Obviously living on a bunch of tiny islands out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has influenced Fijian food greatly. Fish is a major part of Fijians lives: mahi-mahi, snapper, mackerel, unicorn fish, octopus etc. etc. etc. One unique dish that encompasses the fishy part of Fijian cuisine is kokoda. It’s similar to ceviche: raw pieces of white fish marinated in coconut cream, lime, onions and tomatoes. The acid in the limes or lemons cooks the fish but the coconut gives it a creamy flavor. Be careful though, Fijians like their Kokoda spicy! I am not a big fish fan. But I did like kokoda!
Lovo essentially means “feast cooked in the earth.” A shallow pit is dug and heated rocks are placed at the bottom. Meat wrapped in taro leaves is placed on top and covered with a variety of root veggies like cassava and taro. Then the entire thing is covered with dirt and left alone for a couple of hours, at which point the food is cooked. Ingenious really. Generally, a lovo feast includes steamed fish, pork and chicken as well as veggies. The food takes on a smokey flavor due to the leaves and the method of cooking.
A unique Fijian food, duruka is a vegetable sometimes called “Fijian Asparagus.” It’s actually the unopened flower of a cane shoot. It’s fleshy and kind of stringy but tasty. Duruka is often cooked in coconut milk or put in a curry.
Also known as sea grapes, nama is the coolest looking seaweed I’ve ever eaten. They are incredibly green and the tiny little beads kind of pop in your mouth. They are sometimes used as a garnish but can also be served in a salad, in coconut milk (a popular theme in Fiji) or raw with some chili, lime juice, shredded coconut and salt.
Taro is a heavy, potato-like tuber with a kind of purple hue. They eat so much taro here they even have a holiday dedicated to it: the first full moon in the month of May is Taro Day. Taro can be boiled like a potato, mashed, used in a curry or even cut into fries or chips. Steamed taro is very popular. Fijians also use the taro leaves in cooking, such as in the lovo mentioned above. The leaves can be boiled in coconut milk to create a spinach-like dish or fried into fritters. There are limitless possibilities.
As I mentioned before, 45% of the population is Indo-Fijian, meaning Indian food is also Fijian food and is plentiful and popular. Curries, dal, samosas and chutneys are all popular and easy to find. Amazing fresh roti is often seen at breakfast buffets. The road to Nadi is dotted with Indian restaurants. The Indian food in Fiji uses ingredients unique to the South Pacific such as black eyed peas, cassava, fish and goat. Likewise the spices popular in Indian cuisine such as turmeric, cumin and spicy chilies have also crept into traditional Fijian cooking.
Like any good tropical paradise, fruit is a big deal here. Mangos, papayas, pineapples and bananas are all present as well as some more exotic fruits like jackfruit, vudi (a relative of the banana), jamun (rose fruits) and breadfruit. There’s more of course, like fresh cassava chips and spinach boiled in coconut milk and of course the (not-so-tasty) national drink. What I find the most interesting about Fijian food is how they’ve so seamlessly merged their traditional island foods with the Indian and English influences of the past few hundred years. It makes every meal an adventure.
Before I left for Fiji I heard plenty about kava: that Fijians were obsessed with drinking it, that I would make you hallucinate, that it tasted terrible. Some of this was true, some of it was a flat-out lie. So I thought I would set the record straight about kava in Fiji.
Also known as Yaqona, kava plays a huge roll in Fiji’s culture and day to day life. It’s popular across the South Pacific but it is a particularly big deal in Fiji. Here is the down and dirty on Fiji’s “national drink:”
The Truth About Kava in Fiji
Kava is NOT a Psychedelic Drug
People tend to confuse kava with Ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic ceremonial drink from the Amazon. Kava, on the other hand, is not intended to give you visions or to put you into a trance. Its effects are mild: one or two cups will make your face numb, a large amount will make you feel relaxed and sleepy. Drink too much and you might fall asleep, but that is the limits of its power.
The majority of Fiji islanders drink kava on a daily basis with no ill effects. The popularity of kava in Fiji might help to account though, for the slow and relaxed pace of the islands and the popular concept of “Fiji time.”
Kava IS a plant
Kava comes from the root of the yaqona (piper methysticum) bush, a relative of the pepper plant. The root is ground up and then strained with water into a large wooden communal bowl (or sometimes a plastic bucket, depending on what you have on hand). Simple preparation for a simple drink.
Yaqona is one of Fiji’s biggest crops and exports. You are absolutely allowed to bring kava into the US, and can even buy it everywhere, even at the airport!
Drinking Kava in Fiji Can Be Ceremonial
Kava in Fiji is used as a symbol to bring two groups of people together. When visiting a new village it is essential to bring a gift of kava. The community then gathers and the kava is mixed. There are a lot of words, all in Fijian and some clapping. The chiefs partake first (the oldest male in your group can be your makeshift chief) and it is then offered all around in a communal bowl.
My inner anthropologist was buzzing when I was lucky to attend not one, but two kava ceremonies on our trip. When participating in the ceremony it is essential to dress conservatively and sit respectfully. If you are offered the kava in Fiji it is important to drink the entire cup in one go. Don’t sip it (it’s better to just down it anyway, once you taste it). Clap once before receiving the cup, drink up and then clap three more times.
Once the ceremony is complete then everyone in the room is now friends and you can get on with the eating and the dancing.
Kava Drinking Can Also Be Very Casual
Similar to how the Argentineans are constantly sipping mate, Kava is a near-daily beverage for many Fijians. After work, relaxing in the afternoon, pretty much whenever, small groups of friends and family will share kava from a communal bowl.
At our resort it was common to see the boys in the band sitting by the pool, strumming on their guitars and sharing a big bowl of kava.
Kava Does NOT Taste Good
Well, I suppose it does to the Fijians, but I would call it a definite acquired taste. To me, and many of the westerners I spoke to, drinking a bowl of kava feels eerily similar to drinking a bowl of dirty water, In short: it tastes like mud. Bitter, peppery mud.
For me, the ceremony and community surrounding kava is far more powerful than the drink itself. Although it might give germaphobes some pause, I loved the communal and warm aspect of kava culture and the openness and acceptance that goes along with sharing the drink. Even in the quickly modernizing world of Fiji, where you’re more likely to see people hanging out in t-shirts and jeans than traditional garb, this drink holds a powerful and uniting place in society.