Long, lazy meals by the sea, complemented by wide smiles. By Tatyana Leonov.
Fijian chef Talala Tupou smiles as he prepares the kokoda, a raw fish dish that’s marinated in coconut milk and mixed with onions and chillies. He carefully places the pieces of local snapper aside and massages coconut shavings around a hot stone with his hands, explaining this is how to achieve a smoky flavour. After 10 minutes, he’s made fresh coconut milk for the marinade. No canned varieties here. “I love cooking. I love food. When I was a boy and mum was cooking I would always watch,” he says, chuckling. “After mum cooked, then I cooked.”
Together with executive chef Jona Ravasakula, Talala crafts a variety of traditional dishes at Yasawa Island Resort and Spa (yasawa.com) and comes up with innovative meal concepts. The enticing menu at this tranquil resort is on a 10-day rotation – more than 50 different main course recipes are prepared over the span of 10 days. And guests are never limited to three-course meals. “If a guest wants three desserts, that’s fine, or even five – it’s all inclusive here,” Talala says, gazing out at the waves gently rippling against the powdery white-sand beach – a scene straight out of a honeymoon catalogue.
Yasawa Island Resort and Spa is the only resort on the idyllic Yasawa Island, the biggest island in the Yasawa archipelago (a chain of volcanic islands stretching 80 kilometres in the Western Division of Fiji). It’s a wonderful showcase of just how good food in Fiji can be. Guests come to unwind and eat to their heart’s content.
Fijian food is the unscripted sum total of absorbed influences from different ethnicities arriving in Fiji at various times throughout history. The Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians came first, and then the Indians, Europeans and Chinese travelled to this island country. Some stayed, some departed, but everyone left behind a splash of their culinary practices.
At resort restaurants, you’ll find Western, Eastern and fusion dishes all on offer, but the constant is the produce, mostly from Fiji. Island resorts like Yasawa work with local fishermen and farmers to harvest organic, fresh food. Many mainland resorts grow herbs and vegetables in gardens and get other produce from markets.
The daily Nadi produce market is where to go to get a sense of what’s in season. Unlike countless markets around the globe, it’s not frantic or noisy – a nod to the relaxed Fijian culture.
Hawkers convene on the ground, casually chitchatting with each other, their fruits and vegetables tidily bundled together – finger eggplants with a deep purple lustre, sweet papayas, plump mangoes, red and green chillies, plenty of coconuts and more. In the seafood section, fishermen hawk the daily catch: wild-caught fish, pipis, clams and lobster.
At Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa (sofitel. com/gb/hotel-5706-sofitel-fiji-resort-and- spa/index.shtml) on bustling Denarau Island, French chef Jean-Marc Ruzzene uses fresh-picked herbs and vegetables from the restaurant garden, local seafood, and some imported produce when the dishes call for specifics (like lamb, which comes from Australia or New Zealand). “It’s about supporting Fiji and forming the best possible flavours,” he explains as he strolls into the elegant V Restaurant.
There are three restaurants and a café at Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa, but fine diner V Restaurant is where you come for the ultimate gastronomic seduction. Dishes are paraded out of the kitchen like artwork heading to a gallery. Bright-red cherry tomatoes border a plump fillet of local mahi-mahi, while seafood lasagna is a beautifully constructed mound of glossy pasta sheets, succulent lobster and melt- in-the-mouth cheese. Desserts dazzle in both visual appeal and taste. “I don’t believe in garnishes,” Jean-Marc says. “All ingredients on the plate are designed to be eaten. I think when you over-garnish, you’re saying that something is missing from the dish.”
Desire To Learn
Local chefs in Fiji work hard to stand out. Some jazz up their dishes with an assortment of garnishes for visual oomph, while others let the flavours do the talking. There’s no right or wrong – just the desire to create dishes that dazzle.
Every October, young chefs from all over Fiji gather in Nadi for the three-day Moffat Culinaire Salon, a prestigious internationally judged competition. Last year, four chefs from Peter Kuruvita’s Flying Fish restaurant at the Sheraton Fiji Resort (sheratonfiji.com) walked away with medals. Gold medals went to Akshay Kumar for ‘Static Main Course’ and Munish Rahul for ‘Live Beef Dish’, and silver medals went to Sumeet Chandra for ‘Live Salad’ and ‘Live Curry’ and to Ashnil Kumar for ‘Live Dessert’. Even the category names are imaginative and point to Fiji’s desire to learn, to grow, to astound.
The head chef at Flying Fish, Pawel Klodowski (who hails from Poland), can’t wipe the wide grin off his face when he chats about his staff. “They are amazing. Without them, there would be no Flying Fish,” he gushes, gazing at the superbly situated waterfront restaurant. Inside, staff members whizz past guests and distribute aromatic dishes, cheerful diners savour both the food and the view, while chefs smile, knowing that their handiwork is being appreciated.
In Nadi, at Tata’s Restaurant (tatasrestaurant.blogspot.com), chefs also smile as they work – a Fijian trademark. Owner and restaurant manager Dinesh Pillay started his fast food empire by the side of a road with just a few wobbly tables under a corrugated tin roof. Hetalked to customers to gauge their palate, practised, cooked more and cooked better. Today, Dinesh owns three Tata’s restaurants and serves up some of the best South Indian cuisine in the country. Locals and travellers alike gather here and order colourful curries that they mop up with crisp, freshly baked roti bread. And they smile – like everyone does in Fiji.
Three traditional culinary experiences to try in Fiji
1 Kava ceremony: A kava ceremony holds great significance in Fijian culture (historically kava was drunk at religious events or when esteemed guests visited), and Fijians by nature are welcoming and happy to share their culture. Creative Holidays (creativeholidays.com) specialises in customised Fijian holidays and offer a cave tour that includes a visit to a small village where guests can join a local family in a kava ceremony.
2.Lovo: Fish, vegetables and meat are cooked in an underground oven, which is basically a hole in the ground lined with fire-lit coconut husks and covered by stones. Customarily, lovo was prepared for communal celebrations, such as weddings and festivals. Today however, many resorts hold special lovo nights so that guests can sample this special traditional dish.
3. Kokoda:Fresh white fish (usually mahi-mahi or snapper) is marinated in coconut milk and spices. Most resorts offer kokoda. Fijians love it; it’s healthy and a great showcase of local seafood.