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Exotic Delights: Evolution of Fijian delicacies — embrace it

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, February 25, 2018

When it comes to what Fijians crave to eat today, it is pleasing to see we have come a long way since the days of lovo, curry and chop suey with a new dining-out and foodie culture emerging. We see more eateries and roadside barbecue stands in our cities and villages, each offering their own spin and family recipes to try. Our street foods have expanded to beyond the nightclubs and are now open for dinner at your nearest car park or street corner. Shopping complexes like Tappoo City in Lautoka offer seven days a week food courts in clean, airconditioned centres that are enticing people out of their hot homes.

Convenience and choice abound. Supermarkets now stock more overseas ingredients and sauces that will be vital to help create a new modern Fijian cuisine as they accentuate flavour. Entrepreneurial farmers are gradually realising that there is a market for exotic produce and herbs such as Vietnamese mint, dragonfruit and durian.

And creative chefs, driven by tourism and the demands of adventurous visitors in search of local gastronomy, continue to refine and innovate our cultural foods — putting more of the Fijian story on the plate. The push to innovate Fijian gastronomy is also underpinned by a growing middle-class who, thanks in part to an expanding Fiji Airways network and access to more food shows on TV, have become more adventurous in their choice of food as they learn and experience international cuisines.

Driven by tourism

In tomorrow night's final episode for season one of Exotic Delights, we visit the annual Fiji Tourism Exchange where more than 400 of the world's top travel agents converged on Denarau Island to see what our country's tourism has to offer the international traveller. Just as migrants have helped to evolve the cuisines of other countries, the international visitor is helping to drive change in our local foods.

We have some of the world's best produce, a lot of it naturally organic and full of flavour. We also have a unique cultural mix of Pacific Island, Chinese and Indian gastronomy that when combined, offers new flavours, cooking techniques and amazingly fresh ingredients.

As a food destination, Fiji has the potential to become one of the newest foodie hot spots on the planet — filled with superfoods and tropical fruits; exotic seafood like the coconut crab and sea grapes; cured seafoods inspired by thousands of years of ancient gastronomy; and subtle undertones of medicinal spices and roots. After many discussions with tour leaders from the emerging Asian markets of Japan, India, Singapore and China, these are the cultural experiences their clients are looking for, not necessarily their own foods.

At the recent COP21 dinner in Bonn, Germany, our beloved kokoda was on the menu. It wasn't made with walu (Spanish mackerel) or fresh coconut, so it didn't exactly taste the same. But who goes to Germany to eat Fijian kokoda anyway? You would go to Germany to try their bratwurst (sausages), sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), Weiner schnitzel (crumbed veal) and apfelstrudel (apple strudel).

The same goes for visitors to Fiji. They want to try our Pacific Island dishes of kokoda, miti, ika vakalolo, lovo pork, octopus in miti, goat and chicken curry, chilli chicken and so many more. But to fully tap into this interest in our cultural foods, we also need to improve on the structure and presentation of these dishes to make them even more appealing, healthy and unique enough to travel across the world to experience.

Kokoda — our national dish

Although it is not eaten nearly as widely as it should — kokoda, the marinated fish salad in fresh coconut milk should be officially anointed as Fiji's national dish, especially from a tourism perspective. Despite its Samoan origins (yes, most historians agree we adopted their oka i'a), kokoda is the one dish that I take overseas that continues to mesmerise people who have never been to Fiji.

When the walu is cured properly in lemon or lime (not vinegar!) and served at room temperature with a fresh coconut miti, it is a most divine, velvety and salubrious dishes of anywhere on the planet. It just melts in your mouth.

However taking the basic recipe structure of a standard fish kokoda and applying it to other proteins such as red meats, white meats, prawns, octopus and just about any seafood; it magically transforms into a versatile dish that would fill an entire tapas menu. Take the concept of curing.

Curing is commonly done in the South Pacific with lemons, limes and vinegar, but you can also cure with other acidic fruits such as oranges, mandarins, pomegranate (anaar), and pineapple.

You can also cure with certain alcohol like vodka; especially Fijian coconut vodka. For white meat like chicken, I cure it in a bath of lemon, peppercorns and crushed lemongrass. To ensure it is properly "cooked", I then chargrill the chicken over a barbecue and serve with it a coriander miti, finely chopped lemon leaves and nama sea grapes.

Are you beginning to get the picture? It's not technically kokoda, but the original recipe certainly has inspired it. What about smoking the coconut milk?

This fire and rock technique of scorching scraped coconut before squeezing, is ancient yet is rarely used in resort menus. The scorched lolo pairs very well in kokoda as it gives the resulting dish an earthy flavour profile that many have not tried — anywhere. It is this innovation and evolution of our ancient foods, combined with fresh local produce, which would entice even the most reluctant foodie traveller to our shores. It is the reason I go to Singapore for its chilli crab; Hong Kong for its roast goose and Australia for a meat pie. Food tourism.

Not so spicy

One of the lasting legacies of the Indian indentured labourers, was their ingenuity in adapting regional Indian recipes to the availability — or lack of — chilli, herbs and spices. In the mid 1800s, typical Indian ingredients were not as common as they are today. It is the reason Polynesian and Melanesian dishes are mostly deplete of these spicy ingredients during the cooking stages.

Despite its less complex recipes, Fijian curries are a wonderous reminder of the subcontinent, yet their subtleness allows the flavours of the ingredients to shine, not the heat. As one American chef once crudely said to me: "Fijian curries aren't ring burners!"

The Indian ancestors also brought other dishes to Fiji that are intertwined in their culture and have the potential to become superstar dishes with story and meaning. They represent a uniquely Fijian Indian story of struggle, survival and religion.

Aloo baigan (potato eggplant curry) and palau (masala risotto) are synonymous with weddings, and in their simplest forms are aromatic and delicious, if not somewhat unattractive and often overcooked. Can these humble wedding foods be transformed into something special?

Yes, they can. Filmed on a settlement in Moto, Ba, I handpicked a few ingredients from the garden and used an outdoor kitchen with just the ingredients left by our Indian host and wood fire, to create a dish I would happily put on my menus.

Healing foods

I am a big advocate of linking the regular consumption of organic produce to a longer, healthier life. Happy food can mean happy people. The proof is in the iTaukei history.

They were not sick from NCDs before the introduction of Western foods and processed ingredients. However, it is not only South Pacific islanders that are succumbing to NCD complications. Most Western civilisations are too.

The only difference is that Western medicine helps to prolong life in the first world nations, despite a lifetime of bad diet and lack of exercise. I am convinced that one of the key ingredients in a modern Fijian cuisine will be its medicinal power to heal.

Whether they are called the foods of life, healing foods or super foods, Fiji's volcanic soil and pristine rainwater can produce nutrient-rich fruits, herbs, sea vegetables and crop vegetables that would be the envy of the world. If our artisian water is so mineral-rich and exotic, what about the produce fed on that same water?

And consider all the medicinal knowledge we have of anything made from coconut (think tree of life), green leaves and roots to repair, kura (noni fruit) and layalaya (medicinal ginger) to heal and the Ayurvedic power of Indian spices.

An ingrained power to heal is a very powerful component of our ancestral foods already. Imagine if we embraced and incorporated their knowledge into more of our foods, and showcased them to the world.

It is ironic that a region blessed with such nutritional produce is fighting for its life against a disease that is largely preventable. It is time to fight back and break the NCD cycle of a nutrient poor diet.

Embrace change. Embrace education. Embrace the foods of life.

* The final episode in this season of Exotic Delights with Lance Seeto airs Monday night at 7.45pm on FBC TV.

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