Eating and drinking in Fiji

AS A COUPLE
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Until fairly recently Fiji was a bit of a culinary backwater, with very basic Indian and Chinese restaurants dominating the high streets and most resorts serving unimaginative international cuisine. However much has changed: both Nadi and Suva boast stylish and reasonably priced restaurants serving everything from Italian to Japanese food, and it’s also now easier to find well-presented traditional Fijian cuisine. Out on the resorts, internationally acclaimed chefs have been brought in to raise the cooking standards expected by upmarket travellers.

Fijian cuisine

Fijian cuisine includes plenty of locally caught bony reef fish cooked in rich coconut cream, and sometimes kai mussels, mud crabs and even lobster, but little meat except for slow-cooked pig (taro) on a special occasion. When the seas are rough or the season’s pickings are slender, Fijians resort to imported fatty mutton and tinned corned beef, the latter perceived as something of a delicacy and often served up by the carton at ceremonial functions.

Appearing at every mealtime is a hefty portion of starchy rootcrop, either cassava (a bland and extremely dry tuber), dalo (known as taro in Polynesia, a large corn) or yams (huge tubers, sometimes two metres long, and the most flavoursome of the three rootcrops). Vegetables are less common, with the most popular being bele, a green, sometimes slimy, leaf, and rourou, the leaf of the dalo crop which if cooked too quickly causes an itchy sensation to the throat. The availability of fruit is dependent on the season.

Traditional Fijian dishes include: kokoda, made from a large fish, usually tuna or wahoo, chopped into chunks, marinated overnight in lime juice and chillies, seasoned with coconut cream and served cold; palusami, coconut cream wrapped up in the leaf of dalo and slow cooked (delicious); and the kids’ favourite vakalolo, a sticky pudding made from cassava mixed with sugar and thick coconut cream and best served with ice cream and bananas. Fish in lolo (coconut cream) with cassava or dalo is served as counter food in most high-street restaurants, but finding the more delicate dishes of kokoda, palusami, vakalolo or lovo suckling pig is more challenging: Nadina in Nadi and Old Mill Cottage in Suva are two of the few restaurants serving traditional Fijian cuisine.

Fiji-Indians tend to be more adventurous in taste, relying on home-cooked curries, often made of freshly picked vegetables seasoned with hot chillies and other spices, accompanied by home-made chutney but usually drowned in oil or ghee.

Seasonal fruit and vegetables

While they are available in supermarkets, imported fresh ingredients are often too expensive for Fijians and the resorts have been encouraged by successive governments to source more produce locally. The results are slowly being realized, giving Fijians a new source of income.

The availability of fruit and some vegetables is determined by the seasons, with local produce extremely cheap when in abundance – bananas, pawpaw (also known as papaya) and coconuts are available year-round. Expensive imports including apples, oranges and melons bolster lows in productivity. The following is a list of fruits grown extensively in Fiji:

January Watermelon, pineapple, vi (Tahitian apple), avocado, vutu (small nut, similar to almond), guava, lemon.

February Pineapple, vi, avocado, guava, lemon, Ivi (Tahitian chestnut).

March Guava, lemon, Ivi, mandarin, orange.

April Guava, lemon, lvi, mandarin, orange.

May Lemon, mandarin, orange, daruka (Fijian asparagus).

June Mandarin, orange, passionfruit, tarawao (small, round and crunchy with a hard seed), dawa (Fijian lychee), watermelon, soursop (large spiky looking fruit with lots of hard seeds, creamy in texture).

July Passionfruit, tarawao (tiny hard, sour fruit), dawa, watermelon, soursop.

AugustKavika (wax apple), soursop.

September Mango, pineapple, kavika, soursop.

October Mango, pineapple, kavika, jackfruit.

November Mango, pineapple, jackfruit, vi (Tahitian apple), breadfruit, vutu.

December Watermelon, pineapple, vi (Tahitian apple), breadfruit, avocado, vutu.

Breakfast and lunch

Breakfast at resorts inevitably includes fresh fruit and a continental-style buffet with freshly baked breads and cereals. In the Fijian home it’s often a much heartier affair, with a large plate of boiled rice or cassava, fish if caught the night before, heavy pancakes, sweet tea and plain biscuits.

Lunch is the most commonly overlooked meal in Fiji, and many tourists often find it too hot to consider eating anything substantial, with salads and quick snacks most popular.

Dinner and eating out

Dinner is usually taken early, and you’ll find all restaurants open by 6pm and often winding down by 9pm, or perhaps 10pm on busy nights. At independent restaurants mains start from F$9 and seldom rise above F$40 even in Nadi and Suva.

Dinner at resort restaurants is always more expensive, and at most island resorts it’s your only option, with mains starting around F$15 and often reaching F$50 or more. Buffet dinners are popular at the large resorts, particularly the weekly Fijian lovo night (costing from F$50–80 a person), when a suckling pig and root crops are cooked in an underground oven and usually preceded by a traditional dance.

Drinks

Fijians have a reputation for enjoying a drink, always in company and often to excess, be it the national drink, yaqona (known as kava in Polynesian countries), beer or local dark rum. Drinking sessions are invariably all-male affairs with a single glass or cup passed around in rotation and the contents swallowed in one gulp – a sure way of ending up drunk quickly. If out at a bar or nightclub, closing time is usually 1am, although on Saturday everything must close by midnight to avoid being open on a Sunday.

