What I have always found fascinating about cooking in Fiji is the potential to create a truly unique Fijian cuisine that is unlike anywhere else in the world. In addition to the wonderfully fresh produce this country is blessed with, Fiji has something else that is not found anywhere in the world. A rich blend of culture and food from three old-world civilizations - the iTaukei Polynesian/Melanesians, Indians and Chinese. Each of these cultures has brought their own foods from Motherlands across the oceans, with the Polynesian love of lovo, coconut, root crops and leaf-wrapped foods; the spiced Indian cuisine of curry and roti from the subcontinent, and the Chinese delicacies of chop suey, chow mien and stir fry from the far east. This unique mix of native tropical foods and Far Eastern cuisine paves the way for creative chefs to use their imaginations and to experiment with cross infusions of all these flavours into a single new cuisine. Much like Fiji is moving progressively towards unity of One Nation, One People, One Destiny, I recently launched a new style of Fijian cuisine called the Three Ancient Civilizations. It takes the best of iTaukei, Indian and Chinese food and techniques, and embraces the unique tropical produce, especially the organic foods that many farmers and consumers are beginning to learn to appreciate.
But to enjoy this new fusion cuisine, Fijian's need to learn to start thinking outside the box and be more willing to try new things. If your tastes never change and you eat the same thing every day, you get bored and start creating lazy dishes like corned mutton in dhal soup or Maggi noodles in waci poke. I can hear my friend and Fiji One TV personality Jon Apted screaming at the thought of these ugly creations of Fijian food! If Jon was a judge on a Fijian Masterchef competition, he would probably throw the pan at you for ruining a good local recipe. Just because dalo is a root crop eaten in the iTaukei diet for thousands of years, it doesn't mean you can't enjoy cooked other ways. Dalo is not indigenous to Fiji, with many countries around the world enjoying this starch differently to Fijains. One of the most popular Chinese New Year delicacies is the Abacus Bead, made from dalo or yam, and is similar to the Italian gnocchi pasta. Named after the beads that make up the Chinese abacus, an old-style calculator, dalo is shaped with flour into beads, boiled first, then stir fried in Asian sauces and ingredients. Another way the Chinese use dalo is to make Taro Cake. My mother always makes this when I go back to Australia, and is like a savoury cake filled with pork, chinese sausage and dried prawns, then sliced and pan fried. And have you ever tried using boiled dalo as a replacement for potato salad, with honey, mustard and mayonnaise? Dalo, especially organically grown, is rich in vitamins and fibre and although has a higher calorie count than potato, is healthier if eaten in moderation.
Another market delicacy in Fiji that is not widely eaten is the green jackfruit, or khatar. Most Fijians call this the Indian uto and so is mainly cooked in curry, but this highly nutritious fruit is enjoyed across South East asian in salads and stir fry. When I introduced this on my menus last week, my kitchen staffs were both shocked and surprised that you could cook it in a stir fry, and then use it as a warm salad. Stir frying this raw jackfruit quickly with Asian flavours turns this highly vitamin-rich fruit into a gourmet dish that is crunchy and enjoyed not as a dessert but as a healthy savoury dish that is easy to cook at home. It is served either by itself or with meats and seafood. Some people call it the vegetarian's chicken, as the centre is like white meat but the green jackfruit is packed full of vitamins and is known to help prevent and aid in many sicknesses like fighting cancer and lowering blood pressure. If you're preparing this at home, it is best to oil your hands to avoid getting the sap stuck to your hands. Otherwise, just buy the peeled and ready to use jackfruit from the market.
Fiji's markets are filled with a variety of different and unique tropical foods that are relatively cheap but have been sadly cooked the same way for many years. It's time to get creative and start experimenting with the local produce and use the cooking knowledge from all three of the ancient civilizations to create some exciting new food at home. Otherwise the younger generation are going to get bored and turn to something far worse - junk foods.
* Lance Seeto is an International Food & Travel Writer and Executive Chef at Castaway Island. His new lifestyle cookbook "Coconut Bliss: Inspiration and the Food of Life from Ancient Fiji" is due out in November. Follow his Facebook page Fijian Food Safari.