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Of Fijian coconuts and seafood

Published: 
Saturday, August 23, 2014
There’s some lovo-style cooking taking place here. PHOTO: WESLEY GIBBINGS

The main guide at the Navua River Village looked with knowing eyes at the unimpressed Trini in the gasping crowd. “This,” he declared, having cracked a dried, husked coconut in a single, impressive strike, “is what we use to get coconut milk.” If Fiji ever ran out of coconuts, the chefs would all go out of business and there would probably be riots on the hilly streets of Suva and the idyllic beaches of Pacific Harbour.

It’s in the ceviche-like Kokoda raw fish dishes, in the gravy prepared for traditional lovo dishes prepared under heated rocks covered by coconut branches and banana leaves. It’s also there in Indo-Fijian restaurants where you can get paime-like vakalolo wrapped in banana leaves or super-sweet payasam (looks and tastes like sawine to me) for dessert.

Caloric intake might dip somewhat if you wish to try duck curry (curried duck!) and paratha from one of the several roti shops around Suva or a spicy dhal soup served with almost everything in this town. Though the curry varies marginally from Trini brands, there are no complaints about the goat curry (curried goat!) or shrimp, served with a tomato choka and paratha.

Hardcore sea-fooders would, however, wait for Saturday morning when the lobster, conch, octopus and clam salesmen and women hit the market. It’s not that the heavily-favoured “kai” (fresh water mussels available every day of the week) are not delicious when boiled, curried or stewed, but that the cheapest lobsters are available to fill the pots alongside some of the tastiest shellfish this side of paradise every Saturday morning.

Far from home signals the need for extra care. Shellfish are best consumed raw in sauces that range from garlic-based dips to ketchup-laced Curepe junction oyster fare. But here we at least dunk the bounty in boiling water for a few minutes.

There is no rough Fijian equivalent of chadon beni, so ketchup, lemons, limes, hot peppers, garlic and a touch of salt and black pepper have to do the trick. A bottle of undefined “green” seasoning from one of the many Chinese grocers can also be useful. They perform creditably.

Remember, kai takes forever to boil under a brisk fire and a hotel kitchenette soon fills with long-lasting, stubborn seafood smells. Open the windows! The bigger the kai, the tougher the flesh. It’s best not to be tempted by the low price of the large ones. The little ones do the trick.

The Green Fijian lobster is as tasty as its Caribbean cousin for about half the price. Depending on cooking facilities available, cheap ingredients at the small shops around the perimeter of the Suva market can have you feasting on everything from boiled lobster in a garlic butter dip to a more elaborate lobster thermidor.

Remember, dispose of the shells before you go to bed because the cleaners can and will have a hard time in the morning. If you yourself survive. On the side, there will be Fijian octopus soaked in a spicy concoction with raw seaweed soaked in water for a long time to get rid of the saltiness. If you’re lucky, there will be the tiny but delicious trochus sea snail, that’s best raw in an oyster sauce. But we’re far from home, so you dip them in boiling water for a few seconds. They’re sold already out of the shell.

The Suva market in Fiji perhaps comes second to the seafood markets of south-east Asia and China for variety and price, but the Pacific varieties are more reminiscent of Caribbean fare and definitely worth sampling. Customs inspections notwithstanding, bottled chadon beni laced cocktail sauces can bring an extra zip and flavour to the kais and octopus. Perhaps there’s added scope for enhanced South-South trade in this.