Fiji's dining scene was pretty bleak when I first visited in the 1970s. There was tasty food to be had at the country's numerous curry houses, which catered to the local Indian population; but other restaurants offered bland fare of the roast and grilled steak variety that predominated in Australia and New Zealand in those days. What a world of difference 3 decades make: Fiji today has some very good restaurants serving food from around the globe -- although I never come here without also partaking of a native Fijian feast.
The Best Fijian Chow -- You'll be offered Fijian food during meke nights at the resorts, but I join the locals for the best Fijian chow at:
- Nadina Authentic Fijian Restaurant, Nadi (tel. 672 7313).
- Vilisite's Seafood Restaurant, Korovou, Coral Coast (tel. 653 0054).
- Hare Krishna Restaurant, 16 Pratt St., Suva (tel. 331 4154)
- Old Mill Cottage, 47-49 Carnavon St., Suva (tel. 331 2134)
- Surf 'n' Turf, the Copra Shed, Savusavu (tel. 881 0966)
- Vunibokoi Restaurant, Matei, Taveuni (tel. 888 0560)
Lovos and Mekes
Like most South Pacific islanders, the Fijians in pre-European days steamed their food in an earth oven, known here as a lovo. They would use their fingers to eat the huge feasts (mekes) that emerged, then would settle down to watch traditional dancing and perhaps polish off a few cups of yaqona.
The ingredients of a lovo meal are buaka (pig), doa (chicken), ika (fish), mana (lobster), moci (river shrimp), kai (freshwater mussels), and various vegetables, such as dense dalo (taro root), spinachlike rourou (taro leaves), and lumi (seaweed). Most dishes are cooked in sweet lolo (coconut milk). The most plentiful fish is the walu, or Spanish mackerel.
Fijians also make delicious kokoda (ko-kon-da), their version of fresh fish marinated in lime juice and mixed with fresh vegetables and coconut milk. Another Fijian specialty is palusami, a rich combination of meat or fish baked in banana leaves or foil with onions, taro leaves, and coconut milk.
Most resort hotels have mekes on their schedule of weekly events. Traditional Fijian dance shows follow the meals. Unlike the fast, hip-swinging, suggestive dancing of Tahiti and the Cook Islands, Fijians follow the custom of the Samoas and Tonga, with gentle movements taking second place to the harmony of their voices. The spear-waving war dances have more action.
Curry in Fiji
While not all menus include Fijian-style dishes, they all offer at least one Indian curry, which bodes well for vegetarians, since most Hindus eat no meat or seafood.
Fijian curries traditionally are on the mild side, but you can ask for it spicy. Curries are easy to figure out from the menu: lamb, goat, beef, chicken, vegetarian. If in doubt, ask the waiter or waitress. Roti is the round, lightly fried bread normally used to pick up your food (it is a hybrid of the round breads of India and Pakistan). Puri is a soft, puffy bread, and papadam is thin and crispy.
The entire meal may come on a round steel plate, with the curries, condiments, and rice in their own dishes arranged on the larger plate. The authentic method of dining is to dump the rice in the middle of the plate, add the smaller portions around it, and then mix them all together.
Wine, Beer and Spirits
Fiji does not produce wine, but connoisseurs will have ample opportunity to sample the vintages from nearby Australia, where abundant sunshine produces renowned full-bodied, fruit-driven varieties, such as chardonnay, semillon, Riesling, shiraz, Hermitage, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. New Zealand wines are also widely available, including distinctive whites, such as chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and soft merlot.
The country does brew the robust Fiji Bitter beer -- or "Stubbie" to locals because of its distinctive short-neck bottles. Fiji Gold is a somewhat lighter version.
With all those sugar-cane fields, it's not surprising that Fiji produces a decent dark rum known as Bounty. A gin is produced here, too, but it's best used as paint thinner.
Freight and import duties drive up the cost of other spirits and all wines, so expect higher prices than at home. I always bring my two allowed bottles of spirits from the duty-free shops at the airport.
Coffee lovers are in for a treat, for excellent beans are grown in Fiji's mountains. The robust product is darkly roasted and served throughout the country. The Bulaccino and Esquires outlets in Nadi and Suva will satisfy your daily caffeine needs.
The coffee lingo spoken in Fiji is different than the North American version. Over here, a short black is an espresso. A long black is two shots of espresso with extra hot water. A flat white is what we call a latte (half espresso, half steamed milk), while a trimmed flat white is a flat white with skim milk.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my Kiwi friend Maggie Kerrigan for translating; otherwise, I would still be shaking from caffeine withdrawal.
Known as kava elsewhere in the South Pacific, the slightly narcotic drink Fijians call yaqona (yon-gon-na) or "grog" rivals Fiji Bitter beer as the national drink. In fact, Fiji has more "grog shops" than bars. You will likely have half a coconut shell of grog offered -- if not shoved in your face -- beginning at your hotel's reception desk.
And thanks to the promotion of kavalactone, the active ingredient, as a health-food answer to stress and insomnia in the United States and elsewhere, growing the root is an important part of the South Pacific's economy. When fears surfaced a few years ago that kava could be linked to liver disease, locals commented that if that was true, there would be few healthy livers in Fiji.
Yaqona has always played an important ceremonial role in Fijian life. No significant occasion takes place without it, and a sevusevu (welcoming) ceremony is usually held for tour groups visiting Fijian villages. Mats are placed on the floor, the participants gather around in a circle, and the yaqona roots are mixed with water and strained through coconut husks into a large carved wooden bowl, called a tanoa.
The ranking chief sits next to the tanoa during the welcoming ceremony. He extends in the direction of the guest of honor a cowrie shell attached to one leg of the bowl by a cord of woven coconut fiber. It's extremely impolite to cross the plane of the cord once it has been extended.
The guest of honor (in this case your tour guide) then offers a gift to the village (a kilogram or two of dried grog roots will do these days) and makes a speech explaining the purpose of his visit. The chief then passes the first cup of yaqona to the guest of honor, who claps once, takes the cup in both hands, and gulps down the entire cup of sawdust-tasting liquid in one swallow. Everyone else then claps three times.
Next, each chief drinks a cup, clapping once before bolting it down. Again, everyone else claps three times after each cup is drained. Except for the clapping and formal speech, everyone remains silent throughout the ceremony, a tradition easily understood considering kava's numbing effect on the lips and tongue.
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