your chance.”

Nateea’s body slumped with disappointment. “Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” She had always been clumsy and uncoordinated. No matter how hard she tried, she was never good at anything. There was always someone who could do any task faster and better than she could.

Sensing her crestfallen, the old woman turned Nateea around and smiled. “Of course not! Let me tell you a story that will give you hope. There was an old tradition that died out before my mother’s time. She told me that all of our secrets about how we live life came from this practice… Back when our people were lost and had nothing, they sent their hopeful – the children – away from the village and into the wilderness. They believed that nature’s spirits would guide the pure-hearted children through a quest that would bring good things back to the community.” The Elder brushed a stray wisp of hair framing Nateea’s face and tucked it behind her ear.

“And do you know what happened? The children returned from their quests and taught the villagers how to beat bark into cloth for clothes and blankets, how to weave baskets from fibers, how to climb the long slippery trunk of the coconut tree to gather coconuts, and how to fish. It was a miraculous time of growth and happiness for our people.”

Nateea leaned forward in excitement, but the Elder’s eyes quickly saddened.

“But over time, our people became proud and forgot that the blessings came from the spirits. Slowly the children lost the ability to hear the guiding voices of the spirits and they stopped going on quests.” She put a wrinkled hand on Nateea’s head. “But maybe, if you listen very carefully, the spirits will answer your prayers. You are pure of heart.”

Nateea nodded, thoughtful. “Thank you, Elder. I will listen!” she said, her voice renewed with hope. She waved as she exited the dwelling.

The village was bursting with activity. She walked past women and girls weaving baskets and beating bark into cloth. She walked past kids shimmying up and down the coconut trees with their friends to gather coconuts. She walked past other children plucking shellfish from the tide pools along the beach as the fisherman kept a close watch. “Can I help you?” she asked them. But no one looked at her.

Nateea could not bear it anymore. She did not want to sit and wait for a chance. In frustration, she turned and headed away from the village. She walked and walked but no matter how much she quickened her pace, the murky feeling inside did not disperse.

When the wind no longer carried the sounds of the village children’s laughter, she stopped and shut her eyes tightly to listen. She heard birds, leaves rustling, and her own thoughts. She walked some more and stopped every now and then to listen.

Nateea opened her eyes and kicked a rock in disappointment. The surroundings no longer looked familiar but she did not want to go back.

“They won’t even know I’m gone,” she thought. “Except the village elder.”

Tearfully, she called out to the sky. “Please, if someone is out there watching over me, help me…”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gust of wind whipped her coarse wiry hair and ruffled the edges of her patterned cloth skirt wildly like a sail. She turned her back to the wind to brace herself and then she heard a voice.

“Where are you going?” The voice asked.

Something spoke!

“I don’t know.” She replied.

Is the wind talking? Is this a spirit? She wondered to herself as she followed the breeze.

“You don’t know? That’s a very special place to be,” the wind remarked as it playfully twirled a lock of her hair. “I’ve watched your kind for centuries and that is what all the ‘Creators’ say.”

“Creator?” she repeated, looking around her. As the light faded, she could see a faint moon and the silhouette of the looming volcano that protruded into the horizon. “Is a Creator someone who goes on a quest?” she asked.

The wind did not answer. Nateea kept walking and listening. The red dirt road stretched before her until it disappeared into the rainforest. There was nobody else on it. Several hours passed and night fell. Nateea didn’t even notice as she was overjoyed by the encounter.

I finally spoke with a spirit! I have so many questions to ask.

“Hellooooo?” She called out. “Helloooo… Ooo–Oooof!”

In the darkness, she tripped over a fallen log and landed softly, her hands wrist-deep in mud. Above her, broad and glossy heart-shaped leaves shook in the breeze as if giggling at her.

“Very funny,” she muttered. The mud squelched between her toes as she picked herself up. Her stomach growled.

“Huuuungry?” A deep earthy voice came from below her feet. It was not the wind talking.

