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Eat like you mean it

This story appeared in Fairfax Traveller on 7 October 2016.

“The more you eat, the better you float,” says Kini Saukuru with a raised glass and an unrestrained grin as the horizon pan-fries the tropical-orange sun and the meal begins. Despite sitting around a table for degustation in a resort restaurant called 1808, there’s no mistaking where in the world I am. One sip of the lolo and I’m cross-legged on a grass mat eating with my hands while voices from past visits insist “El, kana vakalevu”. Fijian for ‘eat very big’.

Meanwhile, the smoky flavours of the white broth have hurtled Castaway’s general manager back to his grandmother’s cooking in the family village. Stephen Andrews has been marooned here on Qalito Island in the Mamanuca Archipelago for over a decade and still enjoys the view. Saukuru, the resort’s sales and marketing manager who welcomed us at Denarau Marina earlier in the day with bear hugs all round, makes a momentary noise and expression as though she’s absolutely disgusted. Pacific Islander for OMG.

This is all over something as simple as coconut cream, but true lolo – your mouth shapes into a long appreciative “oh” as you say it – doesn’t come from any tin. A fresh mature coconut plucked from what Fijians call the tree of life is husked and cracked open then the meat is scraped out. After a brief but steamy liaison with a rock heated in hot coals, the cream is squeezed from the meat and strained then combined with raw fish or wild fern tips or boiled cassava or dalo leaves.

Or, in this case, Peking duck.

Sous chef Denis Chandra preps and cooks in front of us. He packs the grated coconut around the hot rock with his hands and explains in a quiet voice that the pork belly confit of a course to come has been marinated in seawater for three days.

1808 was the year Chinese people first came to Fiji and ingredients such as duck and pork belly are twists on traditional Fijian methods and dishes. The restaurant and menu were created by Lance Seeto; born in Papua New Guinea of Cantonese parents and raised in Australia, the man knows fusion. Seeto’s vision for 1808 was to blend ethnic Fijian cuisine – of mainly Polynesian and Melanesian roots – with Chinese and Indian cuisine. Fiji’s food already reflects this particular ethnic mélange, but Seeto has developed his own version and almost every dish is gluten free.

Castaway’s 1808 holds a maximum of 40 people though there’s not really any dining infrastructure beyond chairs and tables unless the weather’s wet or wild. “No chandeliers,” says Andrews. “We have the moon and the stars to light the area for us and the guys play live music”.

We eat dessert to the string band’s rendition of Fiji favourite ‘If I said you had a beautiful body (would you hold it against me)’. Saukuru accurately describes the cardamom and coconut rum chocolate fondant as a “sweet crunchy sexy thing” and tells us the word uro, meaning ‘fat’, can be a sassy compliment in Fiji. The dessert’s cacao was grown, harvested and processed into chocolate on the country’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu.

And Seeto? He’s left his mark and flown, but not so long ago and not very far away. The next morning I follow the trail of his wake to nearby Mana where the resort leases ground space from the landowning clans of the island’s Yaro village.

Ethnic Fijians, now officially called iTaukei, continue to own over 80 percent of the country’s land. Arthur Gordon, the second Governor of Fiji who took office in 1875, was largely responsible for the limiting of land sales – undoubtedly a key contributor to the survival of Fiji’s traditional communities and village ways. “Fijian culture is a living culture,” locals tell me.

Fijians see the forest and sea as their supermarket and pharmacy and many people in rural Fiji still live near-subsistence lifestyles; farming before the sun comes up and catching fish for dinner each afternoon. “But we are all Fijian,” is also something I hear from locals of various ethnic backgrounds.

“Before I came here, I didn’t know what happiness was,” Lance Seeto says with the Aussiest of accents on a Mana Island beach. Seeto has obviously struggled all his life with liking himself and feeling accepted by others but claims Fiji has changed all that. After arriving here a few years ago, he explains, “I had this peaceful calm serenity thing I’ve been looking for my whole bloody life” followed by a revelation that happiness and identity are inseparable.

Fiji, he says, has taught him about humanity and humility. Now Seeto is “giving back” to the country through a newspaper recipe column, a television series called ‘Taste of Paradise’, a book entitled ‘Coconut Bliss’ and the role of culinary ambassador for Fiji Airways.

His latest venture is open air restaurant WAR – an acronym for Wild and Raw – which will have a traditional lovo oven in the kitchen and serve small plates Seeto promises will “showcase Fijian produce, flavours and ancestral gastronomy”. As part of Mana’s overall recovery from Cyclone Winston, WAR is scheduled for completion in late 2016.

While the coconuts are scraped to make lolo, we snorkel for sea grapes in the receding tide. Back on shore, the magnesium-rich green polyps feature in a delicate raw fish salad created by Seeto and his team, who prepare a feast that crescendos with half a lobster and ends on another version of sweet crunchy sexy thing.

Back on Viti Levu I spend a night outside Nadi in a bungalow at Yatule on Natadola Beach. Yatule means sardine. And it really is like the little one that got away from the hotel hub of Denarau where gimmicky interpretations of Fiji tend to, like the cooking of an oyster, reduce and spoil the natural flavour.

Over a tasty and more European-influenced lunch alongside Natadola, where people ride horses bareback in the sunshine, marketing guy Robin Maivusaroko tells me “we buy pretty much everything local. We go to Nadi market three times a week for our fresh produce. We go to Lautoka Wharf when the fishermen come in from the Mamanucas and Yasawas, so we have fresh seafood all the time”.

Yatule’s executive chef, Swiss-born Fiji resident Markus Nufer, has now replaced Seeto at 1808 in a game of chef tetras and left behind a team of young local chefs so well trained and competent he’s rendered his position at Yatule obsolete. Nufer recognises “there’s a lot of potential and talent in this country”.

After all the fabulous fine dining and fancy fusion, though, I’m craving the Fiji food of local friends, village homestays and an airbnb in Nadi where hosts provide all meals and optional 6am roti-making lessons. Back at Castaway, Kini Saukuru had mentioned Sweet Laisa’s Kitchen in Nadi for something “more like home cooking” with a daily changing seafood-rich menu priced for locals.

A few bare white bulbs hang over a collection of wooden picnic tables under a large canvas awning next to a main road. The menu is written by hand across three chalkboards, everyone’s cutlery is wrapped in a paper serviette and the plastic saltshakers are straight from the supermarket shelf. Laisa’s has all the understatedness I find often precedes a really special local meal in most parts of the world.

We eat big. Very big.

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