Feb 15, 2015

Food in Fiji (yes -- I went!)

My husband had the great privilege of teaching a theology class in Fiji and I decided to tag along.  My saintly mother stayed with all three of our children.  

After traveling for 24 hours, we landed in a tropical paradise.  I wasn't sure what to expect of the food.  I assumed it would be fresh but that's about all.

I was totally blown away by the color of the egg yolks.  In almost every gas station, you could buy eggs and butter of the most magnificent color. 
One day I had a conversation with a Fijian woman about the color of the butter.  She had lived in California for almost a decade.  I asked her when she ate white butter in America, did she think something was wrong with it?  She said, "No, I assumed that Americans wanted it white so it would look prettier."

Wha?!  I told her the reason the Fijian butter had such beautiful yellow color was because of the lush green grass the cows ate.  Most American cows are eating hay and grain, a diet that will not produce vibrant colored butter.

While we did venture around the island, I didn't take many pictures of the landscape.  Because of the humidity my pictures were quite foggy.  Chickens were not allowed in city limits but we saw plenty (including cows) when we traveled out of the capitol.

Eggs and butter weren't the only thing that we gorged on.  We ate plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, like this pineapple (that cost about $0.75).  I took a picture of the way my friend had removed the eyes.  *I need to remember this.
One of the highlights of my time in Fiji was spending the morning with this friend who taught me to cook traditional Fijian fare.  I usually don't apologize for my camera phone pictures, but I will on this day.  The remaining pictures do not convey the culinary excellence nor the delightful tastes.
It was a real treat to be in another woman's kitchen, to watch how she does things.  It doesn't matter where I am, I like seeing how people move and work in their kitchen.  Inevitably I learn something.  Above, Viva is cutting up a whole chicken into 2 inch pieces for curry.  When eating in Fiji, you will find plenty of Indian inspired food.  (A little history: the British brought Indians to the island to provide leadership and oversight to the sugar plantations, where the Fijians worked as servants.)
A theme I noticed everywhere I went, but especially in Viva's kitchen, was nothing is wasted in Fiji.  The "extra" skin on the back of the chicken, she chopped very finely.  This fat was the first to hit the hot skillet and prepared the way for the remainder of the dish.

In Fiji, the only chicken option is a WHOLE chicken.  Or, a package of chicken feet or livers.  You won't find a package of chicken breasts in the meat department. As she chopped the chicken, (including the neck bone!) I told her the most popular part of chicken in America is the breast, boneless and skinless.  She looked at me like I was from Mars.  "Why would someone only want to eat the breast? And without the skin?"
While I watched her peel and prepare potatoes, onions and garlic, I could hear a "thwack --thwack" on the veranda.  I peeked out and found this young man breaking open mature coconuts.  He is sitting on a coconut scraper.  After pouring out the coconut water, he scraped the inside so that we could eventually make coconut milk.  He said he started scraping coconuts when he was about 10.  He tried to teach me to do it.  I felt unbelievably awkward.  I would need a few hundred coconuts to become proficient.
The natives drink coconut water from young (or green) coconuts.  Obviously I'm not a native but wanted to drink the old coconut water.  Just the day before I had been plagued by a intestinal bug.  Along with the insane heat and humidity, I was dehydrated and was a bit depleted in electrolytes.  My normally straight hair was almost curly while in Fiji from the humidity.
I'm sorry I don't have more pictures.  I was having such a fun time asking questions and learning from my new friends that I often forgot to take pictures of the different steps along the way on my cooking day.
The dish below is fried mackerel in coconut milk (Fijians called it lolo, or coconut cream) that Viva made.  I've made coconut milk before but it wasn't from fresh coconut.  Being an island country, coconuts and fresh fish are plentiful.  And delish.
Another dish she made was pumpkin with curry spices.  She diced pumpkin then fried/roasted it on the stovetop and added a plethora of spices.
This is the chicken curry with white potatoes.  I admit it doesn't look all that appetizing.  But it was so yummy.  Usually the Fijians eat with their hands.  They are not afraid of bones in their mouth (they pick them out).  Most main dishes (of fish and chicken) are made with bones.
The first dish she started and the last dish I tasted was Kokoda (kO' kwan da recipe here).  She diced mackerel then let it marinate for about 3 hours in lime juice and vinegar.  This acidic medium "cooked" the raw fish.  I watched it transform from raw, translucent fish into firm, white, "cooked" fish.  From my limited understanding, this dish is similar to the South American dish, ceviche.

I took the picture below before Viva added more coconut milk.  I had this dish several times while on the island.
It was the rainy season while we were there. Rain fell everyday we were on the island except the one day we got to go to the beach.  And I got the worst sunburn of my life.  Worth it.  Fiji is a beautiful country with beautiful people and delicious food.  I would love to go back.


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