“Who is it?” she ventured.

The mud beneath her feet spoke. “My name is Omea and I am the spirit of clay. What’s your name?”

Her eyes widened as she stepped back. “My name is Nateea. Sorry for stepping on you.” Her stomach growled again.

Omea gave a bubbling laugh. “I don’t mind. Here, I have something for you. Just dig a little.”

Nateea crouched down and started digging. The soft mud gave away easily and soon she pulled out an oblong vegetable.

“What is this?” she asked.

“Ahh, this is the child of the Sky Father and Earth Mother – the taro. This taro root is the ancestor that gave your people life,” Omea explained.

“Are you sure this is edible?” she wondered, turning the root in her hand. It was as hard as a rock. She could feel fibrous strands wrapped around the root.

“It is fragrant, soft and sweet when cooked. I can teach you how to cook it, if you promise to take me with you. ”

Nateea cocks her head in confusion. “What do you mean? I don’t know where I’m going. Is there somewhere you want to go?”

“You’re on an adventure! Anyone can see that… As for me, I want to go to the volcano. I have been stuck here for decades and I have nurtured enough taro to cover this entire island. It is time for a vacation.”

“The volcano…” Nateea sounded hesitant.

Piles of red mud gathered at her feet. “Take me to see the volcano and I will make sure that you will not go hungry on your journey,” Omea promised.

Nateea smiled. “Thank you. I’m not sure if I can make it up the volcano, but I will try. So… how do I eat this?” she asked, extending the taro to the pile of mud.

“Wonderful!” Omea exclaimed. “Well now… to cook the taro, there are four steps. First, you must widen the hole you just dug and make a fire in it. Second, when the fire becomes embers, you line it with rocks and cover it with leaves. Third, you put in the taro and then cover it with more leaves. Finally, you bury it all in dirt.”

Nateea scrunched her face, skeptical, but followed Omea’s instructions. Omea gave her a couple more taro to cook.

In the morning, as sunlight washed across the land, Nateea unearthed her underground fire pit to reveal a bounty of steaming taro. She grabbed one excitedly and immediately dropped it. “Ooo, hot! Hot!”

“Just in time for breakfast…” Omea yawned.

It was hot, fluffy, soft and slightly sweet. The inside was grayish purple and it smelled like flowers.

“This is delicious!” Nateea remarked in surprise.

“I’m glad you like it,” Omea smiled.

After breakfast, Nateea gathered Omea into a clumsy basket woven from palm leaves and gently lay in the cooked taro.

“Shall we get going?” she asked, shouldering the basket.

“We must hurry,” Omea warned. “I sense a storm coming.”

Nateea cut down a few of the large heart-shaped leaves from the taro plant and carefully rolled and tucked them into her basket. “For the rain…” she said.

The volcano towered before them under grey skies. Slowly, they began their ascent. There was no path and the ground became increasingly rocky as the mountainside grew steeper. Nateea ate another taro for lunch and noted that there were only two left. She doubted that Omea could produce more now that they were far away from the taro field.

As they cleared the tree line, the wind came to visit again.

“Hello again, Creator. I see you’ve made a friend,” the wind crooned.

“Hello! I’m Nateea.” she said.

Omea seemed unpleased with the wind’s presence. “It’s you again. Last I saw you, you were racing with some other young wind spirits and ended up ripping up my taro leaves.” He paused. “But yes, she will be quite the Creator. I can tell. She has a heart of gold.”

Nateea turned to Omea with a quizzical tilt of her head. It was that word again. “What do you mean? Is a Creator someone who goes on a quest?”

“Not all Questers are Creators. But all Creators are Questers,” Omea explained. “Most of the time when Questers set off on their journeys, they have strong feelings about who they want to become – great warriors or healers for example. However, it is usually those Questers who don’t know who they want to be, that bring back something truly special that changes the way their people live… Creators,” Omea explained. “We can sense it in you,” he added.

