Drive five minutes in any direction when you arrive in Fiji and you will come across sugar cane. Once the biggest industry of this Island nation, it now comes second to tourism. With its year-long tropical climate and close proximity to New Zealand and Australia, it is little wonder tourism has become such a key part of the Fijian economy. Yet it seems this booming tourism industry is in spite of their food, even though food, or the production of it, is still such a key part of their economy. Overpriced and underwhelming resort food has a lot to answer for in a country that produces everything from cacao to ginger, basil to coconut as well as premium luxury products like chocolate, rum and vanilla.
Knowing Fiji must have some great food stories and believing the best way to see and understand a country is through their food, the Nourish team organised a winter getaway to uncover a slice of the real Fiji. Our inaugural foodie tour also turned out to be a first for Fiji, making it to the local paper! An indication food tourism truly is in its infancy here.
What we uncovered after four whirlwind days is four days is not nearly enough time! We had only scratched the surface yet we came home with an appreciation and fondness for the people who make up this wonderful Pacific Island, new skills and tastes in the kitchen and many wonderful stories.
Our first full day saw us set off early, heading south from our base in Denarau and driving to the ‘salad bowl’ of Fiji—Sigatoka. This was our first glimpse of the real Fiji.
Sigatoka River Safaris
This award winning company is doing more than producing a memorable day out for tourists. The dream began when founder Jay White, an Aussie, first visited Fiji at the age of 13. He met Pita Matasau, a security guard at the resort Jay and his family were staying at. Jay became Pita’s shadow, following him everywhere listening to his stories of Fiji. So Pita invited Jay and his family to his village, Draiba, a two-hour drive into the Fijian interior.
Jay and his family were captivated—by the people, village life and the culture. It was the start of something big.
The following year Jay and his family visited New Zealand and while here took a jet boat ride, and the idea was born. At just 14 Jay had the idea of taking tourists by jet boat up the Sigatoka River to visit real Fijian villages.
Just over a decade later, in 2005, the dream started coming true. Jay moved to Fiji where he and now good friend Pita became business partners, and in March 2006 they lead their first Sigatoka River Safari.
We are lucky enough to have Josh Ratukuna (aka Captain Jack) as our guide for the day. Josh has been with the company from the start and is well suited for the role.
We pick up Josh at Sigatoka town and drive to their base. Following this great river which is still a main mode of local transport, we see the lush fields growing everything from taro to ginger, kava to salad greens. We made a quick stop to discover coffee growing wild! But more about that later.
Once at Sigatoka River Safaris base we board a specially adapted four-wheel drive. It has something-a-rather horsepower and a 1960-something Land rover engine. Forgive me for not recalling the exact details but as Captain Jack reels these off things have got a little bumpy. As we all hang on for dear life we pass through local villages where children run out to wave and shout “bula”; we see people at work in the fields and going about their day on horseback. We have got that much closer to the real Fiji.
Forty-five minutes later we arrive at Vunaqoru Village, home to over 250 people. We are welcomed into the village with a traditional kava ceremony before having a guided tour of the village and then sit down to a beautifully prepared traditional meal. Our time in the village ends with some gifts from us to the village and much singing and dancing.
Back to the river we don lifejackets and board the jet boat for a scenic ride back to base with a few thrills added in.
Sigatoka River Safaris work with 15 local villages so the tours do not encroach on village life and a good balance is struck between tourism and the real Fijian village experience.
Flavours of Fiji
A local market is one of the best places to get a feel and understanding for the local food. It’s our second day in Fiji and we have been whisked off to Nadi Market by Lia and Ajay from Flavours of Fiji. Our market excursion is just the beginning of a day where we will get hands-on in creating some home-style Fijian dishes.
Every morning villages bring their produce into town to sell, making the market a snapshot of what is fresh and in season as well as what Fijians eat everyday. Gorgeous baby pineapples sit beside ripe pawpaw and bunches of bananas. Piles of tiny chillies lay out on newspaper next to fresh greens, bundles of beans and dishes of eggplants. Lia and Arti lead us around answering our many questions and giving us the local low-down before taking us off to Flavours of Fiji’s purpose built cooking school.
Our first lesson is on traditional Fijian food and starts with a lesson on cracking and scraping a coconut. The menu includes fish cooked in the super fresh coconut milk we just made, bush fern (similar to pikopiko) salad and a dessert with plantain.
After sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labour, it’s time to get back in the kitchen. This time we are cooking Indo Fijian cuisine with a chicken and potato curry (see my adapted version on page x) along with handmade roti.
The classes are the most efficient, well-choreographed lesson I have ever had. Our group consists of cooks of all skill level, yet everyone keeps up, learns new things and has a wonderful time, not to mention a delicious lunch.
I never thought it would be Fiji where I first saw coffee growing. Who knew coffee grew in Fiji?
