I said earlier in the year that food ranked third in the Fijian mind after religion and rugby, but as we reach the end of 2012 I am beginning to think that food is truly the number one passion for most Fijians. For it is only food that is eaten and worshipped three times a day, 7 days a week and 356 days a year.
To say that 2012 was the year that Fiji's fresh food was put on the world map would be an understatement. Not only has there been a renaissance of local foods and flavours in our hotels and resorts, but everyday Fijians have begun to understand that there is much more they can do with their locally grown produce in the home than just curries, lovo and vakalolo.
The success of Fiji TV's Taste of Paradise cooking series has been driven in part by the need for locals to eat much more healthier because of the dramatic increase in non-communicable diseases that the World Health Organisation, government and health professionals all agree is being caused by poor diets and lifestyle. Most Fijians, especially our young, are demanding to know new ways to cook and appreciate the fresh produce, for fear of ending up like many Western countries that are afflicted with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We have all been touched this year by the loss of loved ones who have passed well before their time, but for Fiji it is not too late to reverse the trend in NCDs.
The popularity and interest in cooking this year saw Australian and New Zealand chefs visit our shores for the Taste of the South Pacific food festival in March, and junior chef cooking competitions pop up in schools across Fiji. A revitalised Fiji Chefs Association was instrumental in promoting local foods and techniques at the Salon Culinaire chef's competition in November, where some of the most talented young chefs in Fiji demonstrated their willingness and pride to cook beyond the mainly European food of previous years.
This year has also seen a determination by farmers, government and the Reserve Bank to reduce our dependence on imported and overseas produce. Much more work needs to be done to address the enormous demands of quality and quantity from the tourism industry, but this year saw increases in local produce including lettuce, tomato, cauliflower, rice, cabbage, beans and potato.
Changing the mindset of resort operators and their Executive Chefs to appreciate more of the locally grown vegetables and to be bold enough to substitute some items on their menus with Fiji-grown produce will also help to reduce imports.
Locals can play their part by learning more creative ways to cook and appreciate this food, and to introduce new locally grown foods into the diet. The popularity of this column and the Taste of Paradise show are testament that Fijians are willing to learn how to feed their family with tastier and healthier foods.
One of the challenges that all Fijians face is understanding the link between what they eat and their long term health. The old saying of We Are What We Eat is sadly true for most Fijians and South Pacific islanders. Many don't realise that the everyday eating of junk foods, sugary drinks, too much bread and cakes is literally killing the local people. Changing the way we feed our infants and children is critical to Fiji's future. One fruit grower in Nadi has listened to my frustration of not being able to buy a local 100 per cent fruit juice and is developing a range of fresh juices that will combat the dominance of sugary drinks in our schools, supermarkets and restaurants.
On my recent trip back to Melbourne, I discovered a man selling fresh sugar cane juice, crushed and squeezed by a machine while you wait. I couldn't help but think why Fiji doesn't have fresh cane juice too, considering the abundance of sugar cane in this country. Unlike the refined and synthetic sugars used in many carbonated drinks sold to Fijians, the sweet juice of sugar cane is natural, and if farmed without fertilizers, is one of nature's organic sweeteners.
If there was any better example of someone who has practiced healthy eating and a clean lifestyle her entire life was my guest chef on last week's final show.
Elizabeth Chong is 81 years of age, and to most Fijians looked in her late 50s. This Australian Chinese octogenarian doesn't smoke cigarettes, enjoys a few glasses of wine but has eaten like her ancient forefathers for most of her life. Lots of fruits, crunchy vegetables, herbs like garlic and ginger, and foods filled with life giving properties.
Her first time to Fiji, Elizabeth was amazed by the flavours of the local food and the creative use of seawater and coconut in the local cuisine.
The ancient use of the Tree of Life coconut as revitalizing and rejuvenating virgin oil and coconut milk was the most standout use of local foods.
Like me, she sees enormous potential for Fiji to capitalize on its agricultural heritage and embrace more of its Polynesian, Melanesian and Indian past to create unique tropical island cuisine to excite a world in search of undiscovered flavours and ancient health remedies. Not only for the gourmet traveller to Fiji, but for every Fijian to re-learn and re-embrace as well.
Finally, 2012 has been an incredibly rewarding and exciting year for me, thanks to readers of this newspaper and viewers of my TV show. Fiji has embraced my message of eating more healthier food and I hope has gained a deeper appreciation of everything this country has to offer the world both culinary and culturally. 2013 looks to be even bigger with the long anticipated, worldwide release of my book "Coconut Bliss: Inspiration and the Food of Life from Ancient Fiji", Season two of Taste of Paradise, a cooking roadshow to visit communities and schools across the country, and of course more stories and recipes in the Sunday Times. It seems that the Tui Lawa, Ratu Sevanaia Vatunitu Lalabalavu was right all along. God has indeed sent me here on a mission.
Have a Happy, Safe and Healthy New Year Fiji !
* Lance Seeto is an Australian Executive Chef, author & television presenter based on Castaway Island Fiji. Follow his cooking adventures on Facebook at "Fijian Food Safari"