“The journey will not be easy, my to-be-Creator. Be prepared.” The voice of the wind faded with the words of warning. “… And sorry about those taro leaves, Omea!”

“Don’t mind him. He’s actually one of the younger spirits but likes to talk as if he is the wisest. I’m sure he has good intentions.” Omea consoled.

“O… kay…” Nateea said, unsure of what to make of it all.

However, there was no time for thinking. At that moment, the heavy clouds shed their burdens at once and the rain came down in sheets.

Nateea scrambled for a place to hide. But little vegetation grew up at these heights and there was no cover. The leaves she packed earlier could not protect her from the angle of the rain. The ground was loose and unstable. Nateea winced as sharp pieces of gravel and shale slid under her every step. The wind grew stronger and she leaned into it but could not see from all the water in her eyes.

“Good girl, just put one foot in front of the other,” Omea shouted encouragingly.

Suddenly, the ground beneath her foot sank and the entire section of the volcano started sliding down.

“Oh no…!” Nateea tumbled into the churning rocks that swallowed her legs and arms. The volcano gave one mighty shake and then all was quiet.

Steady raindrops. That was the only thing that Nateea was aware of when she came to.

“Omea?” She called out. There was no answer. She opened her eyes and found herself half buried. Her basket was gone! Her heart thumped wildly in her chest.

Calm down, it’ll be alright. First, we must get out so we can find Omea.

Nateea pushed and pulled, wincing at the stings of pain as she regained feelings in her limbs. She managed to inch the larger boulders off her body and dug herself out of the gravel and sand. The raindrops washed away the dirt immediately to reveal several scrapes and deep cuts on her legs. However, she was more concerned about Omea.

“Omea? Omea?!” She called.

No answer.

She looked around. The landslide had delivered them back into the rainforest again. She searched under the palms and ferns but could not find her basket. She gazed up at the volcano. “Maybe it’s still up there?”

Nateea hiked up. It was getting dark. How long was I unconscious? She wondered.

After a while, she saw a dot of green among the grey rocks ahead. It was her basket! Panting, but hopeful, she ran forward, calling out Omea’s name between breaths.

“Omea?… Omea?!”

As she neared the basket, she could tell it got crushed. There was no sign of Omea. All that was left were the two cooked taro smashed in a heap on a flat slab of rock.

Nateea crumpled to her knees before the slab and tried to gather the mash with her fingertips. Her tears combined with the rain dripped down her chin and into the mash, turning it into a gooey paste.

“It’s ruined. Everything’s ruined,” she sobbed. Nateea curled into a ball and buried her face in her knees as hot tears burned. Is Omea still alive? Did I fail the spirits?

For the first time since she started her journey, she felt the old pangs of loneliness and emptiness in the space where she had finally felt hope.

By the time she had cried her fill, the rain had stopped and the sky was red. Nateea rescued the two heart-shaped taro leaves from her basket and unrolled them. She sat there looking at her crushed basket, taro paste and taro leaves. “The Elder believed in me. Omea believed in me. They said I was a Creator.” she whispered to herself. “I must finish the quest.”

At that moment, an idea came to her and she sprung into action. She curled one leaf into a cone and scooped as much of the taro paste as she could into it, knowing it may be her only meal for a while. The other leaf she shredded into strips to fix her basket.

When the daylight was gone, she nudged herself between a couple of large boulders and gazed at the milky way until she fell asleep.

“Nateea… Nateea.”

Is someone calling me? Nateea turned in her sleep.

“Nateea!”

She opened her eyes. There was a watery puddle of red mud before her. “Omea? Omea! Is that you?!” she exclaimed.

“I’m sorry to have worried you. I got smashed in the landslide and then washed away by the rain. It took all night to collect myself and come find you.” Looking at Nateea’s teary confused expression, Omea continued. “Unlike the wind spirit that can jump from breeze to breeze, my spirit is tied to this clay because I got attached to the taro field and stayed in it for too long.”

