From eating thick ribbons of baby coconut by the sea, to joining a traditional kava ceremony, to indulging in lavish banquets … a lot of them, Tatyana Leonov gets a taste of Fiji.
Fiji is renowned for its powdery white-sand beaches and ludicrously turquoise-blue sea and travellers flock to this island paradise to unwind, explore and forget their urban existence. Today the Fijian culinary scene is attracting a new breed of travellers and its epicentre is the perpetually busy Nadi and surrounds – the place to swim and relax in the sun – and now also to eat and eat.
There are excellent resort restaurants headed up by international chefs who craft gastronomic delights, a colourful market to explore, kava ceremonies and romantic beach picnics. Discovering the culinary scene in Fiji is about letting go and doing as the locals do during the day and feasting on haute cuisine at night. Or the other way around. It really doesn’t matter in Fiji.
A historical melting hotpot
Fijian food is an eclectic jumble of cuisines, absorbed influences from an influx of different ethnicities arriving to Fiji at various times through history. The Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians, then later the Indians, Europeans and Chinese have all left behind a soupcon of their culinary practices and visitors today get to sample it all.
Start by immersing yourself in island culture. Head to the Nadi produce market (located on Hospital Road) to see (and eat) what’s fresh. Unlike many markets around the world it’s not frenzied, a nod to the relaxed Fijian culture. Pedlars sit on the ground casually chatting amongst themselves; their fruit and vegetables neatly bundled together – lustrously purple finger eggplants, pert spinach, bright orange carrots, limes, chillies, plenty of coconuts and more. In the seafood section fishermen hawk a plethora of wild-caught fish, clams and lobster. And a Fijian market wouldn’t be complete without kava for sale.
Historically kava (which is obtained from the root of the pepper plant Piper methysticum) was drunk to signify the visit of honoured guests and at religious events, and although many Fijians drink it more often today a kava ceremony still holds great significance in Fijian culture. Creative Holidays (creativeholidays.com) offer customised Fijian holidays and one of their options is a cave tour that takes in the picturesque Sigatoka Valley by car and boat, an outing to a beautiful cave, and a visit to a small village where guests can participate in a kava ceremony with a local family (tip: it’s polite to bring kava along so purchase some at the markets to impress your hosts).
For a more modern exploration of Fiji’s culinary roots head to Nadi main town and eat what the locals are eating. Tata’s Restaurant (tatasrestaurant.blogspot.com.au) is one of the most popular eateries in town, constantly busy with a jovial crowd nattering while mopping up swathes of fiery Indian curry with crisp roti bread.
Denarau Island’s fine diners
Fiji’s gastronomy scene has matured of late and visitors have a plethora of local and international foods to choose from. Less than 10 kilometres from Nadi, Denarau Island is home to a cornucopia of resorts, most with fabulous restaurants that offer the ultimate in dining – lavish fine diners, elegant waterfront restaurants and casual poolside hangouts – it’s all there. Local chefs are getting creative with cooking styles, sometimes fusing modern techniques with traditional cooking methods, and international chefs are bringing their own experiences and adding it to the mix.
At Sheraton Fiji Resort’s (sheratonfiji.com) al fresco waterfront Flying Fish restaurant (Peter Kurivita’s signature brand), Polish newcomer Pawel Klodowski is wowing customers with polished, tantalising dishes every night. Fijian seafood is prominently featured on the menu à la carte dining is always popular, however now there’s a new concept for patrons wanting something a little bit different. Book for a Chef’s Table dinner and get up close and personal with the chefs. Private or communal, the idea is that guests watch the chefs do their meticulous work and indulge in both a degustation and show.
Just a stone’s throw away French chef Jean-Marc Ruzzene presents diners with a sophisticated French-inspired menu at the suave V Restaurant at Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa (sofitel.com/Fiji-Denarau). Unlike the perennially busy Salt Restaurant which overlooks the gigantic family pool and the softly lapping waves of the calm see, step into V Restaurant and enter another realm, one where thatched roofs and palm fronds don’t exist, instead an elegant interior scheme of browns, crèmes and beiges dominate the elegant colour palette. Here everything is beautifully presented (think crisp table linen and beautiful menus), service always comes with a smile, and dishes whizz out looking like artworks. An out-of-this world experience … in the tourist centre of Fiji.
Islands of innovation
Having a top-grade gastronomic experience on a Fijian island? Fiji astounds here too. Malolo Island’s Likuliku Lagoon Resort Fiji (likulikulagoon.com), just 25 kilometres from Nadi International Airport and reachable by boat or seaplane, is home to Fiji’s first and only overwater bure island resort. If staying in a villa on stilts positioned in a ridiculously good-looking sea is on your bucket list, this is the place to head.
New Zealand-born chef Ihaka Peri has headed up the kitchen since 2013 and his passion lies in the yearning to wow diners with daily changing menus that excite. He sources fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs from the onsite garden (“Currently we have numerous types of heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, local watercress and spinach, lemons, limes, chilli, micro herbs, local sage, coriander, aloe vera, local chestnuts, pumpkins, pumpkin blossoms, mint for the coco mojitos, lemongrass, oregano, thyme, rosemary, basil, Thai basil and sweet basil,” he says (without taking a breath) and together with the Likuliku team he established the island’s first bee farm in August 2014 (they are hoping for a harvest in April 2015).
A 45-minute seaplane flight away from Nadi International Airport lies the Yasawas, an idyllic chain of 16 large volcanic islands and a dozen smaller ones stretching across 80 kilometres. The largest in the archipelago is Yasawa Island and it’s here you’ll find the island’s only resort – Yasawa Island Resort & Spa (yasawa.com).
In paradise guests feast at the tranquil restaurant, or retreat to a secluded spot with private beach picnics where fresh lobster, bugs, prawns and fish are all part of the deal. Fijian chef Jona Ravasukala rotates a 10-day menu and uses fresh produce harvested by island farmers and seafood caught by Bukama village fishermen.
Each afternoon food and beverage manager and cocktail master Manasa Ragigia formulates delightful creations that guests sip while watching the glimmering sun cast it’s last rays across the crystal blue sea. And then they eat. Again. Welcome to culinary Fiji.