When traditional fare is blended with five-star cuisine, Fiji becomes a fine food destination, writes Paul Rush.
"Ni sa mbula" (hello, how are you) says a tall Fijian-Indian man with a broad smile on his handsome face as he extends his hand in greeting. I take his hand and reply "An sa mbula vinaka," assuring him that I'm very well. In English I add that I'm looking forward to joining Executive Chef, Shailesh Naidu, in his Fijian cooking class in the Outrigger on the Lagoon's Ivi Restaurant.
Fiji's most awarded chef has plans to educate our small group of enthusiasts from the ground up. So we start our Masterclass at the Tian Chinese Organic Farm, where owner Mr Tian Ruige has introduced practical Chinese agricultural methods to grow a wide range of quality produce.
We see the impressive results of ten years of intensive labour in the market gardens. Orderly rows of vegetables are spaced out under protective plastic sheeting. Ingenious landscaping has provided gravity-fed irrigation canals throughout the gardens using water pumped from the Sigatoka River.
Some 85 families work here, many housed on the property. Two women look up briefly from their painstaking task of filling tiny seedling pots. Two workers call out a cheerful "Bula" from an old tractor while another sprays weeds in a vast cabbage patch. Young children with beaming smiles hitch up their pyjamas and laugh while jumping on the muddy ground outside their hut.
Stage two of our masterclass is a visit to Sigatoka, a small town on the Coral Coast of Viti Levu, situated on the banks of Fiji's second largest river. We stroll through the colourful produce markets, intrigued by the great variety of fruit and vegetables on display. The wooden benches are crammed with crops like taro root, breadfruit, yam, cassava, potatoes and kumara. Kava roots are twisted into tall intertwined bundles and are highly prized by the local shoppers.
Red and green chillies are everywhere, graded for their intensity of flavour. Avocados are popular and are called green pears. Lemons, limes, mango, guava and pineapple proliferate as do plantains and bananas. I take a tentative taste of star fruit, which is fresh and satisfying.
Shailesh is at the cutting edge of Fijian freestyle cooking. He is the first and only Fijian-born, five-star executive chef in the island nation and along with multiple wins as Fiji Chef of the Year. In 2005 he won Oceania Chef of the Year.
The Outrigger's Ivi Restaurant is a fitting venue for our Fijian cooking display by Shailesh, Sous Chef Priya and her assistant Aloti. This fine dining venue is rated in the top three restaurants in Fiji and uses only the finest ingredients from the local markets with lamb, Bluff oysters, Anchor milk, cheese and wines from New Zealand and eye filet steak from Tasmania.
Shailesh explains that traditional village meals are very bland, usually diced meat and fish boiled in a large communal pot with all the ingredients mixed together and spiced with garlic, chillies, ginger, turmeric, coriander and soy sauce. Fijian village families eat very little lamb or beef, preferring cheaper cuts like pork, goat, poultry and duck.
On special occasions Lovo (underground ovens) are used to cook a feast of seafood, pork, chicken, taro and tapioca, often prepared in sweet coconut cream. Coconut dominates Fijian cuisine and there are many simple village recipes for coconut buns, bread, puddings, pies and cakes have been passed down through the generations. The magiti (feast) is followed by a meke, an evening of traditional song and dance, including the women's fan dance and the men's spear dance.
Our masterclass cooking display begins with a dish known as reef lobster cerviche, which involves marinating thin sliced lobster in lime juice, then adding diced tomato, spring onion and chillies (Shailesh holds back on the hot-tasting chillies in deference to our Western palates). This dish is a South Pacific tradition and we find it delicious.
The second dish is a perfect blend of Polynesian and Western cuisine - seared sea snapper, kumala cake with vegetables and tropical salsa. The snapper fillets are seared and added to sautéed onions, tomato and simmered in coconut milk.
The kumala is boiled, grated and mixed with sautéed onion, garlic and ginger and made into patties and pan-fried. Finely diced pineapple, pawpaw, cucumber and mint are mixed with lemon juice to create the salsa. The result is a fascinating fusion of tropical tastes, which brings exclamations of delight from our group.
Our dessert treat is Banana Vaka-Lolo, made by mixing cassava juice with coconut, banana and brown sugar. The mixture is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Coconut caramel sauce is added to produce a refreshingly sweet island experience. It all goes down a treat.
In preparing this last dish, Priya demonstrates the laborious method of scraping coconut flesh out of the nut using a sharp metal tool, which she holds securely by sitting on the handle. This long-winded method is still common practice in the villages even though scraping machines are available.
Priya came to the Outrigger fresh out of school and trained on the job, making tea for the staff, then graduated to trainee chef, came through the ranks as assistant cook. Now six years later she is responsible for Ivi Restaurant, the resort's top dining establishment and one of the finest on the island. Shailesh jokes "I've just found out that Priya's aim is to replace me in two year's time".
Shailesh and Priya love experimenting with new ingredients and innovative recipes. "We use our imagination and play around with spices and seasonings, creating new flavours. It's the most fun you can have in the kitchen." Both these chefs have proved that innovation pays dividends as their string of awards attest.
Asked whether he cooks much at home, Shailesh says, No, that's why I have a wonderful wife". He does love to barbecue though with a chilly bin full of beers plus chicken, fish and lamb chops - his favourite dish.
Outrigger on the Lagoon is located on Fiji's Coral Coast, just over an hour's drive from Nadi Airport. The five-star resort has 207 rooms and suites and 47 bures set amidst 16ha of manicured gardens, which stretch along the shores of a reef-fringed lagoon. The luxurious Bebe Spa Sanctuary has eight treatment rooms with breathtaking views over the Pacific Ocean.
A wide range of excursions are available including visits to organic market gardens, the Sigatoka produce market, the off-road cave safari, a jet-boat river cruise and a visit to the Kula Eco Park. All have pick-ups from the hotel lobby.
*Paul Rush travelled to Fiji courtesy of Air Pacific and Outrigger on the Lagoon Resort.