“Oh, I’m just glad you’re alive.” Nateea breathed a sigh of relief. She was so grateful that if she could hug a puddle, she would. Instead, she reached a hand down and lay it gently on the surface of the puddle. She noticed that there were red mud smears on the cuts on her arms and legs.

“I’m a bit moist, but I’m here,” Omea reassured. “And I took the liberty of tending to your cuts. Once the mud dries off, your cuts will be healed.”

“Amazing… But will you be okay?” she asked worriedly. 

“It may take me a day to be dry enough to sit in your basket again, but we will be able to continue our journey soon,” Omea assured.

Nateea showed him her cone of taro paste. “I tried to save what was left.”

Omea rippled with joy. “My, look at that! I’ve never seen it that way before.”

“I can still eat it, I think… “ Nateea dipped in two fingers and scooped some of the gloop into her mouth. “It’s… good, actually. Less dry and easier to swallow.”

“Interesting. Very creative! Well, try to make that last for a day or two. I will keep my promise of not letting you go hungry. However, I’ve had quite the night and will need to rest.”

Omea did not speak for the rest of the day. The mud on her wounds dried off and her cuts were healed just as he said. The red puddle that was Omea, developed a thick, smooth surface as it started to dry out. She poked it out of curiosity and it left an indent the shape of her finger. She tried to fill it in but ended up making more marks and the smooth surface just became more pocketed. Embarrassed, Nateea gave up and stood guard over the puddle instead. She spent her time pondering about the top of the volcano and she ate her taro paste sparingly. She noticed that the paste started to take on a slightly sour taste, but it was refreshing and still delicious.

On the second day, Omea woke. He gathered into a pile at her feet. “Nateea! Are you ready? We need to make up for lost ground.” He made no mention of the holes and marks that Nateea accidentally made.

Nateea smiled, glad that it was overlooked. “Never more ready!”

“Good! That’s what I like to hear. But first, we must go back down the mountain so we can dig a fire pit.” Omea revealed four more raw taro roots.

Nateea marveled at the spirit’s power as she took the taro and put them in her basket.

After they had descended to make a fire pit and cook the taro, Nateea pounded the cooked taro into a mash and added river water to make it a paste. She liked the taste and texture better that way. However, the leaf cone was too small to hold the amount that she made. Once again, she sat and stared at the taro paste, leaf cone, and Omea… and thought.

“What are you planning to do?” Omea asked.

Honestly, she was thinking about how much fun it was poking holes in Omea when he was asleep. She swallowed a giggle. Then an idea struck her.

“Omea, do you mind if I… shaped you?” She asked nervously. “I was thinking, maybe you could hold the paste… if you don’t mind.”

“Hmm, I’ve never been shaped before. But if it will help you, I will gladly let you try,” Omea said.

“Thank you. Umm, maybe I can try when you’re asleep?” she asked. It seemed like it would be rather awkward to try when he was awake.

“Of course,” Omea chuckled.

So when Omea was asleep, Nateea added river water until he became malleable and then set to work. At first, she pretended he was a large taro leaf and rolled him into a cone shape. But the top was too wide and the paste spilled out easily. Next, she rolled him into a large ball and then stuck her fist into the middle to create a deep pit. Then she widened the bottom and lengthened the edges and pressed them in so that it created a narrow opening that the paste could not easily spill out of. Pleased with her experiment, she set him aside.

“Well this is fascinating,” Omea remarked when he woke. “I must tell you that I won’t be able to produce raw taro when shaped like this, but I suppose you won’t need more if you have this paste that I’m holding.”

“It was kind of fun,” Nateea admitted. She wondered what other things she could shape him into but decided not to ask. “Shall we continue up?”

“Yes, let’s!”

To avoid the risk of more landslides, they decided not to go straight up and took a roundabout path instead to gradually ascend. It would take another two days but it would be safer. Each day, when Nateea ran out of taro paste, Omea would return to his original form and produce more raw taro. Then Nateea would cook it and make it into paste and shape Omea back into a jar to hold the paste. Every time she reshaped Omea, her skills improved.

