Jane Jeffries tries to mind her manners while cooking a meal for her fellow cruise ship passengers in Fiji.

I'm sitting cross-legged on the floor - in a style authentic to Pacific dining. And my legs are authentically aching.

I haven't sat like this for years.

On the woven mat I wiggle, trying to get comfortable as I slice tomatoes and help prepare the meal for the guests tonight.

Every Wednesday, the Blue Lagoon Cruise anchors off Sawa-i-Lau Island and the passengers come ashore to the local village for dinner to experience an authentic Fijian meal.


I have come to the village a little earlier than the other guests, as I want to learn about traditional Fijian cooking. The other 51 passengers will arrive in a couple of hours.

There are 200 people living in the most northern village in the Yasawa Islands. Most of the adults are involved in the evening festivities in one way or another, hunting and gathering, preparing, cooking, the kava ceremony, singing or cleaning up long after the guests have returned to the luxury of the Fiji Princess.

Providing a weekly meal to the Blue Lagoon passengers is the village's only real source of income, with the majority of the funds going to the local school. Talking with the village folk, I am impressed by the high value placed on educating the younger generation.

At first light this morning the men were out spearfishing and have come home with red snapper for the curry and over 100 crabs they caught at high tide.

The husks of several dozen coconuts have been removed and the flesh scraped to produce large quantities of coconut cream, a key ingredient for many of the dishes tonight.

While the Western world has only recently acknowledged the virtues of the coconut - now coined a "super food" - it has been a staple and a source of nutrients for Pacific Island communities for decades.

Cooking with three of the village menfolk, I work out who is the head chef, the sous chef and the assistant chef.

Telling them my version of who is boss, they glow with their new titles and tell me about the dish we are preparing.

Chef Luke Limanatini prepares and eggplant dish for guests from the Fiji Princess cruise ship. Photo / Jane Jeffries
Chef Luke Limanatini prepares and eggplant dish for guests from the Fiji Princess cruise ship. Photo / Jane Jeffries

Head chef Luke says the eggplant slices have been dusted in coconut flour and fried. Placing a slice each of tomato and onion and a layer of tinned tuna on each slab of eggplant, he puts them on a large metal tray and drizzles with coconut cream.

I stupidly ask if we are in the kitchen, as the room has no bench, no utensils other than a couple of knives, no running water and no oven. Before Luke replies, I feel my colour rise, hoping I haven't offended him.

He quite simply says, it is the kitchen, soon to be the dining room and later the bedroom.

Still perplexed, I wonder how we are going to cook the eggplant. Luke leads me outside to another basic hut, made of palm leaves and little else, where a fire burns in the back corner. He places the buckled metal tray on the embers and says with a smile, "You didn't think I had two kitchens, did you?"

I am invited into another home where more food preparation is underway. Over a gas flame, a large pot of fish curry is simmering. The ingredients are limited and the dish is simple, with red snapper, onion, curry powder (bought on the mainland) and coconut cream.

The heads of the red snappers are boiling away in another large pot. I am told it is the fish soup.

There's a flurry of activity outside as a trail of women carry cushions into the hall for the guests to sit on.

Others are busy setting up their wares for sale on the lawn: handcrafted shell necklaces and trinkets made from coconut shells.

The other guests come ashore and we are welcomed with a song before the kava ceremony. We nominate a chief from the cruise ship, John, who engages with the village chief before the kava is offered to the guests.

The Yasawa Island Resort beach. Photo / Supplied
The Yasawa Island Resort beach. Photo / Supplied

Helping ourselves to the buffet, the banquet is extensive and while it is supposed to mimic a traditional village meal we are being treated to much more.

With all the food on one plate, I try and separate the flavours. The fish curry is tasty and thick although the bones are distracting.

The crab has been stripped of its flesh and put back in the shell with coconut cream and is easy to slurp, tasting a little like kokoda (Fijian raw fish salad). The eggplant stack is rich and soft with the moisture from the coconut cream.

And lastly, the shredded taro leaves and coconut cream make a deliciously sloppy vegetable dish.

Sitting back, content, a half-coconut shell is placed before me on the floor and having eaten with my fingers, I assume it is a finger bowl. Immersing both hands, it is then I realise it is the fish soup.

Stifling a laugh, I glance around the room hoping nobody has witnessed my faux pas, but smelling a little fishy it is not too hard to guess what I have done.

The writer travelled courtesy of Blue Lagoon Cruises.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Nadi.

Details: Blue Lagoon Cruises depart Port Denarau for a seven-day cruise around the Yasawa Islands. Passengers can also join the cruise for a three- or four-day duration.