Mountain fern salad, taro leaves in coconut milk, sea grapes... Jane Jeffries meets three chefs shaking things up.
Chef Koro, Blue Lagoon Cruise
On board the Blue Lagoon Cruise, executive chef, Koro has worked in the galley for 20 years.
The small boutique ship, the Fiji Princess, cruises around the Yasawa Islands, showcasing Fiji and "real" Fijian traditional cuisine. "We want our passengers to leave us having experienced the traditional Fijian cooking," says Koro.
Koro cooks around the clock for up to 68 passengers. Preparing three meals a day, he is barely out of the kitchen for three weeks at a time, before hanging up his apron for a week off.
During the week-long cruise, Koro and his team cook local and Western dishes, but there are two "standout" memorable Fijian meals.
The lovo is a traditional method of cooking meat and crops under the ground. Large baskets of pork, chicken, taro, cassava and sweet potatoes are left to steam for hours. When the piping hot succulent food is ready to be served it is rich in flavour.
The second real Fijian experience cannot be attributed to Koro, but to the locals at Tamasua Village, the northernmost village in the Yasawa Islands. The residents have been working hard, hunting and gathering from the sea and land before preparing a red snapper curry, crabs, cassava, sweet potato and taro leaves in coconut milk. Sitting cross-legged in the village hall, we eat the native food with our fingers and enjoy the kava ceremony - it doesn't get more real than this.
Chef Daz, Mai Kana Restaurant
Darren Braddock, alias Chef Daz, from Mai Kana Restaurant in the First Landing Beach Resort in Lautoka, absolutely gets it. "Food is a very important part of any holiday," he says.
He describes Fijian cooking as very basic, "just harnessing the natural flavours".
However, with years of international experience he is adding his touch to Fijian cuisine along with the already ingrained Indian, Chinese and European influences.
We are at Mai Kana to sample a tasting menu for lunch. Chef Daz and his team also run a small cooking school so he demonstrates his version of kokoda, a traditional dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut cream.
He starts by creating a key ingredient, the coconut cream. Chef Daz uses the coconut scraper (a stick with a sharp metal end) to remove the creamy flesh from the husk, then squeezes the grated coconut to extract the cream. We do a tasting, comparing the freshly squeezed coconut cream and canned coconut cream. There is no comparison.
As he prepares the fish, Chef Daz explains why Fijian cuisine is very healthy. The coconut is at the heart of most dishes. He says: "The Fijian diet is predominantly dairy-free, gluten-free and the majority of carbohydrates they eat have a low glycemic index, or GI, meaning they are digested slowly resulting in a more gradual rise in blood glucose levels."
With the kokoda dish completed and topped with nama - fresh sea grapes - we are ready to start our tasting menu.
The kokoda is served in a half coconut shell and tastes as good as it looks. A pawpaw salad with chilli, tuna and corn is followed by a marinated beef salad, oozing with the familiar Asian flavours of sesame, ginger and garlic. The meal reaches a crescendo with the tempura coral trout on a bed of ota (mountain fern).
One of my finest dining experiences, ever, in Fiji.
Chef Stuart, Sofitel Fiji
Executive chef, Stuart Blair is new at the Sofitel in Denarau and plans to make his mark by "driving the seafood cuisine".
"People visit tropical Fiji believing there is an abundance of seafood - and there is. We just need to get it to the table," he says.
Blair's timing could not be better as it coincides with a new initiative from the Fijian Government encouraging outlying islands to catch and process fish for some of the more populated resort locations.
The initiative has started in Denarau.
Blair says there is a great source of mud crabs often weighing as much as 700g, as well as an excellent supply of salt water prawns, from two prawn farms. Larger fish like mahi-mahi and tuna are plentiful too; however, the new initiative is about getting the local villages to provide a wider variety of fish.
This will do two things, says Blair. "It will ensure sustainability as fish will be caught over a wide area and it will provide a greater variety of fish to the restaurant menus," he says.
However, the local villagers need to be educated about the hotel's requirements as they historically catch and sell fish by the bundle, with a variety of species and sizes.
They also need ice machines and cooling boxes to ensure the fish reach their destination fresh.
I enjoyed tuna from the a la carte menu and the delicious, fragrant Indian buffet, but I will be back to indulge in a seafood feast.
• Mai Kana Restaurant is part of the First Landing Beach Resort on Nalamu Beach near Latoka. Accommodation ranges from affordable villas to private beachfront bures.
• The Blue Lagoon Cruise leaves Denarau Marina weekly.
• The five-star Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa is on Denarau Island. It has a choice of three restaurants and a cafe.