Soon they made their way beyond the rainforest again and into the rocky terrain. An old lava field lay before them. This meant no more rivers and no more digging underground fire pits. Nateea’s taro paste would need to last until they got to the top.

Nateea craned her neck to look up at the sky. “After that big rainstorm, we have not had a single drop of rain.” She worriedly inspected newly formed cracks on Omea. She wrapped pieces of taro leaf around him to try to keep moisture from escaping.

“Thank you, Nateea. If I dry up and become dust, my spirit will pass on and I will no longer be able to speak with you,” Omea warned.

“Maybe, if we go around the volcano, we can find a waterfall?” Nateea offered.

“But if we don’t find one, I may not make it. I’d rather us go straight to the top from here. Also, your taro paste won’t last much longer,” Omea reminded.

Nateea nodded. “We will get there.” I promised I would get him to the top and I will do whatever it takes. She swore to herself.

As they ascended, the air around them grew warmer. Even some of the stones were warm to the touch. Gusts of wind appeared without warning and threw them off balance. Pieces of Omea started to break off. They both spoke less as they focused their energy on progressing upwards. At the end of the day, they collapsed in exhaustion but were all smiles. She was out of taro paste, but they made great progress.

“Tomorrow,” Nateea gasped. “We’ll be there.”

“Tomorrow,” Omea responded weakly. “I must sleep now…”

Nateea lay down next to Omea as he slept, worried that he sounded so weak. Another idea came to her. She sat up. Quickly, Nateea bit her finger. She winced at the pain but squeezed drops of blood onto Omea’s cracks. She thought about using her saliva but quickly dismissed it in fear of being disrespectful. If Omea found out, she would be too embarrassed to face him.

The moisture from her blood allowed Nateea to pinch the cracks together and smooth Omea’s surface. Luckily the red blood dried to a reddish brown that, more or less, matched the color of Omea’s original red mud. Relieved, but a bit light-headed, she wrapped her arms around Omea and went to sleep.

The next day Omea woke in good spirits. “Nateea, wake up! I don’t know why but I feel much better now. Let’s go get that summit!”

Nateea feigned ignorance. “Oh really? That’s great! Maybe it’s moisture from some of the weird vents of hot smelly air we’ve been seeing?”

“Maybe… but I have the feeling that we’ll reach the top today.”

“Me too.”

Nateea grabbed Omea, put him in her basket and set off at a brisk pace. At midday, they reached the top of the volcano and stood by the edge of the crater.

“We’re finally here!” They cheered. Nateea could see the shape of the island in the ocean below her. It was much smaller than she thought. There was so much to take in that her head spun. She sat down quickly. For minutes, the pair just soaked in the view, the sky, the blues and greens, with not a word exchanged between them.

Finally, Omea spoke. “Nateea, will you do me a favor?”

“Yes, of course, my friend. Anything.” She smiled, exuberant and giddy.

“Please hold me over the crater. I want a good look.”

“Okay, but be careful.” She leaned over the edge with her arms extended, holding Omea. “Hurry, I can’t hold this pose forever,” she pleaded in a strained voice.

Omea gazed quietly down into the dark interior. “Perfect. Now…” He looked back at her seriously. “… Let me go.”

Nateea stopped breathing and pulled her arms back. “What?! What do you mean? Have you gone mad?”

“It is time for me to return to the heavens. This is the reason for my journey. I wanted to tell you, but could never find the right time.” Omea continued. “Spirits last a long time but not forever, and my time is up. Having been part of the earth for so long, I wanted to be returned to the place of creation…” He smiled at her. “… And by the hands of a Creator.”

“No, no, no. You can’t mean that. After all we’ve been through together?! I wanted to introduce you to my village and have more adventures with you. Please don’t leave me,” she choked.

