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Secret Herbs in the garden

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, November 25, 2012

There are many fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in Fiji that can be cooked and prepared in many different ways that the average Fijian is yet to discover.

Green jackfruit is often seen as a unripened fruit used only in Indian curries, but as I recently showed, it is delicious when stir fried with chilli, lemon and soy.

Karela is a green melon with bubble-skin and tastes very bitter on its own, but when wok-tossed with black bean sauce it becomes a Chinese dish that helps to combat diabetes. But when it comes to herbs, Fijians use these the least in cooking. Herbs not only add flavour to dishes, they are also medicinal and contain essential oils that help keep our insides healthy.

One of the most underused herb which is probably sitting in your yard is lemongrass.

Most Fijians only use this citrus green leaf for teas, but as we saw on last week's episode of Taste of Paradise, lemongrass is the basis for most South East Asian cooking, including curry. You can't buy it in most markets because locals haven't learned to cook with it up until now.

The purple stalk citronella lemongrass contains essential oils that not only repel insects, but are very nutritional for the body.

The antiseptic and antimicrobial properties of lemongrass help to clean and maintain your body from the inside. I laughed when we were looking for lemongrass to film this episode, as I didn't know why it wasn't in the market. When one of our cameramen said his mum grew it at home, we stopped at her place to find she had cut the tops of the leaves for me.

When I told him that I needed the roots not the leaves, his mum wanted to know what I was going to do with them! It seems not many people know that lemongrass has been used for centuries in Thai and Vietnamese curries, dressings and soups.

A curry in Fiji without curry powder, masala or haldi seems strange, but the Asian curries are much more lighter and simple, using fresh herbs to create flavour and medicine for the body. This is the essence of most Asian cooking. Simple, tasty, healthy and lots of natural medicines in the food. Most Fijians do not think about this when feeding their tummies. If only more did, then they would substantially reduce the chances of NCDs later in life.

The episode last week was shot at the Kila World Eco Adventure Park, deep in the Namosi rainforest. The crew remember this episode was a real killer, as we had to trek several hundred metres into the rainforest carrying our camera equipment, cooking equipment and food.

As we started filming with me standing waist deep in freezing cold water, the skies opened up and we were trapped for hours. We couldn't carry everything back in the heavy rain, and we all huddled inside a small bure.

Typical for Fijians, the crew were hungry again and decided that we might as well eat all the food leftover, rather than carry it all back. My assistant Kunal and I cooked up a feast of the leftover prawns and kai clams in the high pressure cooker while it poured. When the rain finally subsided, there was less to carry back because most of it was in our stomachs! That's clever Fijian-style thinking.

What the crew enjoyed the most was the kai, Fiji's wild freshwater clams, which we had bought at the markets earlier in the day.

Most of the kai seen in Suva and Nadi comes from the Rewa river and streams, and when not overcooked, is one of the best tasting freshwater seafoods of Fiji. Kai should be soaked in freshwater for a few hours to allow the clams to spit out excess sand. I also like to remove the black sandy pouch inside the clam meat, but many locals like to eat this so I left them in for this recipe.

Kai is another food that is prepared only a few ways in Fiji, boiled or curried, and in most cases cooked for far too long. Most seafood should be cooked until the flesh turns from clear to white, less than 15 minutes maximum. Some clams like vasua can be eaten very rare like Japanese sushi, and crustaceans and shellfish should be cooked very quickly to maintain its texture, taste and protein value.

The recipe for Black Bean Kai was one of the very first recipes that featured in this newspaper, with many readers remembering how it was the first time they had seen it cooked Asian style.

Thanks to this column and now the TV show, Fijians are learning that their own local food and herbs hidden in the garden can be turned into new tasting dishes for the family. Flavoursome and medicinal herbs like green or purple basil, thyme, mint, lemongrass, sage, rosemary and so many more are easy to grow in Fiji. If you don't have many herbs at home, grow them for flavour and health!

* Lance Seeto is the host of Fiji TV's "Taste of Paradise" broadcast in Fiji and across the South Pacific region every Thursday 8pm and Saturday 5.30pm on Fiji One. Follow his adventures on Facebook at "Fijian Food Safari" and "Taste Of Paradise".

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