Finally we are back in the realm of countries we know something about. We’ve both been to Fiji before, but not together: Miranda went as a school student and Ash went as a backpacker. Because our experiences were therefore so different, we’ve both written a little introduction…
Miranda: I visited Fiji for two weeks in September 2002 with my school. It was my first time out of Australia and therefore everything was beyond exciting. Much of our time was spent taking prepared performances and testimonies to schools and churches around the country, but we also enjoyed such ‘co-curricular’ activities as shopping for sulus and foolishly slathering ourselves in coconut oil in order to produce chronically painful sunburn (and chronically awful tan lines). The trip will always hold a special place in my heart, not least because it helped to cement a number of lifelong friendships. However, my food memories of Fiji weren’t very helpful in choosing what to make. The fact that the locals were incredibly generous and hospitable was one thing, but the problem is that the food I remember consists of a combination of traditional, tropical foods (the taro that I didn’t like, the kava that I wasn’t allowed to try and the guava that excited me because I’d heard of it but never tried it before) and teenage junk food obsessions (purple Fanta, cheap Oreos, fried chicken). None of these was all that inspirational for our purposes!
Ash: I arrived in Fiji alone, as a backpacker, and left with many friends and memories. One of these friends (another English backpacker) recently attended our wedding and another, a Fijian rugby player, is also still in contact. A particular highlight of my visit occurred on my first evening in Nadi when, having met a couple of Australian backpackers in the hostel bar and then gone with them to a local bar and realised on the way back that the light meal eaten earlier that evening was inadequate, I met a local Indo-Fijian lady and asked if there was anywhere nearby that we could get something else to eat. She immediately offered the three of us a local meal that she would cook for us at the shared house in which she lived. The only condition was that we bought a frozen chicken at a local convenience store. The four of us jumped into a taxi and were soon sitting on the floor of a large house with numerous inhabitants. The meal (which included rice, flatbreads, chutneys, pickles and of course the spicy chicken curry) was fabulous but could not be enjoyed until after the three of us had shared a bowl of ‘Kava’ with the male housemates who ranged in age from late teens right through to those who were young only at heart. This non-alcoholic but narcotic brew, which is made by stewing powdered tree root in water using an old pair of stockings as a tea bag, causes the lips and mouth to numb, but is drunk as part of a grand ceremony which proved great fun and the housemates were incredibly hospitable!
With such a unique experience to honour, chicken curry seemed an appropriate way of celebrating the cuisine of these fine Islands. We found quite a variety of recipes, all based around the same theme but with slightly different combinations of ingredients. Having first eliminated the curries with coconut in them, we decided we liked the long list of spices and inclusion of tomato in Sneh’s Indo-Fijian Recipes, although we did tweak the recipe a bit, with the main difference being that we portioned the chicken differently.
1 whole chicken, portioned into about 10 pieces
1 small onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 small chillies, chopped finely
Small knob of ginger, chopped finely
Salt to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 cinnamon stick
4 cardamom pods
2 tbsp curry powder
6 curry leaves
1 tomato, chopped
Water, if needed
Coriander leaves to garnish
1. In a fairly large pot, heat up the olive oil, and add the onions, seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and curry leaves.
2. Stir and cook for a minute, then add the garlic, ginger, chilli, turmeric and curry powder.
3. Stir and cook for a minute, then add the chicken and salt. (We also added the superfluous chicken bones left over after portioning the chicken, to add some more flavour.) Stir and cover and reduce heat to medium.
4. Stir every 10 minutes or so, adding the tomato after 15 minutes. If the chicken sticks, add a little water (we didn’t need to do this). The chicken should be done in about an hour.
5. Serve with rice and the coriander. (We unfortunately didn’t have any coriander, but we think it would have made both a difference in both the visual impact and the flavour.)
While chopping up garlic and ginger and things, Ash looked wistfully over at our deliberately-kept pile of stale bread and said, ‘Do you think bread and butter pudding is Fijian?’ It isn’t, obviously, but honey cake is, so we quickly threw one of those in the oven while the chicken was cooking so dessert would be ready and waiting (recipe from Food.com.
1 1/4 cups plain flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup sour cream (we didn’t quite have half a cup so made up the difference with natural yoghurt)
1/2 cup honey (the better quality, more flavourful honey the better, as this is what flavours the cake)
1 tbsp canola oil (again, didn’t have any so used light olive oil)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp flaked almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 180C and coat a loaf tin with non-stick cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except the almonds and beat until well blended.
3. Pour the batter into the loaf tin and sprinkle with the almonds.
4. Bake for about 50 minutes. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. (Or eat it while it’s still warm… just saying…)
This was easily the most enjoyable international meal we’ve made for a long time. Both dishes were simple, but packed full of flavour. The chicken was perfectly cooked and the combination of spices was just right. The cake carried the flavour of the honey beautifully and the toasty flavour of the almonds on top really set it off. It also seems to have improved over the few days since we made it. And as far as cake recipes go, it doesn’t get much easier than that one!
For both of us, our time in Fiji was enjoyed as much due to the people that it was enjoyed with as the experience itself. In this way, it is much like a good meal. The nation holds special memories for both of us, so we were glad to be able to honour those memories with two dishes that we thoroughly enjoyed. (And once we’d eaten them, we watched Love Actually. That’s nothing to do with Fiji – it’s just equally great.)