“I have to go to be reborn into a different time and place, and perhaps as a different kind of spirit. But unfortunately, I will not have my memories from this lifetime.”

“No, Omea… You can’t leave me. Please…You’re my dear friend… My only friend.” She blinked back tears.

“I know it’s hard. But this is my last request of you. I would not want to go any other way. Nateea… Thank you for taking me on my first and last journey.”

Nateea fell down on her knees and brought him close to her chest. She held him for a long time. Finally, she extended him over the crater once more. They looked at each other.

“Goodbye, Nateea. Congratulations on making it this far. I am so proud of you.” Omea patted her hand. “Now… let me go. You can do this.”

Nateea’s fingers trembled as she forced herself to loosen her grip. Her parting words got stuck in her throat and all that came out was a gurgle.

Suddenly, Omea transformed into a pile of dirt and started slipping through her fingers. She clenched her fist to stop it, but it was too late. A red streak. And then nothing.

Tears pricked her wide eyes as she stared into the black pit. Her words finally unlodged themselves in a ragged sob.

“Bye…”

Nateea held her hands out before her in disbelief.

He’s gone. Really gone. Just like that.

She slumped against the edge of the crater with her head in her hands. Not long ago she was standing, victoriously overlooking the island and feeling invincible, and now she felt utterly vulnerable and so alone. Hours passed.

At some point, the wind came to visit again. “What happened?” he asked her.

“I don’t know. He’s gone. Omea is gone.” Nateea mumbled. She stared at the blurry crater through puffy eyes.

The wind howled in sorrow and his moans echoed down the crater. “Omeeeaa!”

Just then, something shot out of the crater and landed in Nateea’s outstretched hands. It was hot! She recoiled instinctively. A smoking round shape landed in her lap. It was unlike anything Nateea had ever seen or felt. It was a delicate shade of blue-green with a crackled surface pattern, but it was shiny and smooth to the touch. The other side of the round shape was caved in. It reminded her of the cone shape she made with Omea but with a flatter bottom and rounded sides. She tapped the sides with a fingernail.

Ting, Tiiiing. A sound reverberated. In that sound she heard a voice.

“I am the Great Spirit. Omea has told me of your journey together. As a reward for your creativity, I give you this fired clay as a token to remember Omea by. You will be able to converse with him through this bowl for only the next few hours. It is my gift to your friendship.”

Nateea nodded, speechless and grateful. Soon, she heard Omea’s voice.

“Nateea, it’s me! Omea! The Great Spirit said I am no longer pure earth for some reason and because of this it will take longer for me to pass through the spirit realm… but the Great Spirit will let me stay with you for a few hours like this.”

The wind gushed. “Oooohh! Omea, you turned colors. I bet it’s because the girl used her blood to mend your cracks while you were sleeping.”

Omea shimmered. “Nateea, is that true? You used your blood to heal me?”

Nateea touched Omea gingerly. He was warm. “Y… yes. I’m sorry, I didn’t know what else to do. There was no water and we ran out of taro paste. Now I have delayed your return to the heavens and changed your colors.” She bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m truly… good for nothing.”

“No… no! You’ve made a miracle, Nateea. I love this beautiful new color and shape.”

“Really?” Nateea asked.

“Really.” Omea replied.

Nateea wrapped her arms around Omea and rested her forehead on the rim. “I’m glad you’re back for a little longer.” She smiled.

The wind quietly watched them and then retreated back into the skies. Just then, in the stillness, it started to rain. Nateea watched with wonder as the rainwater gradually filled in Omea.

“Wow.” She breathed. “Look how much water you can hold now.”

“Here, have a drink.” Omea offered.

“Ohh!” Nateea brightened. “Thank you!” She tilted the bowl to her lips and drank fully and deeply. She felt her exhaustion rinse away. As the last drop fell from the bowl to her tongue, she sensed her own spirit as more centered, confident, yet light-hearted. She understood what is was that she was going to bring back to the village.