It does. In fact it literally grows wild! How it got there, no one knows for sure, but what is happening with this wild coffee is a remarkable story. After discovering coffee growing wild, Luke Frett and his family started Bula Coffee and has built the Fijian coffee industry from the ground up.
In 2011 the company processed 200kgs of coffee beans and they are on track to make this 3000 tonnes in 2020. Bula Coffee have a partnership based on the philosophy that “they shake the hands that pick the coffee”. This sees them work directly with over 500 villagers, supporting them to become organically certified, teaching them to process the cherries into beans and create a sustainable living.
As the beans are harvested and processed they are brought by truck, boat or horseback to Bula Coffee’s base in Sigatoka. After seeing the coffee growing, we followed it to their HQ to see and hear what happens next.
The only Fijian coffee company that can say it is ‘Fijian made’ as well as ‘Fijian grown’, Bula Coffee say they are not only producing great shots of coffee but giving Fijian Villages a better shot at life. As a flat white drinker, I need someone to do something about the milk situation in Fiji!
Our five days in Fiji saw us enjoy refreshing coconuts, coconut vodka, rum, all manner of tropical fruit, local staples like taro and cassava, the freshest fish possible and coffee. What more could one want?
Chocolate perhaps? Luckily, we discovered this too.
In 1883 the very first consignment of Trinidad cacao seeds survived the voyage from the Royal Botanical Gardens in England to Fiji. A hundred years later, despite cacao flourishing in the Fijian environment, there was no Fijian cacao industry. That was until Tomohito and Harumi Zukoshi fell in love with the country and in 2005 moved from Japan with their three children, to Savusavu, an idyllic bay on Fiji’s second biggest island Vanua Levu.
Here they set up a sushi restaurant but it was to be their accidental discovery of cacao that changed their fortunes. Tomo says, “In Savusavu, we encountered beautifully painted cacao pods. We fell in love with the nature of the fruit and indulged in the art of making chocolate in our restaurant.”
The process of making chocolate from fresh cacao beans is a lot more complicated than Tomo lets on! The results of his experimentation was a homemade chocolate ice cream that proved so popular, in 2007 the couple decided to give up the restaurant business and manufacture Fijian chocolate. To do this the pair had to first reinvigorate the cacao industry in Fiji.
“In the beginning, we worked to revitalise these discarded plantations in Vanua Levu. We pruned 50 metre high ivy that covered old cacao trees. After all our efforts, the flowers started to bloom and by 2008 we could see beautiful crops.”
We visited Tomo and Harumi in their state of the art factory and heard first hand this amazing story, while tasting some truly fine chocolate.
Fijian Cacao is dedicated to manufacturing 100% Fijian made chocolate, and this starts with the grassroots farmers who grow the beans. “From the start,” Tomo says, “we took it upon ourselves to help educate local farmers about the best practices for producing quality cacao beans. This included the creation of a post-harvest fermentation toolkit for use by farmers, which helps them produce higher quality beans and fetch premium prices for their cacao. In addition, our dedicated farm manager conducts regular site visits and provides hands-on help to farmers. These efforts are helping improve the livelihoods of rural farming communities while also growing Fiji’s cacao industry.”
Hot Glass Fiji
Not entirely a foodie stop, but a fun one none the less! While on the Coral Coast we popped into Fiji Hot Glass. Alice Hill’s open-air studio has splendid views of the coast and it is here she works her magic with glass, creating pieces of art and sharing her skills with visitors.
Alice trained and worked as a glass blower in the UK before meeting husband Alex. The keen scuba divers set off diving around the world before settling in Fiji and starting a family.
Glass is the ideal medium to catch the stunning light and colours of the tropics, and the beauty of Fiji’s nature is often reflected in Sara’s work.
The Fiji Orchid
Our magnificent five days in Fiji is capped off in the best way possible way with a stunning meal at The Fiji Orchid. We arrived at the magnificent property, once the treasured property of Raymond Burr (famous for playing Perry Mason) and now an exclusive luxury lodge with stunning orchid gardens.
We are welcomed by the team with a Fijian rum and cocktail tasting before learning more about the property and how they are embracing the farm to table philosophy. Miti, the manager, shows us their newly established kitchen garden and tells of their work to highlight Fijian cuisine.
What follows is a feast! Our table is piled high with dish after dish of Fijian delicacies from eggplant baked with tuna, fresh kokoda, steamed taro, succulent pork, chicken curry, bush fern salad, whole baked fish and more.
As we sit around the table after yet another magnificent meal it dawns on us our time in Fiji is at an end. It has been a truly fantastic time with experiences and memories that will last a lifetime, but what we all take away is a better understanding and connection with Fiji, its people and food.
We would like to thank Destination Fiji for helping us organise this amazing week and being brilliant hosts!