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Exotic Delights - World of salads: Episode 10

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, February 04, 2018

GETTING the family to eat more raw vegetables for health can be a challenge when for most, they just taste like water. If we are to have any chance in our battle against non-communicable diseases, we need to eat more raw fruits and vegetables because that's where most of our natural medicines are stored. They are not only filled with essential vitamins and minerals, their fibre helps to cleanse and "broom-out" our intestines of particles and fat stuck in the tubes. So how does the rest of the world get their people to eat more fresh produce?

They add some natural sweetness, texture, sauce and vinaigrettes to turn boring vegetables into delicious and exotic dishes. But if you think vegetables only include lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes you'd be wrong. In tomorrow night's tenth episode of Exotic Delights, we visit one of the most innovative organic farms in Navua that is giving us more reason to eat local salads.

Importance of salad

Like most of the Pacific Islands, we are a nation of meat and fried food eaters. Sure, there are a growing number of vegans and vegetarians out there, but for the most part, the majority of us cannot resist a steaming hot chicken or lamb curry, deep fried chicken or fish, or a slow-cooked, lovo leg of pork. From a dietary perspective, the issue is we are not supplementing our carnivorous and oily diet with enough fresh vegetables. Years ago I remember watching my chefs serve their staff meal of lamb curry without any salad. Before they had the chance to pick up their bowls, I dropped a handful of colourful garden salad on the top. They looked in horror as if I'd done something sacrilegious to their meal! "Why did you do that?" one of them asked. Digestion I explained. Whether it's an oily lamb curry or battered fish and chips, these dishes should be eaten with raw vegetables dressed with vinegar and citrus to help cut through the oils and aids in digestion. It is the reason why in much of South East Asian cuisine we see dishes that include more salad and less meat.

The Chinese love their meats and oily stir fries too but take a closer look and you'll see the dishes served with lots of spring onion, raw onion, coriander leaves, fresh ginger, smashed cucumber and lightly-tossed green vegetables. Mediterranean cuisine is almost always served with giant bowls of salads, some with fermented cheeses that again aid in digestion as fermented foods are broken down faster in the gastrointestinal process. So eating raw salads with our foods is as much about flavour and texture as helping to digest meats and to rinse oils through our system.

Exciting new produce

The traditional salad of lettuce and cucumbers is gradually making way for more exotic produce thanks to the innovation of immigrant farmers. Growing new types of fruits and vegetables will also help us get more excited about eating salads, and that's exactly what our Korean friends at Grace Road Farms have been quietly doing. Recognising the opportunity to assist and supplement our local produce with hydroponically and organically grown produce, they're now growing and supplying other species of melons, chives, lettuces and tomatoes — and boy do they taste different. In this episode of Exotic Delights, we go behind the scenes at their Navua farm to see how the investment in agricultural technology is driving their business model. Their hydroponic rockmelon, or cantaloupe, has a perfume scent not seen in local melons and as soon as I tasted them, a recipe for a savoury rockmelon salad came to mind.

More complex salads

Not all salads have to be a vegan-only experience. We can follow thousands of years of experimentation in other countries to learn new ways to turn bland salad into something very special. The Indonesian gado gado salad is one of them. If you love peanuts and spice, this recipe also includes the pungent shrimp paste, coconut milk, chilli, coriander and lemon to give fruits and vegetables an incredible depth of flavour. The shrimp paste will surely stink out the kitchen for a short period, so either dry it in a well-ventilated area or just tell the family to put up with it until they taste the final dish!

The rockmelon salad is inspired by a Tuscan salad called a panzanella which includes chunks of soaked stale bread and tomatoes, sometimes also onions and basil, dressed with olive oil and vinegar. Replacing tomatoes with rockmelon gives this Italian salad a tropical fruit twist as the juices of the rockmelon are soaked into the grilled bread. This is a must-try recipe whenever you see rockmelon at the markets.

Growing industry

In addition to the work of the Korean farmers, many other local farmers are beginning to learn the worth of more exotic fruits and vegetables for the resorts and healthy eateries. This is what I have been advocating for years. We have the climate, water and soil to produce most of the exotic Asian fruits, herbs and vegetables here in Fiji, with the potential to feed the region, if not the world with some of the best tasting produce. At last we are seeing consistent supplies of the purple and yellow dragonfruit, passionfruit full of pulp, elderberries and hybrid mangoes, and one local farmer has introduced Asian durian (very pungent but very exotic) and a starchy tree potato known as peach palm. These new fruits and vegetables are not cheap to produce as supply is limited but imagine if we got together as a nation to farm more of this exotic produce for local consumption and for the chefs to experiment with.

I've always described my profession as culinary artists who paint with ingredients, and with the constant innovation and bravery of our farmers to introduce new produce, the future of a world-class Fijian cuisine is looking very rosy. As the Grace Road Farm motto goes, "Let's make Fiji shine." I couldn't agree more.

? Lance Seeto is the host of FBC TV's Exotic Delights which airs every Monday at 7.45pm.

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