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Loosen your belt
Human beings used to feature regularly on the Fijian menu. But these days visitors to the islands need to worry only about their waistline. Modern Fijian cooking, say Kate and Rory Gibson, is like the people: big-hearted and generous
Kate and Rory Gibson
Not so long ago, we lived in Fiji, a country whose cuisine has changed a bit since missionaries were on the village menu. Evidence of this gruesome culinary past can be found in the Fiji Museum, Suva, which displays a bit of shoe leather believed to be the only thing left of Rev Thomas Baker after he was eaten 137 years ago. Rev Baker was an unlucky cove in terms of timing, because soon after his messy end the tribes of Fiji took up Christianity and stopped feasting on "long pig".
Though the islands have given up that signature dish, there are still many pleasures to be had on the food front. One morning, I went on a fishing trip with a Fijian mate, Big Willy (honest). We'd been out since dawn, and when we came ashore I was starving. "What's for lunch?" I asked.
"Fijian sandwich," he grunted.
Great, I thought, a local delicacy will be revealed to me, and I will later astound expatriate guests with the depth of my knowledge of local customs. Then Will pulled out two loaves of bread, sliced them down the middle as you would a hot-dog bun and smeared the insides with enough butter to clog 10 hearts. Next, out came a huge slab of corned beef, which he cut in half. He rammed the two pieces into the loaves and handed me one.
"Fijian sandwich," he confirmed.
If picnicking in Fiji had a slightly rough and ready appeal, home cooking can be a sumptuous affair. But if you do make it on to a guest list in the islands, check up on local customs to avoid any embarrassing moments of cultural ignorance. I wish we'd done this when we accepted a dinner invitation soon after arriving on Fiji. We turned up at 7.30pm, eager to get our fangs into some authentic Fijian home cooking, and thrilled to be dining with our host and his extended family. Offered a drink, I went for the local rum, called Bounty, and settled into a comfy cane chair to have a chat while an army of wives and daughters filled a long table with exotic fare. Our glasses kept getting filled, but no one made a move on the food. We were waiting to be asked to be seated, or for someone to feed the kids first, but it never happened.
The hours ticked by, the food went cold, the kids didn't eat and the rum was having a dramatic effect. At midnight, legless and starving, the rum became my spokesman. I begged our host to let us eat before the kids, who were still sitting around patiently waiting for the feast to start.
"Of course," he said. "That is what we have been waiting for."
No one had told us that Fiji custom forbids anyone else to eat before the guest of honour.
Recipes serve six.
Spiced sweet potato and banana salad
We raided Taste Of The Pacific, by Susan Parkinson, Peggy Stacy and Adrian Mattinson, for help with all recipes.
400g sweet potato, cooked
4 ripe bananas
60ml lemon juice
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp curry powder
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp chopped spring onions
Chopped parsley or coriander
Cut the sweet potato into 2.5cm cubes. Slice the bananas and marinate in lemon juice. Heat the oil in a saucepan, and sauté the curry powder and garlic. Cool and mix with the mayonnaise to form a curry dressing. Combine the banana and sweet potato. Fold in the dressing and onions. Garnish with parsley or coriander.
Goat meat is darker, richer and has less fat than lamb.
2 tbsp oil
700g goat meat, cut into 1.5cm cubes
1 large onion, sliced
2 gloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp crushed fresh ginger root
4 cardamom pods
1 tsp each coriander seed, cumin, fennel seed and black pepper, all ground
1 whole chilli (or to taste)
3 tbsp cashew or macadamia nuts
3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
180ml natural yogurt
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt
Heat the oil in the pan, add the meat and brown. Remove the meat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and cardamom, and stir fry over a medium heat until the onions turn golden. Add the spices and nuts, and stir fry for a minute. Add the tomatoes and simmer until soft. Return the meat to the pan. Beat the yogurt with a little water and the lemon juice, and stir in. Season, cover, and simmer over a low heat until the meat is tender. Serve with rice and chutney. Season to taste.
A traditional Fijian dish made with taro leaves (swiss chard or big spinach leaves make a good substitute). The usual filling is corned beef and onion; seafood is delicious, too.
2 or 3 dozen young taro leaves
500ml coconut cream
200g cooked corned beef
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
Remove the central stalk from the leaves, soften them in hot water until pliable, then arrange in order of size, so that the smaller ones are on top. Make sure any holes are covered. For individual servings, hold the leaves in the palm of your hand to form a cup. For larger servings, place in a shallow round bowl. Put half the coconut cream and the beef in the centre of the leaves, add a layer of tomato and onion, season with salt, then top with the remaining coconut cream (you may not need it all). Fold over the leaves to make a neat parcel, and secure the ends with a toothpick. Wrap in foil, place in a covered container and bake in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes (longer for a larger parcel). Alternatively, cook in a steamer. Serve hot or cold.
Traditionally served at Fijian feasts.
4 tbsp corn starch
115g banana, sliced
115g guava, thinly sliced
115g papaya, diced
115g pineapple, diced
60ml lemon juice
250ml coconut cream
In a saucepan, mix the sugar, corn starch and water, then bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, add the fruit and simmer for a couple of minutes. Set aside to cool. Stir in the lemon juice, pour into serving dishes and chill. Just before serving, top with coconut cream
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008