Fiji's abundance of fresh tropical produce shares similarities with the South East Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, but the differences in the use and combination of fruits, spices, herbs and coconut is poles apart. Nearly all of the ancient Asian civilizations learned to experiment with the local food and combinations of flavours during the time of the emperors, many hundreds of years ago. The imperial chefs had to prepare over fifty different dishes everyday, and if they couldn't please the emperor with their new creations it was off with their head! This encouraged the royal cooks to boldly experiment with everything they could find on the land, including insects, spiders, scorpions and even cockroaches. As long as the food was full of new flavour and had some medicinal properties for longevity, it was on the menu!
The same pressure to experiment with new flavours and cross fusion with other cuisines has yet to happen in Fiji. Excluding the use of tinned meat or instant noodles in traditional Fijian or Indian dishes, there has been little attempt to explore the possibilities of creating something new and healthy with the local produce. Fijians understanding of herbal infusions is limited to what has been handed down from generation to generation, but that doesn't mean today's aspiring home cooks can't try new ideas. Each of the three ancient civilizations - the iTaukei, Chinese and Indian - have something wonderfully special to offer modern Fijian cuisine. The coconut poaching technique, stir fry and curries can all be combined to produce a new style of Fijian cuisine that is unique to anywhere in the world.
I've been experimenting a lot lately with South East Asian fusion, as the abundance of organic coconut, lemongrass, chillies and herbs forms the basis of so many classic dishes from those countries. The fragrant herbs from the Malolo Lai Lai organic farm at Musket Cove and Nadi Bay herbs has inspired my own cultural heritage of Asian cooking. Herbs round out flavor profiles, add complexity to otherwise basic dishes, meld with other herbs to form novel taste compounds that you can't quite place, and simply make food taste incredible. Lemongrass has many health benefits and healing properties of oils, minerals and vitamins that are known to have antioxidant and disease preventing properties.The primary chemical component in lemongrass is citral, which has strong anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties and is central to many South East Asian curries.
One of the new curries that my chefs have learnt is the Malaysian coconut rendang. This dry curry features lemongrass, dry roasted coconut and two different gingers. The Thai ginger is pinkish in colour, more potent and is available mainly in Suva. If you can't find it, just substitute for normal Fijian ginger, but try the markets or the Chinese stores. You can easily substitute the beef for pork or chicken, but the tropical flavours of this coconut curry sauce come from the roasted dessicated coconut. You can use the dry coconut, but freshly scraped coconut is best. This dish is a perfect example of what happens when you combine the techniques of all three cultures on to one plate - accentuated even more by the wild organic produce. With filming for my new TV show starting next week, I look forward to meeting readers out in the street and at the markets and farms as I show a new style of Fijian cuisine that is not only tasty, but healthy for you as well.
* Lance Seeto is an author and Executive Chef based at Castaway Island, Fiji. His highly anticipated TV show starts on Fiji One in October.