“Thank you.” She whispered. “By the way, I just got an idea. But…I guess you won’t be around to see it.”

“Even after I pass, a part of me will always be watching you through this bowl.” Omea said.

Nateea smiled. “Then I’m going to show you something incredible.”

And she did.

When Nateea got back to the village, the Elder welcomed her with a tearful embrace as others crowded around in curiosity. For the first time, everyone’s attention was on her as she told her story. Their eyes brightened with excitement and wonder. Many came to apologize for how they’ve treated her.

Over the next few months, Nateea taught the villagers to mold clay into shapes and bake them in fire to create pottery. They created pottery tools and made many shapes of bowls, dishes, jars, cups and pots. She also taught the warriors how to cook the taro in the pots, and make taro paste so they could bring it for long journeys. The pottery and the taro forever changed the way they cooked and ate. 

As Nateea grew into a woman, she became one of the most important contributors to the village. Even as her hair turned silver with age, there was always someone outside her hut with a request for her to make something.

Decades later, Nateea, now an old woman, picked up her carving knife.

“What do you want to be?” she asked the block of clay before her.

“I don’t know,” it replied.

“Ahh,” she smiled. “An old acquaintance once told me that ‘don’t know’ is a very special place to be.” She leaned back and her eyes grew distant as she thought about her adolescent journey. “Without the unknown, there would be no hope, no imagination, no miracles, no surprises and no creation. It’s what keeps us going.”

She turned to a blue green bowl on a shelf beside her and smiled.

“Isn’t that right, Omea?”

Taro Mochi

makes about 20 mochi balls

prep time: 1 hour
cook time: 30 minutes
total time: 1 hour 30 minutes

ingredients

blueberry “dye”

1/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

1/4 cup water

 

taro root filling

16 oz taro root, peeled and cleaned

3 cups water (for steaming)

2 tbsp sugar

pinch of salt

3 tbsp blueberry “dye”

 

mochi dough

1 ¼ cup mochiko flour

¼ cup sugar

1 can coconut milk

2 tbsp water

¼ cup Potato starch (for dusting hands and working surface)

½ cup shredded coconut, unsweetened (for coating)

ingredients

blueberry “dye”

1/4 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

1/4 cup water

 

taro root filling

16 oz taro root, peeled and cleaned

3 cups water (for steaming)

2 tbsp sugar

pinch of salt

3 tbsp blueberry “dye”

 

mochi dough

1 ¼ cup mochiko flour

¼ cup sugar

1 can coconut milk

2 tbsp water

¼ cup Potato starch (for dusting hands and working surface)

½ cup shredded coconut, unsweetened (for coating)

instructions

To make the Blueberry “Dye”

Add the blueberries and water to a small saucepan over medium heat.

Bring to a boil, then give the berries a good mash; turn the heat down slightly and simmer (uncovered) for 2-5 minutes or until liquid thickens. Turn the heat off and steep for 5 minutes.

Strain the berries, reserving the liquid. Cool the liquid completely before using. You should get about 4 tablespoons of “dye”.

 

To make the Taro Root Filling

Cut the taro root into slices (at least 1 inch thick).

Lay slices on a steaming rack in a medium pot and add 3 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot again to steam for 15 minutes or until the taro root is easily pierced through and breaks apart.

Using a potato masher, mash the taro root until smooth and creamy, approximately 1 minute. Transfer to a large non-stick pan.

Add the sugar and salt and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar dissolves evenly and the taro root becomes creamier, approximately 10 minutes.

Turn off the heat. Add the blueberry dye and mix together well. 3 tablespoons of dye should give it a mellow purple color while 4 tablespoons will make it more purple.

Once the taro is cool to the touch, roll the taro into 1.5 inch balls (should make about 20) and lay on a cookie sheet or cutting board.

Cover with plastic wrap.

 

To make the Mochi Dough

In a large bowl, whisk together the mochiko flour, coconut milk, water, and sugar until smooth.

