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The Indonesia connection

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, April 15, 2012

When I started my Fijian Food Safari in February, I knew the stories and regional foods would capture the imagination of Fiji's traditional tourist markets like Australia, New Zealand and the USA, as well as the newer BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China. But what has been a complete surprise is the enormous interest from countries that Air Pacific and other airlines do not fly to.

Now reaching almost 8 million friends of fans on the Facebook page, fans as far away as Saudi Arabia, France, Greece, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, are fascinated by the Fijian lifestyle, fresh foods and culture. But what is even more surprising is that nearly half of this audience comes from the predominately Muslim countries of Egypt and Indonesia. While this might seem unusual at first, a closer look at both these country's recent history reveals some of the reasons why the Fijian lifestyle is resonating and appealing so much with their younger generation. With a population of over 82 million, the average age in Egypt is 24 and 90% are Muslim. The young Egyptians are extremely internet savvy, using Facebook and other social networks to help overthrow its aging regime last year to demand a change in their lifestyle, government and place in the world. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country with a population of over 238 million people spread out along an archipelago of 17,508 islands along the equator of South East Asia, and like Egypt, it also has a young population with an average age of 27. Living in a post 9/11 world, the divide and mistrust between Muslims and Christians has not been so polarised since the time of the 11th century Crusade against Muslims, especially in the United States and the Arab countries. So it is not surprising that young Indonesians and Egyptians are in search of a better way of life, and an alternative to the seemingly anti-Muslim, pro-Western or American lifestyle. Is the Fijian way of tolerance, respect and kindness starting to appeal to a whole new generation of young Muslims around the world who feel disenfranchised from their own way of life and future? Does Fiji hold some of the answers to taking the best of Western civilization, without compromising its ancient cultural past?

The Indonesian connection to native Fijians also runs much deeper than through Facebook - there is an ancestral and genetic link. Up until very recently, not a lot was scientifically known about the origins of the native Fijian people, despite the myths and legends of creation and the Great Chief Lutunasobasoba . Most scholars agree that the early Austronesian people probably settled in the Fiji islands some 3500 years ago from a Polynesian race who originally left their homelands thousands of years ago from South East Asia. But in an amazing feat of 21st century technology, evolutionary geneticist at Harvard Medical School, Professor David Reich, and molecular anthropologist Professor Mark Stoneking at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, used state-of-the-art genome analysis to confirm that present-day Melanesians and Polynesians, share similar DNA to those living in South East Asia, including those in Indonesia - one the most ancient cradles of civilization, where archaeological fossils and specimens have been found dating back some 1.5 million years ago. The team of scientists confirmed that this early race of travellers must have roamed widely, as they left a genetic footprint not only in present-day Melanesia, but also Borneo, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Polynesia and Indonesia.

Indonesian cuisine is much more diverse than Fiji, with the indigenous techniques and ingredients influenced by historical trade with India, the Middle East, China, and Europe, due to its geographical location, natural resources and different cultures. The Indonesian islands were called "the Spice Islands", with the Spanish and Portuguese traders contributing to the introduction of native spices, such as cloves and nutmeg, to Indonesian cuisine. Unlike Fiji's early isolation from the New World because of distance and shipwreck-prone reefs, the diversity of Indonesian regional cuisine is an incredible celebration of its trading history and proximity to other South East Asian cultures. Sumatra, in Western Indonesia, has Middle Eastern and Indian influences like curries, while Javanese cuisine is more indigenous and Eastern Indonesia has Polynesian and Melanesian influences of yams and sago.

And in a similar way to Fiji, the Chinese influence on the cuisine is also apparent with rice and noodles dishes appearing across the wide selection of regional dishes.

And there are many more similarities between Indonesian and Fijian cuisine, with many parts of the country choosing to still eat with their hands, washing afterwards in a bowl of water with a slice of lime to give it a fresh scent. A nice touch and contrast to the Fijian way of washing your hands and mouth at a common sink! And like traditional Fijian foods in villages, Indonesian home cooking is also freshly made and eaten daily with little or no processed, canned or preserved foods, which means they consume foods with minimal amounts of disease-causing preservatives and chemicals. Most ingredients are bought fresh early in the morning from local markets, cooked around late morning and consumed mainly for lunch.

So this weekend I thought I'd share one of my favourite Indonesian dishes, the rendang curry. Rendang is a "dry" meat curry that originated in the Padang cuisine of west-central Sumatra and has less gravy than a traditional wet curry.

It has become popular throughout the Indonesian archipelago, as well as in Malaysia and Singapore, and is an intensely aromatic dish that features lemongrass, tamarind and coconut - perfectly adapted for Fiji. It is traditionally cooked with beef, but you can substitute any meat in this recipe to experience the rich, toasted coconut flavour and taste of this dish, and adds another style of dry curry to the Fijian kitchen. The fresh turmeric and leaves can be found at the local markets, with the galangal ginger and kaffir lime leaves available at most Chinese stores like Yon Tong in Suva.

Australian traveller's to Bali and the Indonesian islands always comment about the similarities of the gentleness and kindness of both the Indonesian and Fijian people, and genetically, now we know why. How exciting that present day Indonesians are so curious about how their distant cousins are now living, tuning into the Fijian lifestyle, religious tolerance, ancient culture, exotic location and fresh organic foods, by the thousands each day through the internet and social media networks.

The message that Fiji is how the world should really be is beginning to strike a chord with those countries like Indonesia and Egypt, whose younger populations are now in search of other ways they could be living. Every Fijian should be proud. The student in a globalized world, is becoming the teacher of life to a whole new generation.

* Join the millions of people tuning into Chef Seeto's Fijian Food Safari on Facebook each week.

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