From curry dishes to vegetable sides, Fijian cuisine can offer lessons in heritage, culture and daily island living. On one of these islands, I discovered a cooking school that gives visitors a hands-on exploration of home-style native cuisine.
Opened in May of 2013, Flavours of Fiji Cooking School holds a daily half-day Fiji food class that teaches students through a fun yet informative method known as “the Fijian way.” Classmates learn how to prepare roughly six or so dishes based from a pre-set menu at assigned cooking stations.
Luckily, I have the opportunity to be a student for a day, which immerses me in a world of dishes that are spicy, sweet and nutritious.
Fiji Food: What Is It?
So, what is Fijian cooking? As the school’s director, Malisa Raffe, explains, “Fijian cooking has developed into a diverse blend of delicious flavors from Melanesia, Polynesia, India, China, Rotuma and other Pacific Islands. Local food encompasses a wonderful fusion of fresh seafood, exotic fruit and local vegetables creating mouth-watering flavors. Dishes are cooked to taste, ingredients are thrown in liberally, everything is always served in abundance and guests are always welcomed with ‘have you eaten?.’ Our food is our culture.”
A Lesson In Fijian Cooking
Our course starts off with a presentation on the various fruits and root and green vegetables that are staples in the Fijian diet. Raffe leads us to a table featuring a display of ingredients with placards listing their names and brief descriptions: taro (a starchy root vegetable), bhindi (okra), kumquat (a citrus fruit), vudi (banana) and dovu (sugar cane), among other edibles.
Then the coursework begins. Fittingly being “farm to table” and allowing students to support ecotourism in Fiji, the cooking school’s class menus are seasonally planned. Fortunately, Fiji’s fertile soil and tropical climate allow for produce to grow easily. Currently available fresh fruits and vegetables are bought from local marketplaces. Along with original meals, dishes for the day demonstrate the multicultural influences such as Indian that have become infused with native cuisine overtime. Menus can be specific such as with themes of “Fiji Day” or in honor of events such as Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, or simply showcase traditional foods.
“Our Menus are seasonal and our team starts each day at the local markets sourcing fresh fruits & vegetables and seafood caught that morning, explains Malisa Raffe, Director of Flavours of Fiji Cooking School. “Our most popular Menu is “Kaiviti Magiti” (Local Feast) which consists of a delicious selection of Fijian dishes, Indian dishes and tropical sweets — seven dishes in total! Our recipes always focus on seafood, root crops, local fruits and vegetables, an exotic array of local style curries, homemade chutneys, fresh tropical juice and local sweets.”
Ingredients in Fijian cuisine can often be used for more than just eating. For example, the leaves from a banana plant can be used as place mats or to wrap chicken, meat or fish in for grilling. Moreover, the oil from a coconut, as commonly now known, is perfect for a person’s beauty needs.
With my group, we have a lesson in “Fijian, Indian & Tropical Sweet,” preparing a fish dish, two curries, two vegetable sides, a flatbread and a banana dessert. Required ingredients are supplied and pulled from shelves below our stations as needed.
Fijian Culinary Traditions
Raffe, our instructor, provides step-by-step instructions with each recipe, and with help from her assistants who are also home cooks, we listen to personal stories about how Fijian dining while working on our dish assignments. One such story: While cooking rourou, we hear how elders eat the green leaves of the taro plant (the younger generation might be iffy) so often that they credit it with keeping them from getting sick.
There are also special Fijian cooking traditions, the most popular of which is “lovo,” an underground oven used to cook feasts for many special occasions. The family gathers to peel and chop root crops, wrap whole chickens, pieces of pork and fish in banana leaves and also to prepare “palusami.” This is a delicious mixture of coconut cream, onions, tomatoes, salt, chilli and either fish or corned meat wrapped in taro leaves. This cooking process steams the food until tender and gives it a delicious earthy and smoky flavor.
Another cooking tradition found in the remote interior village is steaming food in a hollowed-out freshly-cut piece of bamboo. This is placed over an open fire to five the food a pleasant wood-fired flavor.
A Delicious Journey
In mixing and pouring in bowls, sauteing and stirring up pots, I enjoy the sights and scents of my coursework: adding in aromatic spices for my curries, awkward flipping over each side of my flatbread, and squeezing lime juice onto fish for a native ceviche called Kokoda.
Says Raffe, “Kokoda has been a national favorite since the dawn of time. Its’ special because it encompasses a fusion of our most popular local ingredients: walu or wahoo (fish), coconut cream, lemon, chilli, tomato and salt — all thrown in liberally to taste! As these ingredients are always readily available, it is a quick and easy dish to prepare… and delicious!”
And, of course, you get to eat what you made when the class has ended. After we finished up our dishes, we sat down together alongside plates with cut-up taro, pineapple and papaya and a freshly made juice. We also “graduated” that day. The school staff presented our group with diplomas naming each of us as a “Local Master Cook.” While I’m not sure I truly deserved the title of “Master Cook,” I did feel my Fijian cooking confidence growing. In fact, I made a promise to myself to practice the recipes provided after the class, hopefully shifting my title from Local International Cook to International.
Says Raffe, “Our ultimate goal is to showcase our delicious homestyle cuisine to visiting tourists and local alike so they can enjoy a fun activity, share our love of local food and learn about culture. We are proud of our heritage and proud of our food and take great delight in showcasing our cuisine to the rest of the world. Cooking traditional dishes in a modern environment allows guests to feel comfortable and enjoy a special and unique culinary experience along the way.”
To help you become a master of Fijian cooking yourself, Flavours of Fiji Cooking School has provided their recipe for Kokoda, a raw fish dish and national favorite among locals and residents.
1/2 kg very fresh walu (Spanish Mackerel), Mahimahi or Snapper fillet, skinned
Juice of 8 lemons
1 medium-size onion finely diced
1 red chilli finely sliced (optional)
1 cup finely chopped tomato
Several spring onions finely sliced
2 cups coconut milk
Salt to taste
Lime wedges to serve
1. Cut the fish into 1 cm cubes (preferable to discard any darkened cubes)
2. In a bowl, mix the fish and the lemon juice to marinate for two to three hours, or until
the fish is opaque
3. Drain the lemon from the fish and add the onion, chilli, tomato, spring onion, coconut
milk and salt
4. Mix well, chill and serve with lime wedges (do not refrigerate for too long as the coconut
milk will solidify)
Kana Vinaka! (Delicious Food!)
By Michele Herrmann
Have you savored Fijian cooking? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.
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