TV chef determined to show how superior food caught or grown in the Pacific is to imports.

At the airport in Samoa, I once saw an arriving family laden down with jumbo boxes of a well-known brand of fried chicken. Coming back to their native island, where the water teems with fish, where coconuts and other fruit fall from trees, where taro and green leaves flourish in the rich soil, they could think of no better gift to bring than calorie-laden factory-farmed fast food, cooked 3000km away.

On a visit to Tonga, I dined at the mansion of Crown Prince Tupouto'a (later George Tupou V, now deceased) on lamb roast and frozen mixed vegetables, all from New Zealand. It seemed jarringly odd that the extravagantly generous hospitality of the royal host was not expressed in local flavours.

It's this Pacific version of what Kiwis have always called cultural cringe that Robert Oliver is determined to change. The Taranaki-born chef is the prime mover of a quiet revolution whose ripples are spreading out across the Pacific.

Oliver, who has had restaurants in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Sydney, was the co-author of the 2010 book Me'a Kai - the title means "come and eat" in Tongan - which collected and celebrated recipes supplied by locals, mainly women, from Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga and Tahiti.


He grew up in Fiji and Samoa, where his father started the local branches of the YMCA, which he remembers as "dynamic organisations doing innovative agricultural and social programmes". That spirit is behind his consuming mission to change food culture in the Pacific so that local produce and traditional methods supplant the bland corporatised cuisine found in most resort hotels.

"Restaurants are great holders of culture and communicators of culture," he explains. "The story of the food is the story of the people."

In many Pacific nations, the daily diet has become corrupted. The perceived "coolness" of non-island culture and the easy availability of high-fat, high-salt imported meats and fast food have all undermined the simple healthy diet of centuries.

Fiji has banned fatty mutton flaps and Pacific leaders have called on this country to limit the exports of such food. But Oliver is tackling the matter from another angle.

A television series, Real Pasifik, beginning next month, follows him around six Pacific island nations, including this one, as he meets local "food heroes", who link him up with the local cooking traditions that have been elbowed aside by the values of a tourism industry largely headquartered in other countries.

Much Pacific food gets a bad rap because the various islands are diffident about celebrating their food, says Oliver. More than 70 per cent of the food that tourists are served is imported, and the devaluing of local food has created the wrong impression about island cuisine.

"If the food is badly perceived, it affects the cultural sense of self-worth," he says. "Pacific food has been insulted roundly for years. It's not been intentional, but because I work with Pacific food producers I can see that it has had a really powerful effect on their international trade.

"There's nowhere else in the world where people go and say, 'We don't want your food, we want someone else's.' That's a pretty deep cultural insult, actually."


If the first episode, set in the Cook Islands, is any guide, Oliver is seeking to give a smart and healthy twist to local standards. He meets James Raukete, raised in New Zealand and trained as a chef, who has returned to the Cooks to learn about his ancestral culture. Raukete takes the classic Cook Islands dish, pink potato salad - which typically uses lots of imported frozen vegetables and oodles of high-calorie American mayonnaise - and revamps it with local sweet potatoes and reduced coconut milk.

Adimaimalaga Tafuna'i, the executive director of the Samoan organisation Women in Business Development, gave me an example of an idea sparked during filming. Samoa exports small misiluki bananas in dried form to New Zealand but was struggling to find a local market. Now, Dora Rossi, the co-owner and chef at Paddles Restaurant in Apia, has adapted sticky date pudding into sticky misiluki pudding - a real hit with locals and tourists alike.

"My choices as a restaurateur and chef can influence our small nation's economy," Rossi said. "People can indulge in delicious food and support Samoa's food growers at the same time."

*Real Pasifik screens on TV1 at 4pm Saturdays from September 7