Pour ½ cup of the mixture into a smaller microwaveable bowl and microwave on high for 1.5 minutes. The dough should appear solid as one smooth mass and should hold its shape when pinched together.

Sprinkle potato starch on your hands and the working surface. Scoop a spoonful of the microwaved dough into the palm of your hand. Use caution as the dough can be hot, so let it cool a bit until comfortable to handle. Roll the dough into a ball in your hands, then place on your working surface.

Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out until it is an approximately ¼ inch thick flat disk about 3 inches in diameter.

Take a pre-rolled taro ball and place it in the center of the rolled-out dough piece. Use your fingers to evenly stretch the mochi dough up and around the filling without squishing it, pinching the dough shut at the top to seal it, and then gently rolling the mochi between your hands to form a rounded shape. Roll the ball into a bowl of shredded coconut to coat.

If you find the mochi is too dry from the potato starch for the coconut to stick, you can moisten it with a bit of water before rolling it in the shredded coconut.

Pour another ½ cup of mixture of dough into a small microwaveable bowl and microwave on high for 1.5 minutes. Repeat this process (about 4-5 times) until all of the taro mochi have been made.

Set the mochi balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet with the seam on the bottom. Eat the filled mochi the day they’re made, or cover and store in the refrigerator for up to a day.

Author’s Notes

In the kitchen
If you’re feeling festive, you can make your own natural dyes to color the mochi dough, too. I used blueberries to add purple color to the taro filling, but you can also color the dough itself purple as well. Below are some ideas:

  • Red: beets, pomegranate molasses, cranberries
  • Pink: raspberries, strawberries, cherries, hibiscus, rose
  • Orange: carrot juice
  • Yellow: turmeric
  • Green: spinach, matcha powder
  • Blue: butterfly pea tea
  • Purple: blueberries or blackberries
  • Brown: tea, coffee, cocoa powder

In the classroom
The story is inspired by an ancient Pacific culture called Lapita that is known for its pottery and believed to be a common ancestor of contemporary Polynesian culture. Nateea’s Quest borrows elements from both Samoan and Hawaiian cultures. For example, while archaeological records indicate that early Polynesians created pottery in the Western Pacific (like the Samoan Islands), the Hawaiians do not have a ceramic tradition. Ancient Hawaiians were unable to produce ceramic pieces because the Hawaiian Islands were too young to have developed the proper clay for ceramic work. Instead, the Hawaiians worked in wood and stone to create functional and artistic pieces.

Although the ancient Hawaiians were unable to produce ceramic pieces they had a deep respect for the volcanic forces that shaped Hawaii. The Hawaiians recognized Pele, the goddess of fire that dwelled within the volcanoes, as the creative source that gave birth to the islands.

Interesting fact: Iron turns ceramics blue-green under hot fire, so I imagined that the iron in Nateea’s blood mixed with the iron in the clay after being fired by the volcano’s core, would turn Omea from reddish brown to a blue-green color.

Regarding Taro, while both ancient Samoan and Hawaiian cultures ate them as a staple in their diet, only the Hawaiians pounded taro into paste (called Poi). Samoans ate taro unaltered, simply boiled or baked in an earth oven. The Samoan version of Poi is actually mashed banana with coconut milk.

The main character is named after Natia [nah TEE ah] – which in the Samoan language, means ‘hidden’… as in a hidden treasure or secret. I chose this as her name because some assume that only the talented or those who know what they want to be (doctor, engineer, etc) can make worthwhile contributions to society. But at the end she realizes that her gift had been hidden within her all along – her creativity and ideas.

In life
I wrote this story for my sister’s birthday. She loves tropical islands, pottery, mochi, and Moana. Fun fact: The ceramic plate in the photo was made by her! This is also my first vegan and gluten-free dessert. It has a much lower amount of sugar than in the typical red bean mochi desserts from Japan so feel free to eat more than one!