Travel: Taste of the Fiji tropics

The chef craves a carrot. They are integral to modern Fijian cooking but they won't grow well in Fiji; it's too hot.

Local potatoes are also problematic; they do grow but they have a muddy taste.

So carrots and potatoes, along with onions and mushrooms, are imported from Australia to feed the half million tourists who come to Fijian resorts each year.

Fijian farmers on their small shared holdings tend to stick to traditional crops and growing seasons; they are reluctant to try anything new, says executive chef Shailesh Naidu of the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort.

But the chef is delighted about an enterprising Chinese vegetable grower in the Sigatoka Valley.

In greenhouses and open fields, Mr Tian is growing a wide range of vegetables year-round, in bulk, and providing reliable supply and quality.

In the process, 85 Fijian families are making a living from his giant market garden.

Lettuce, capsicum, bok choy, beans, coriander, basil, mint and parsley thrive.

Chives are a new crop, not traditionally used in Fijian food, and although the problem of the pesky carrot remains, Tian Chinese Farm is good news for Shailesh Naidu.

Back at his restaurant (it is called Ivi and holds a tourism award as Best Fine Dining Restaurant in Fiji), the chef becomes "activity of the day".

I've been to a few cooking classes at holiday resorts and been dazzled by the exotic ingredients. Invariably, I'm the one at the back of the room wondering where my next cocktail is coming from.

But something unexpected happened in Fiji.

Here was a cooking demonstration which involved food I can easily cook at home, using ingredients I know well.

Today, we learned to cook fish and mash. Actually, the other students learned to make seared fresh sea snapper, kumala cake, palusami vegetables and tropical salsa. But I picked up just the fish and mash bit.

The Fijian kumala is the same vegetable as the kumara of Aotearoa. (Use the orange-fleshed ones if you can, says chef Shailesh, they have more flavour.)

Par-boil your kumara, let it cool, peel it, then mash it. Not too smooth, just do it roughly. Then saute the onion, garlic and ginger (medium heat, take your time), mix in the sauces and herbs, squash it all into patties, and fry it gently on both sides.

The joy of these tasty mash patties lies in the Asian flavours.

Fijian food is a happy mix of Indian, indigenous Fijian and Asian - especially Chinese - cooking, says the chef.

And the mix seems to include the laid-back, happy-go-lucky spirit of the islands.

Don't have the listed ingredient? Just leave it out, or try something else.

The salsa to go with the fish was easy-peasy, especially after Shailesh told me if I didn't have a pawpaw to hand, I could use peaches instead.

Or leave it out altogether. Put in a bit more cucumber, if you like.

The cooking class also included a starter of reef lobster ceviche (with the option of adding coconut milk to make the traditional Fijian kokoda), and banana vakalolo for dessert. But that was too much for this student.

Here's how to make the fish, kumara cakes, and salsa. The palusami veges will have to wait till next time.

Kumala cake

Par-boil 4 to 6 whole kumara and peel. Then grate, smash or roughly mash. Saute one small onion, two cloves garlic, a thumb of ginger, all finely chopped. Mix in one tablespoon light soy sauce, half a tablespoon of oyster sauce, cook for a few minutes, season with salt and pepper. Mix into mashed kumara, make into firm patties and pan-fry gently on both sides.

Tropical salsa

Finely dice half a pineapple, one small pawpaw, 1 cucumber; a handful of mint. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice, season with salt and pepper. Pan fry four large snapper fillets. Serve.


- Hamilton News

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