Eat your heart out in Fiji

By Juliet Rowan

For most Fijians, using kava for anything other than drinking is unthinkable.

But kava-seared tuna and kava icecream were two items on the menu when Salt Restaurant, at the Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa, won best restaurant at the Fiji Tourism Awards last year.

The resort's executive sous chef Ajay Zalte says he and the other chefs went out on a limb planning the menu.

"No one in history has done a kava-seared tuna," he laughed.

"But the judges loved it."

Zalte, 36, said such dishes were typical of the country's new breed of
chefs who were taking traditional ingredients and turning them into dishes of striking creativity.

Zalte was born in India and arrived in Fiji 2 years ago after stints in Britain, the United States, Dubai and New Zealand.

He said being a chef in Fiji was a joy because of the freshness and abundance of fruit, vegetables and seafood.

Zalte accompanied us on a trip to Nadi market, the hub of food supply nearest the resort mecca of Denerau - and a great place for foodies to see the array of ingredients available.

Saturday is the main market day but we visited on a Tuesday and the
market was still busy.

It didn't look much from the outside but a stroll through the stalls revealed plenty of fruit and veges unfamiliar to the New Zealand eye.

Zalte assured us everything was organic - partly because the growers
did not have the money to spend on fertilisers and pesticides.

Among the more exotic items we saw were spiky yellow jackfruit, bright red bongo chillis and warty-looking bush lemons and oranges.

"They look so horrible from the outside but they are the sweetest fruit you can ever eat," Zalte enthused.

A bag of six passionfruit cost a bit less than $1 and proved to be just as sweet as he boasted.

I also marvelled at large bunches of fresh ginger, again less than $1 - a bargain you'd struggle to find at home.

The Asian and Indian influences in Fijian cuisine are strong and Zalte uses a special blend of 18 spices from the market for his curries.

He introduced us to the spice merchant who had a colourful stall with bowls full to the brim with freshly ground spices.

We also walked past countless stalls dedicated to kava where men
sat in groups drinking bowls of the gentle narcotic. It was a sight we
saw in every town and village. It seems kava is as much a part of life
in Fiji as going out for coffee is in New Zealand.

At the Nadi market, ready-to-drink kava, powdered kava and whole kava plants are for sale.

We did not try any on this occasion; nor for that matter, did we get to sample kava-seared tuna or kava icecream.

But back at the hotel, Zalte and sous chef Lino Tino did whip up what is probably Fiji's most famous dish - kokoda.

The raw fish they used had been delivered straight off the boat to the hotel and the coconut milk came from a real coconut rather than a tin.

With my new-found appreciation of the tangy local chillis and coriander, it convinced me that Fiji is indeed a foodie's paradise.

Juliet Rowan and photographer Alan Gibson travelled to Fiji courtesy of the Fiji Islands Visitors Bureau.

GETTING THERE: Air Pacific has 14 flights a week from New Zealand to Fiji. See www.airpacific.com or ring 0800 800 178.

FURTHER INFORMATION: For information about visiting Fiji see the Fiji Visitors Bureau website at www.bulafiji.com or ring (09) 376 2533.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 25 Jul 2014 14:37:33 Processing Time: 1702ms