Beer

The four labels of local beer are passable, all highly carbonated lagers brewed in Suva under a subsidiary of the Australian Fosters Group. Fiji Bitter (4.6 percent alcohol) is the most palatable. Lighter in taste but of similar strength are Fiji Gold, Fiji Export and Fiji Premium, all more popular with tourists. Fiji Bitter comes in two sizes: 375ml “stubbies” and the larger 750ml “long necks”, popular with the locals; Gold comes in stubbies only, Export in cans and Premium in clear bottles. In the shops a stubby costs around F$3, in the local bars it’s anything from F$3.50 to F$6 and in the resorts it starts at F$6. Draft Fiji Bitter can be found at the more upmarket bars and resorts and is infinitely better tasting. Imported bottled beer, mostly lagers from Australia, cost a few dollars more. If you thirst for a draught Guinness you’ll need to head to O’Reillys Bar in Suva.

Rum and other spirits

Rum, brewed from local sugar in Lautoka, is popularly referred to as “wash down”, drunk after a yaqona session to sweeten the palate. The smooth, mellow Bounty Dark Rum brand has won several international awards and costs around F$40 for a 750ml bottle. Both dark and white rum are regular ingredients in the gorgeous cocktails concocted by resort barmen – these usually cost anywhere from F$20 to F$30 although happy-hour prices are substantially discounted. Locally brewed gin and vodka are less appealing.

It’s worth noting that you can buy up to 2.25 litres of duty-free liquor on arrival at Nadi Airport beside the luggage carousel before clearing customs.

Wine

Wine is usually imported from Australia and New Zealand – a reasonable bottle will cost F$25 in a bottle shop, and perhaps double that in a restaurant. BYO is not a common practice but some restaurants do permit this, with a corkage fee around F$10. In the villages, home-made wine made from pineapples, watermelon or oranges is worth trying if offered.

Soft drinks

Despite the abundance of fruit, freshly squeezed fruit juices and smoothies can be hard to come by in towns or even resort bars. However, you will find that Fijians are amazingly adept at shinning up tall palm trees, felling a coconut, slicing its top off and offering the milky contents as a refreshing drink. Trying one is something of a must-do in Fiji.

Tap water in towns is filtered and chlorinated and on the whole safe to drink, although it’s best avoided after heavy rains when sediment often appears. Chilled, sweetened tap water mixed with fresh limes is sold from glass tanks at all town markets. At rural and outer-island resorts, water is sourced from natural springs or wells, although for drinking purposes rainwater collected in tanks is preferable. Brackish well water is sometimes a problem, and in places of scarcity, especially in the Mamanucas, desalination plants have been installed which often give a slightly saline taste to the water and anything made from it.

Bottled water, for which Fiji is globally renowned, costs around F$3 for a large 1.5-litre bottle in the shops, depending on brand, but at least triple that in the resorts. Fiji Water, owned by a private American company and hugely popular in the US, is sourced from a deep well beneath the Nakauvadra Range in northern Viti Levu, with a multi-million dollar bottling plant at Yaqara. Other local brands include VTY, a pun on Fiji Water (Viti is Fiji and Wai is water in Fijian), Island Chill and Aqua Pacific, all sourced on Viti Levu.

The lovo

In pre-European times, the Fijian islanders cooked food in bamboo strips on an open fire but, with increased trade with the Tongans, the underground oven or lovo was adopted. To make a lovo, a hole is dug in the soil, laid with wood over which black volcanic stones are placed. A fire is lit, the stones are heated and the food, wrapped carefully in banana leaves or tin foil, is placed on top. The main constituents are usually a whole pig at the bottom with dalo, yam, chicken, fish and palusami laid on top in order to give each the correct amount of cooking. The hole is covered with coconut leaves with soil spread on top sealing in the heat and cooking the food slowly (anything from an hour to five hours depending on size). Most Fijian families prepare a lovo early Sunday morning before heading to church so it is ready for eating at lunch. Lovos also form the heart of ceremonial feasting at weddings, funerals and any other communal gathering.

Yaqona

Also known as kava or more simply “grog”, yaqona is Fiji’s national drink. Made from the pounded roots of the pepper plant (piper methysticum), it has an earthy, rather bitter taste and resembles muddy water. Although it takes some getting used to, yaqona (pronounced “yan-go-na”) is refreshing and has a relaxing effect upon the body. Drunk socially by Fijians and Fiji-Indians, it is also used in formal situations and will be offered as part of a ceremony to welcome you to a village.

The ritual begins with the presentation of your sevusevu, or introductory gift (see Village etiquette), accompanied by a speech by the village herald. After this, the yaqona roots are mixed with water in a carved bowl (tanoa) while all participants sit in a circle on the floor. Once ready, the drink is served in a half coconut shell known as a bilo. It is presented first to the chief and then to any guests. When it’s your turn to drink, cup your hands, clap once and say “bula” (cheers); you then take the cup and down the contents in one go. Return the cup to the bearer and clap your hands again three times, proclaiming “maca”, a signal of gratification. The formal ceremony ends when the tanoa bowl is empty, indicated by a round of clapping. Throughout the ceremony it’s considered bad manners to talk, turn your back on the chief or to point your feet towards the tanoa bowl.

After a few cups of yaqona you may notice your tongue and lips become numb, a temporary effect caused by the active ingredients in the root. Consuming yaqona in large quantities can case drowsiness, so avoid driving or going swimming immediately after drinking it.

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