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A lovo banquet

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, April 08, 2012

Happy Easter Sunday to all, and an extra special bula to all those affected by the recent floods.

We have all been touched by stories of hardship, perseverance, devastation and hope, but I have especially been inspired by the Fijian ability to smile and rise above the occasion to lend a helping hand to a complete stranger in time of need. Today's story on the lovo will hopefully take everyone away for a few moments on a journey through history and back, as many families prepare their special Easter banquets for tonight's dinner.

Throughout history, many old cultures used a cooking pit, or earth oven, to cook large quantities of food but especially for festive celebrations. Before metal and wire was introduced by European colonization, this ancient and ingenious cooking technique was used to trap heat and bake, smoke, or steam food by nearly all the South Pacific countries influenced by the early Polynesian explorers. The Hawaiian's have the kalua, Samoans the umu, the Maori h?ngi, the Papua New Guinean mumu, the Rotuman koua and of course the Fijian lovo. On the other side of the world, the native American Indians invented the clambake, the Moroccan tandir, the Chilean curanto and the Peruvian pachamanca. Almost all these ancient earth ovens use firewood to heat the stones, then food is wrapped in native leaves then covered with more wet leaves or cloth to create a steam bake process. The native American clambake was traditionally dug on the beach, in the sand, with rocks covered with seaweed to retain moisture and add more ocean flavour to the clams and seafood.

I've enjoyed lovo's across the Fiji islands and have had just as many good and bad foods cooked in the earth oven. For me, a good lovo oven needs to start with a clean pit, good river stones that retain heat, banana leaves that add to the steaming process and dry quality wood that imparts a unique smokey flavour. The next important factor is how you marinate the meats before you bury them. As Fijian's add more salt, chilli and lemon at the table, most lovo meats are simply wrapped in banana leaves then thrown into the pit. But if you are trying to cut down on your salt intake and you want the meat to taste better, rub it with a small amount of salt and your favourite herbs before it goes into the lovo, rather than adding salt after it's cooked.

The lovo banquet of today is also filled with delicious tasting delights like the Samoan-influenced palusami, rou rou spinach soup, the ceviche-like fish kokoda, the organic green vegetables of otta bush ferns, baba taro stems, nama sea grapes and of course the coconut-infused desserts like vudi vakalolo and qalu cassava vakasoso. But I was recently challenged to come up with a high-end, fine dining version of the lovo banquet for a Tourism Fiji Australia dinner. The guests, all travel journalists for some of Australia's biggest selling newspapers and magazines, wanted to experience Fijian cuisine but not necessarily another lovo. Most foreigners, especially our Asian tourists, aren't that excited about lovo, as they find it overcooked and too smokey for their delicate palates, as they prefer meats more underdone or just-cooked with subtle flavours. No one in the journalist's group had ever experienced the traditional Fijian cuisine in a fine-dining setting, so I was challenged to capture the essence and flavour of the lovo in an exclusive degustation menu. Getting out my best chinaware, the first course was an explosion of Fijian culture with four different types of kokoda presented in a coconut-weaved lalakai basket alongside a Fijian cannibal fork. With a combination of ginger and orange lobster kokoda, walu and lemon kokoda, a wai tom tom of smoked fish in seawater, and a prawn, basil and chilli ceviche - this appetiser just screamed Fiji. I wanted to somehow get a palusami

into the second course, so decided to use the Vanua Levu version of waci poke to capture the unique flavour of rou rou in coconut milk. Each waci poke sat inside a miniature handcarved tanoa, which my Lau woodcarvers had stayed up until 4am to make, giving the guests both a taste and history lesson in Fijian woodcraft. A main course of Ika Vakalolo and lovo pork cutlet was completely unrecognisable but still retained the wonderful flavours of these perfectly balanced Fijian dishes. The final dessert captured the attention of the diners as soon as each plate was placed in front of them. You know a dish is well received when the customer gets out their camera to take plenty of photos. The trio of Fiji's most famous desserts included Vudi Vakalolo with bu glass jelly, Qala Vakasoso with coconut pudding and a clear caramel consomm, finished with a wafer of vara, or coconut flower, topped with a salsa of fruits with Fijian vanilla bean and organic lemon thyme. So, who says the Fijian lovo has to be a mass cook-up of overcooked foods. With a little imagination and lots

of creativity, there's no reason why Fiji's traditional foods cannot be served in any of the world's top fine dining restaurants.

Finally, I have a intriguing piece of lovo history to share with readers. While most of the old cultures used the earth oven for whole animals like pigs and goats, the early Fijian chiefs who practised cannibalism on their enemies, also used the lovo to cook their spoils of war. In the book Fijian Medicinal Plants, authors Cambie and Ash describe how the man-meat was wrapped in the lobed green leaves of the

Borodina bush shrub, or sou bakola (Solanum uporo), which is now known to contain alkaloids that aid in digesting foods. How eery is that bakola in Fijian also means "enemy destined for sacrifice and consumption", and how this shrub with its white flowers

and red fruit can be found near chiefly villages today. And similar to how miti is eaten with roasted fish in Fiji, cannibal chiefs like Udre Udre ate their spoils with a chutney made from the tomato-like berry of the same plant. So if you ever

wondered how he ate between 872 and 999 of his enemies, and even more bizarre, why he is today the world's most prolific cannibal, as listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (2003, p143) - he must have had a very creative and botanically-knowledgeable chef!

* Join the over 5 million people from around the world who now follow Chef Seeto's Fijian Food Safari Facebook page

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