In Fiji it is customary to welcome anyone, even a foreign stranger, into the home to share a meal. A mat or cloth is placed on the floor of the home and several dishes along with staple foods are placed in the center. Families are usually large, and there are often several guests at a meal. Sitting cross-legged in a circle you traditionally eat with your hands and, save for a quick prayer of thanks, most meals lack formality and are filled with discussion and laughter.
After a meal it is customary for the group to gather around the kava bowl to tanoa, a Fijian word that means “shooting the breeze.” “Tanoa” is also the word for the traditional carved wooden bowl in which kava is mixed and served. Kava is an indigenous plant that when taken in large amounts acts as a mild narcotic. Kava roots are highly prized, and in most rural communities kava is grown alongside other subsistence crops such as dalo (taro) and cassava. The roots are dried, pounded into a powder and mixed with water to make a silty brown concoction called grog. The grog is then scooped into a bilo, which is a cup made from a coconut shell, and offered to each drinker with a series of claps, one clap for accepting the offer and two more claps after downing the cup in one gulp. The liquid has a viscous weight and can sometimes be a bit gritty. The flavor is best described as “earthy” and, due to the trace narcotic, your mouth and tongue immediately begin to feel furry after the first or second cup. Though kava does serve a ceremonial purpose and it is used in almost all rituals, it is also simply a way of socializing. Just as Westerners go out for cocktails, Fijians drink kava, and as in Western cocktail parties, they often heckle each other into drinking copious amounts. Unlike alcohol intoxication, drinking kava results in a sort of group-wide mellowness, though the next day’s hangover is definitely similar.
Many an evening in Fiji is spent talanoa-ing, especially in the more remote villages, where movie theatres and other urban amusements are not available. One night, about six months into a stay on the island of Taveuni, I was drinking grog with a group of women from the village known as Levena. Peer-pressured into nearly 20 bilos of grog—not even a respectable amount by the women’s standards—I was offered an after dinner snack, the Fijian delicacy known as palolo.
Palolo appeared to be a Dixie cup full of blue-green angel hair pasta in a cream sauce. My initial impression, however, was way off as what appeared to be pasta was in fact hundreds of tiny sea worms soaked in lolo (coconut milk). Maria, who is the president of Lomasoli (direct translation: from the heart, or from within) a group representing Levena’s women, explained to me that these worms appear at night once or twice a year when they spawn and are harvested along the shoreline with hand nets at high tide. Palolo’s flavor can best be descrived as a mild salty fishiness accented by the slight sweetness of coconut milk. Fijians find the slippery, spreadable texture delectable.
As with most island cuisines, Fijian food is heavily influenced by and dependent on what the ocean has to offer. Along with palolo, traditional dishes include a vast variety of shellfish, seaweed, octopus, sea cucumber, sea urchin, turtle, shark, and of course fish. Whether they be fillet-able or are painstakingly picked apart because they are just a few inches long, fish of all sizes are eaten. Many are so brightly colored you may feel you recognize them from your dentist’s waiting room aquarium. Most fishing is done with hand lines or spears, and the latter can be dangerous, as the best time to spearfish is at night when the fish are lethargic targets—and also when sharks feed. Along with staples from the sea, all rural families also forage for ingredients and maintain te te’s, or farms, where they grow dalo and cassava, a type of yam.
Both dalo and cassava are starchy potato-like root crops that are served with every meal. Cassava has a dry consistency and can be boiled or fried. The new shoots of the plant’s leaves can be eaten but one must watch out for the mature leaves because they are poisonous. Dalo resembles a large light purple potato and is more moist than cassava; it too can be boiled or fried. The leaves of the dalo plant are eaten regularly but without being boiled for a long time they make your mouth and throat itch terribly for hours. Seafood, dalo, and cassava are not the only mainstays of the Fijian diet. Bananas, guavas, mangos, pineapple, breadfruit, cacao, and papaya are all available at certain times of the year. The other major staple of the Fijian diet is lolo, or coconut milk. At every meal one or two of the previous ingredients will be served soaked in coconut milk. Some other ingredients such as canola oil, soy sauce, curry powder, canned mackerel and ramen noodles can be purchased from Taveuni’s town, but the two-hour bus trip, the cost, and the lack of refrigeration means that the community still largely lives a subsistence lifestyle, one that is not as sustainable as it once was, due to over fishing.
The preparation methods in Fijian cuisine are quite simple. Most everything is boiled, fried, and served in coconut milk, or peeled and eaten raw. Traditional lovos are similar to the Hawaiian luau, in which a variety of ingredients are wrapped in banana leaves or palm-frond baskets and slow-baked in a temporary underground oven. Lovos are a very festive way to cook large celebratory meals but, just as in Hawaii, today they are becoming commercialized from tourism. Maria and the Lomasoli group taught me how to lovo and how to prepare many other traditional dishes. One of the women’s favorites, as well as my own, is kokoda (pronounced ko-kone-dah).
Kokoda is similar to ceviché. Like most Fijian dishes its preparation is simple. A mild white fish is filleted raw and sectioned into pieces. It is then soaked in a mixture of coconut milk, lime juice, salt and a bit of sugar. Tomato and onion are added, and the dish is left to sit until the acid from the citrus actually “cooks” the fish through. It has a wonderful sweet-tart flavor, and one wouldn’t think that the creaminess of coconut milk and the acidity of limejuice would balance each other with such elegance. (See recipe attached).
Fiji is a romantic place of wonder and diversity. The food is simple but fresh, and though Fiji’s indigenous people work hard, they also enjoy a laid-back lifestyle that most Western cultures lack. American families sometimes find it difficult to sit down to a meal together, but Fiji’s food traditions are valued as an important means of kinship. If ever in Fiji, pass any home around dinnertime and you will no doubt be invited in and made an honorary member of the family. I urge you to enter the circle, sit, eat, and laugh. If you’re lucky you may be offered a cup of palolo; if you’re luckier, you will have made friends for a lifetime.
Jessica Kolhberger is a former Cultural Survival intern.