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Healing at the beach club

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, August 13, 2017

When Vaviola Varo was just nine years old, her grandparents would take her to their family's sacred picnic island that was abundant in fish, mangoes and breadfruit.

Her memories of this magical healing place are as vivid as 30 years ago; a tiny tropical island blessed with medicinal plants and trees like dilo, pandanus, tavola and coconut. With only a few bread shops back in the day, their family picnic consisted of a healthy, gluten free lunch of fire-roasted fish, fresh fruit and mashed breadfruit. Now in her early 40s, Vaviola is part of the pre-opening team for Fiji's first island day club; a playground for locals and tourists to eat, drink and party all day long. Ironically that same island Vaviola used to picnic at, is now home to Fiji's newest experience of fine gastronomy. That island is Malamala, and the brand new Malamala Beach Club.

? What is an island beach club?

Located just a 25-minute ferry ride from Port Denarau in the Mamanuca archipelago, Malamala Beach Club is the newest addition to South Sea Cruises' tourism experience aimed at locals and international visitors. The difference is that Malamala is all about the food and drinks. Taking its cue from luxury world-class beach clubs in Bali, Formentera, Barcelona, Greece and Croatia, Malamala is the first island beach club in the South Pacific.

With no bure or accommodation, the island is a salubrious experience set against a backdrop of white sandy beaches, a sparkling infinity pool, private cabanas with butlers who serve dilo "chocolates" for the skin, and curated designer cocktails. This is no island resort or hotel. It is an entire island dedicated to day visitors. It is also the home to my newest restaurant and culinary journey.

Open from 9.30am to South Sea Cruise passengers and private vessels, there is no set lunchtime at Malamala; you can graze, get spun and luxuriate all day.

? Pacific island-inspired menu

When I started designing the Malamala menu I was adamant it had to include 100 per cent Fijian-grown produce. It also had to be international beach cuisine inspired by my travels of the Pacific Island nations but not necessarily their native foods. The importance of local produce to the island communities goes to the very core of their battle against non-communicable diseases, increasing their income opportunities and reducing import food bills. Taking inspiration from that philosophy it meant no imported fruits or vegetables, no seafood and no imported meats. I also wanted to reduce the use of imported processed foods like tomato sauce, French fries and potato wedges; the staples of island food menus. You won't find any Heinz tomato or Masterfoods barbecue sauce on Malamala but you will find a fresh-made smoked pineapple, raw pineapple vinegar and hydroponic tomato sauce.

All the sauces, marinades and fermented components of my menu are made on the island. The ubiquitous French fry has been replaced with root crops of cassava, dalo (taro), kumala (sweet potato), uvi (yams) and uto (breadfruit). Typical poolside fare like burgers, Caesar salad, Club sandwich and even kokoda have had the Malamala makeover and will be unrecognisable at first — until you taste them. The health influence on the menu is also obvious with many gluten free, paleo-friendly and vegetarian options.

? Supporting Fijian primary producers

Anyone who says Fiji doesn't have a good and consistent enough supply of local produce to create an entire menu is not keeping up with our local farmers and entrepreneurs. From pristine fish, crustaceans and shellfish, red and white meats, to exotic organic herbs, fruits and vegetables, the Fijian farmer is hard at work to prove naysayers wrong.

We fly organically-farmed edible flowers, raw pineapple vinegar and Asian herbs from as far away as Taveuni; several types of snapper and squid from Pacific Harbour; sustainable sago (heart of palm) from Sigatoka; homemade pure ghee from Momi Bay; and young goat from the interior highlands of Kabisi.

And when it comes to a real meaty beef burger, the way burgers used to taste, a designer recipe of Yaqara beef was designed to go inside a Samoan-style panipopo coconut bun sauced with a Fiji spiced rum, espresso coffee and bacon jam.

Salivating yet? Wait till you try the spiced goat curry pie. Malamala has also developed a world first chilled "dilo white chocolate" that you don't eat, but rub on your skin to rejuvenate and repair in the hot sun.

? Influence from the subcontinent

One of the unique culinary differences in Fiji compared with other South Pacific islands is the influence of our Indian descendants. Like a lot of visitors, I love the local curries and bean cart snacks but I didn't want to serve the same Indo-Fijian fare you can get elsewhere.

Former chairman of South Sea Cruises, Roger Dold, told me that something he looks forward when he returns to Fiji is goat curry. It's a dish rarely enjoyed by visitors but when you gently cook this recipe of boneless young goat, complex spices and less chilli heat, a good goat curry surpasses any meat curry.

But like everything at Malamala, how was I going to serve a goat curry that didn't look like the common thali platter with rice, roti, dhal and chutney? Enter the crusty-top pie. In Sydney, I grew up enjoying a very late-night Tiger Pie topped with mashed potato, mushy green peas and gravy from Harry's Café de Wheels in Wooloomooloo. This was the inspiration for the Malamala spiced goat curry pie. Gone are the potato, peas and gravy, replaced with a sweet spiced recipe inside a crispy case, stacked with mashed local pumpkin, ghee-infused crushed lentils and an awesome sauce made from roasted goat bones and tamarind. Curry goat in a pie!

? Curated designer cocktails

There's nothing quite like kicking back in an infinity pool watching the world go by with a cocktail or three close to hand, and Malamala makes the day even more special with its panoramic views, craft beers, imported ciders, New and Old World wines and designer cocktails. But these are no any ordinary cocktails. This beach club is right into the latest industry jargon, so you'll be offered "curated" cocktails made with artisanal spirits and fresh made syrups. There's not a blue curacao or grenadine drink in sight.

The temptation to say, "Just give me a beer or an espresso martini" may be strong but you'll be doing your soul a favour when you sample a curated cocktail.

The term means that someone knowledgeable has selected the best ingredients of spirits, aperitifs and sundry complementary enhancements like infused tinctures, syrups, smoked fruit and perfumes of exotic herbs and spices. The consulting mixologist at Malamala has created a flight of seven cocktails that include organic herbs, local rums, chilli and even our prized noni juice that will defy and impress even the most critical of cocktail connoisseur.

The potent Fijian fruit, known locally as kura, can be best described as tasting like blue cheese but is unexpectantly balanced in an intriguing cocktail called the Elixir of Life. While you can certainly ask for your favourite cocktail, the curated list of spiced tinctures (sugar syrups), Fiji rums, coconut rums and exotic fruit like soursop includes quirky names like the Momi Cannon, Naked Lady, Drunken Coconut, The Inquisition, Smoking Barrel and Beach Club Tea. They even have a special price if you and a friend want to experience the entire curated cocktail flight.

A grown-up Vaviola is now a healer who hails from the Naobeka clan at Namamotomoto Village in Nadi, and an activities attendant at Malamala. As she prepares to ready the island tomorrow to welcome its first official visitors, Vaviola has just one promise for guests — her childhood experiences of a magical day of healing island food and drink is now available for everyone to share.

* Lance Seeto is the Executive Chef of Malamala Beach Club. For further details and how to book go to www.malamalabeachclub.com.








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