It may sound utterly ridiculous, but there really is more to holidaying in Fiji than lounging by a pool with an oversized cocktail garnished with tropical fruit. Chances are if you’re flying into Nadi, you’ll have a night or two in Denarau to do exactly that, with a stint at one of the hundreds of island resorts in between.
For a very long time, holidaying in Fiji did not equate to great eating. Slowly but surely though, the traditions and produce of this island paradise are being re-embraced by locals, and promoted to visitors. Scratch Fiji's culinary surface a little and you’ll find incredibly good fresh seafood, interesting produce, ancient cooking techniques, and plenty of coconut.
For a firsthand education in Fijian cooking, head to the Flavours of Fiji cooking school in Nadi. It’s a hands-on class with a cooking station for each guest – the best bit sitting down to devour what you cook afterwards. The first half the class is taught by a stern Fijian Grandma called Ethee, and under her guidance we learn the importance of boiling and frying taro leaves to make a perfect batch of Fijian favourite rourou.
We make a caramel cassava dessert and fish in lolo – coconut milk we attempt to make ourselves using the ancient method of sitting on a sharpened guava tree branch and swiftly moving the coconut shell around the point, letting the flesh fall to a bowl at our feet. The traditional Fijian-Indian part of the class had us making a chicken and potato curry and roti from scratch. Delicious.
Down the road in Nadi town, the Nadi Market is worth a look, if only for the impressive array of local seafood, laid out for all to ogle. Families travel from inland to sell their produce, so there are lots of local kids running around amongst the bright red birds-eye chillis laid out on old newspapers; fat bags of guava; fresh, bright-orange papaya; bowls of spices; and a giant breed of asparagus, standing upright in towers. Stocking up on fresh fruit will make for some excellent poolside snacking later on.
Resorts and islands are now doing more to embrace local flavours, too. You’ll still see Tasmanian wagyu and New Zealand sauvignon blanc on menus, but increasingly operators are seeing value in giving tourists an authentic local-eating experience. Celebrity chef Lance Seeto, now at Mana Island Resort, has been largely responsible for the shift.
The Chinese-born chef moved from Melbourne to Fiji five years ago and has pushed hard to get local food on menus. He firmly believes that if we ate like the early Fijians ate, we’d all be a lot healthier and happier. At a beachside feast on Mana Island, we eat a salad of sea-grapes, a type of seaweed we go snorkelling for before the meal. We follow that with a kokoda (raw fish salad) of tuna in lolo – it seems every traditional meal must have its requisite quota of coconut – and char-grilled slipper lobster, cooked on open coals.
For a real-deal smack of authenticity, eat at Sweet Laisa’s Kitchen. From Denarau, it’s about a 20-minute taxi toward Nadi, and Laisa herself – a former super-yacht chef and proud local lady – is usually in the kitchen. She’d long wanted to make Fijian home-style cooking available to everyone, and earlier this year she opened her doors.
I’m told by my Fijian friend the style of food at Laisa's is exactly what you’d eat if you went to a local’s house for dinner: family-style platters of whole char-grilled fish, avocado salad with cassava chips, braised octopus, poached snapper in coconut, spicy prawns, and all the traditional accompaniments – especially rourou (fried taro leaves) and cassava, to soak up all the delicious sauces. Fried pineapple fritters and coconut ice cream for dessert round off a true local experience, and mean you’ll leave very well feasted.