Medicine packed in a sheath
7 May, 2017, 12:00 am
I am a huge believer that Mother Nature provides us with her seasonal fruits and vegetables for a reason. They must contain the essential vitamins and minerals I need to stay in shape.
Different climates and temperatures must have an influence on certain produce; surely that’s why they only grow at certain times of the year? If you’ve been paying attention to her signals, our streets and markets are now full of the Fijian “asparagus” — duruka.
Medicine in a sheath
Although called Fijian or bush “asparagus” because of its similar slender look to its overseas cousin-brother, it actually is no relation to asparagus.
Duruka (botanically known as saccharum edule) is part of the grass or sugarcane family, and is found across Melanesia, Papua New Guinea and South East Asia. It is the unopened flower of a cane shoot, or sugar blossom as its known in South-East Asia. Like all of the food plants from the Old World, it is healthy, medicinal and a great source of fibre and vitamin C.
Although some say it may have originated in either North India or Indonesia, the modern species seems to have come out of Papua New Guinea where it is known as pitpit.
The fibrous texture of duruka means that it is well suited to saucy dishes as the blossom absorbs liquids like a sponge. This is why it works so well with coconut milk in Pacific Island dishes.
In South East Asia, soy and cream sauces are popular that also accentuate the nutty flavour and crumbly texture of duruka. Some Indonesian recipes use pumpkin and tomato as the sauce base, while others use soy sauce or coconut infused with herbs and spices.
I’ve also discovered another way to prepare duruka that retains its colour better but more on that later.
Duruka for the world
With this delicacy now in season, the demand for duruka is not only local but overseas as well. Pacific Islanders around the world long for this childhood reminder of home cooking.
Exporters like Food Processors (Fiji) Ltd need more than 15,000 bundles for their canning season. Other entrepreneurial companies are exporting frozen and fresh duruka to customers in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, buying the green hybrid variety from its co-operative of farmers.
The overseas demand for our fresh duruka is not only from Pacific Islanders living abroad, but gourmet foodies and chefs who have discovered another one of our exotic Fijian grown exports. One company says it exports 300-400 kg of fresh duruka every week during the main season, with more than six to seven tonnes of frozen duruka exported globally.
So before the whole world gets to know duruka, eat up!
Duruka on TV
Duruka is on my mind today as we’ve been shooting the final episodes of my new television series for FBC called “Food for Life”. As you’ve probably guessed, it is about learning to think about foods differently — more as medicine and less about temporary satisfaction.
Our temptation for the naughty foods often outweighs our body’s need for nutrition and the foods it needs to heal and repair. If we can educate ourselves then we may have a chance to break the cycle of so many premature deaths and disease in our community.
In one of the episodes just shot, duruka was the hero but we need more recipes if we are to enjoy this superfood more often. The classic flavours of coconut milk are hard to beat, so coming up with new ways that retain the unique texture was a challenge so I decided to crumb it, just like a croquette. With a palusami base and sautÃ©ed shiitake mushrooms in fresh coconut milk, this was the most divine plate of the TV series.
Once the camera’s stop rolling I was still in amazed that duruka could be made to look so beautiful to eat. What surprised me was how the duruka kept its floral yellow colour and its taste was more natural. I’ve shared the recipe with you today but do look out for this episode once it airs later in the year.
Facebook fan surprises
Whatever its exact nutritional value, the abundance of this superfood right now is over whelming. Is mother nature trying to tell us all something like — eat more of me!
During the process of testing more recipes this week, a Facebook fan caught my attention with a plate of duruka that just jumped out of my phone. Chetna Ben from Suva had me salivating for her Indian-inspired duruka with tuna plate up. The colours and ingredients just leaped out of the screen, so much so that I could taste her cooking.
It reminded me that our seasonal childhood foods have stood the test of time and can be equally, if not more, delicious and healthy. Seasonal dishes can transport us to a different time and place, usually with happy memories of when we were small.
Chetna has graciously shared her home recipe with readers if you don’t already know it. Like more and more local foodies, her Facebook page My Little Kitchen Fiji is worth following if you are looking for some inspiration in the home kitchen.
A touch of hing powder helps to really bring out the flavour of the duruka and would be missed if you skipped this step. You can easily replace the tinned tuna with something else or keep it vegetarian!
Food pictures can tell a loving story of cooking and her Facebook post reminded me of the culinary evolution underway in many kitchens across the country. Fiji needs more Chetnas!
* Lance Seeto is executive chef for Fiji’s first island beach club, Malamala Beach Club, opening in mid-2017.