When I originally left Australia to work on one of Fiji’s iconic island resorts, I thought I’d be here for no more than 12 months. Train the locals, install new menus, sample the local cuisine and move on to the next assignment – probably to a more food-oriented Asia, as Fiji has never been known as a culinary hotspot. I really did not intend on getting so absorbed by an ancient culture or be so fascinated by their fresh foods and wild diet. We have plenty of world-class produce back home in Australia, but I quickly learned that Fiji’s culinary delights were unlike anything we have seen in Western kitchens for many decades. The local produce is majority organic, has not been genetically-modified, and the fresh food tastes like it used to in years gone by for people living outside Fiji. Fijian’s are surrounded by this abundance of unadulterated food fresh from the sea, the land and its rivers. Its mineral-enriched soil from its volcanic landscape provides for fertile ground that is the envy of the world, and with minimal commercial fishing, its oceans still provide an abundance of wild fish for both the local market.
The other incredible contrast with the West is that there is virtually no food allergies here in Fiji. Unlike the growing health epidemic across the world, most Fijians can eat everything and anything. The native Fijians are descendants of a different lineage of hominoids to Caucasians, and so their unique genome excludes the key genes that trigger Coeliac Disease and other food related allergies, caused in part by the genetic and synthetic changes in the food chain. So it was with little wonder that when I arrived in Fiji, most of the local cooks had no understanding of why tourists ask for gluten-free meals. And beware of MSG, or monosodium glutamate in your Fijian food. Banned in most countries because of its link to asthma and breathing difficulties, MSG is affectionately called “Chinese Salt” here, and used by the handfuls by local cooks to enhance flavour. I am highly sensitive to MSG, but the Fijian heavy handedness with MSG is quite common as their traditional cooking lacks the use of herbs or infusions to create depth of flavour.
I have been very fortunate to gain a cultural experience beyond what many tourists or foreign workers in this country are able to realise. The Paramount Chief of the Mamanuca Group of Islands, the home to many of Fiji’s top island resorts, has seconded me as his cultural ambassador to educate tourists on his ancestral traditions and history, and to share modern experiences with his people. Not since the pre-colonial days of Fiji has a foreigner become so close to a Fijian chief, and for that I am eternally humbled and grateful, as it has allowed me to understand and capture the essence of their food and culture in my modern interpretations of their cuisine. Watching how the women in the villages prepare their tradition foods, with recipes passed for generations, is like experiencing an ancient culture right before my eyes. But the recipes are basic and limited. Without the same level of food history, culinary influence or exposure to food in the media as other cultures, Fijian cuisine has essentially remained unchanged for many decades.
Through my weekly food column in the country’s biggest selling newspaper, I’ve had the unique opportunity to teach a nation new ways to cook their local produce at home. I recently returned from a Fijian Food Safari of the outer islands, visiting villages in the middle of dense rainforests and on distant islands, and was shocked they would even know or care who I was. “You’re that chef in the newspaper! We cut your stories and recipes out every Sunday!”. So how gratifying and personally rewarding it is for me to share my knowledge with a people who have taught me about humanity, respect and how to be happy.
Whilst traditional Fijian cuisine in the villages is simple, it is refreshingly organic and fresh. The humble coconut, or the Tree of Life as it is known throughout the South Pacific, is dominant across Fijian dishes. Coconut oil is squeezed out from grated coconuts and infused with water to produce a creamy milk that cannot be compared to tinned coconut milk. Lolo, or coconut milk, is used as a poaching liquid, salad dressings and in a lot of Fijian desserts. It is the basis of miti, an accompaniment to fish, chicken and vegetables, with onions, tomatoes, chilli, lemon and salt added to create a silky coconut salsa. On my Food Safari tour of Savusavu in Fiji’s north, I adapted the miti for a new Kokoda salad I was serving for a VIP dinner presentation. Kokoda is the classic Fijian salad of citrus-cured walu mackerel mixed with miti, and similar to a ceviche. I wanted to use the sweet slipper lobsters and clamshells I bought from the local market, and so added freshly squeezed wild ginger and local oranges to the miti to give the dish a subtle heat and citrus tones. The local cook had never seen this done, and when her eyes lit up after trying it, I knew I had kept the essence of the dish without destroying tradition. But another classic Fijian fish dish recipe I have not changed is Ika Vakalolo, pan fried fish poached in miti. The flavours and balance in this tradition dish are perfect for me, and it is a dish loved by young and old in every Fijian home and roadside cafe.
Many foreign chefs make the mistake of trying to reinvent Fijian food, but there is nothing wrong with the culinary wheel here. The basic flavours and techniques are there, you simply have to add some shine and flair without losing the essence of the dish. The challenge for Fiji’s resorts is to balance the expectation of a good steak or seafood platter, with the adventurous palate of the gourmet traveller who is looking for a culinary experience of the culture as well. Fiji is on the precipice of embracing food tourism, but tourists don’t necessarily want the same food they can get back at home. Singapore has its signature chilli crab, Hong Kong has its dim sum and Europe is steeped in the classics, but with more advanced training of the local cooks, Fiji can one day hold its own in the region as a culinary hotspot for organic, tropical island cuisine.