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Picnic at the races

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, October 29, 2017

It may not be the Melbourne Cup carnival but according to its organiser, Kim Beddoes, the inaugural Sabeto Horse Race at Aviva Farms next Saturday is expected to be a huge day of fun, great company and awesome food.

The event is one of many new local festivals celebrating community and of course, our local foods. While the Sabeto event will no doubt attract many residents from the West, Rewa will also be hosting its first three-day Rewa Bilibili Festival at Syria Park.

Both events feature home grown food but if the words "festival food" conjures up images of undercooked barbecue meats and dodgy noodles with no flavour, you could be in for a surprise. In recent years we have seen an explosion in popularity of festivals that not only offer entertainment, but an increasing diversity in hawker food stalls. Both organisers and stallholders are wising up to the fact that the general public is prepared to pay a little extra if the food on offer is different, creative and not the usual barbecue fare.

In days gone by, our festivals were filled with the same old stands all selling the same fare of lovo or barbecue meats, chop suey and curry; most are of good value but every now and then you have some idiot who short cuts to make a few extra bucks and doesn't flavour their food. That is unless you drown your food in tomato sauce!

The growing Fijian middle class has a few more extra dollars to spend these days and taking the family to a weekend festival combines entertainment with gustatory bliss and going by the number of sponsors that are clamouring aboard this horse race event, Sabeto may be the precursor to many more festivals that showcase local food cooked with flair and pizazz.

Overseas food festivals

As a young caterer, I used to drive my food truck to many of Australia's outdoor food events whether they celebrated a new harvest, commemorate a public holiday or just helped the community in some way. Tens of thousands visitors would swarm upon the food vendors over a weekend sampling the home cooked fare of everything from South American, Asian, Aussie barbecue and sweet treats as they listened to live music or watching performing artists. Festivals of food and wine are common across the globe.

My food truck was called the "Double Dragon" featuring two high pressure wok burners pumping out everything from Singapore noodles, lemon chicken, fried rice and satay skewers. I have such fond memories, and nightmares, of the busy food festival.

The voice of my staff screaming "More chicken, we need more chicken!" still rings in my ears to this day as my business partner and I sweat behind the stoves in a tiny van. On some days we totally underestimated the crowds and would drive miles to find more chicken at local supermarkets to prepare for the next day. The time and effort put into catering for these events is enormous and I tip my hat to any caterer who can pull off a successful day catering to the masses.

Time for more festivals

Fiji may be ready to more festivals featuring great hawker-style food sooner than you think. Our heritage of BBQ stands, bean carts and roadside lovo is already prevalent at traditional festival events but are we ready for more modern events that entertain the family as well as offer finer foods than just barbecue? Sabeto horse race organiser, Beddoes says yes.

A veteran party hire organiser and event industry stalwart, Beddoes senses a growing local market, with increasingly more disposable income, that yearns to be entertained and treated to a weekend of fun, good food and frivolity. I couldn't agree more, as the popularity of Malamala Beach Club among locals is proving.

Technology, social media and instant connectivity is influencing today's culture in ways unexpected decades ago. Today's families and young, mobile generation are looking to be entertained and prepared to pay for it whether it's at the cinemas, community festivals, sports matches or revived events like the Sabeto horse races. But it is Fiji's agricultural and aquacultural heritage, as well as our seasonal harvests of fruits, vegetables and seafood that gives cause to creating more local events.

Local delicacies await

While both the Sabeto Horse Races and Rewa Bilibili Festival will no doubt cater for the local expectation of low cost barbecue and palau rice, a growing number of caterers are getting very creative and sophisticated with their offering.

Fiji's slow barbecue master is Niu Ting from Niu Grillz, who has been delighting market and festival customers with his smokey, slow cooked meat packs of brisket, pork and chicken in delicious sticky basting sauces for many years and is a key attraction at Sabeto next weekend, along with Pineapple Hutt's coconut, pineapple and mango shakes and their legendry ice cream served in a fresh pineapple.

The Taste of Fiji Catering School also sets up shop at Sabeto with their fusion of Fijian and Indian cuisine including roti parcels, dhal soup and ota vaka miti — all to be eaten trackside in hopefully what will be the first of many race events. Beddoes says free buses from Nadi and Lautoka will transport fans to the event before and after the races.

"Our vision is to bring back the fun of the legendary Votulevu Horse Races in a family friendly atmosphere." she said.

Add to this the great food and wine, and events like this are surely to become a permanent fixture that attracts not only locals but international visitors in search of unique local festivals on par with Melbourne's famous Spring Carnival and Melbourne Cup races.

* Catch chef Seeto at the Sabeto Horse Races next Saturday or visit him for lunch at Malamala Beach Club.

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