The subject of my travelogue down memory lane today is Fiji:
photo (yes and yes)
I was reflecting how very easy it is to take our experiences for granted. In the moment we so often forget to be present to the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations around us, being unaware that this very moment will never come again. This applies to being in our living room, as well as an exotic locale. Anyone who is a parent can attest to how quickly their children grow and change and how they wish they had been more attentive and present with them in the past. In America we have the privilege of a great deal of material comfort (compared to most other countries), which we pay for with a corresponding level of stress. So it makes it hard to breathe deep and be grateful for who and where we are. I totally get that. Fortunately life is made up of thousands of small moments each day. Each time you remember, it is a victory over unconscious existence, a small step towards a habit of mindfulness. I bring this up because after 10 years away, I realize how many things about Fiji I do not remember, on account of being internally preoccupied.
At any rate, one thing I do remember is the food. Even on "fasting days" like Ekadasi, dinner at an Indo-Fijian home is still going to be a big deal. Ekadasi means the 11th day (of the lunar cycle). On this day Vaishnavas, or devotees of Vishnu, observe a simplified diet, abstaining from all beans and grains. My experience was that people in Fiji rarely fast, tending to feast on all occasions, but then again, for Indians, going a day without eating either rice or roti (wheat flat-bread) IS a serious deprivation. ;-)
Being situated in the tropics, Fiji is home to a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. The soil also contains a fair bit of volcanic ash, making it extremely fertile and rich in nutrients. Most food in Fiji first comes from open-air markets like this where both Fijians (natives) and Indians display their produce, seafood, and crafts.
Then it is magically whipped up by the ladies into something like this. At the time I visited, gender roles were still pretty fixed - as in even if a woman of works outside the home, she still does all the cleaning and cooking. Since Fiji lies in a tropical climate (where the heat makes things spoil quickly), people don't eat leftovers, and the women do A LOT of cooking.
You guessed it! We are going to include several Indo-Fijian specialties in our menu today. Our grain choices this week are brown rice andVegetable Pulao (Indian Vegetable Rice). Pulao is very popular in Fiji, and is often made in mass quantities for special occasions, like weddings. Interestingly, many of the Indo-Fijian men are excellent cooks too; however, you will only see them pull out this skill on these special occasions when paddles, rather than spoons, are required to stir the preparations.
This Week's Menu:
Entree #1 - Soya Aloo Curry. In both India and Fiji Nutrela is a household staple for vegetarians. It is comparable to the Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP) that you find in the bulk sections of health food stores. Generally I have seen it sold here in America in granules that you might add to Chilli. However the bigger soy chunks are more satisfying in terms of texture and taste for people who are used to eating animal proteins. Soya chunks also have a wonderful capacity to soak up the flavor of whatever gravy they are in. This recipe calls for tomatoes, potatoes, and the usual kick-butt collection of Indian spices. It is hearty and satisfying, and yet relatively simple and inexpensive to prepare, thus making it another popular preparation for festival menus. *GF
Entree #2 - Fijian Coconut Milk Soup. This recipe is the whole reason that we have traveled to the South Pacific today. The link for the photo is for a South Indian recipe. The photo is close enough, but Fijian spicing for this lovely dish is much different. A typical Fijian coconut milk soup will have tasty chunks of potato, yucca, carrot, cabbage, and maybe even broccoli. Then it is spiced with mustard and cumin seeds, fresh green chili, ginger, curry. The food of the island gods, coconut milk, is stirred in at the end, making this a soup that by itself, is worth the airfare! Okay, well, that may be an exaggeration, but it is still pretty dang good. *GF, soy-free
Entree #3 - Mung Bean and Butternut Squash Stew. This recipe is the token one that is not from Fiji. In fact, I can't quite tell you where it is from. Mung beans, coconut milk, and curry spices are of course from India. Butternut squash and swiss chard are certainly not; therefore, I think it is safe to call this a fusion recipe. Though the pairings of this dish are cross-cultural, it leaves one with a complete and satisfying flavor profile - mild, nutritious mung beans; sweet and creamy squash; the freshness of tomatoes and greens; the zing of fresh ginger and garam masala; and the heavenly creaminess of coconut milk. Multicultural yum? ... I'll take it! *GF, soy-free
Yucca Fries - Yucca is known throughout the Fijian archipelago as "cassava" or "cassera." Root crops are quite popular there. You know those Terra brand chips that are sold in the health food stores? I am pretty sure that all of those fancy root crops grow in Fiji - taro, yucca, varieties of yam, and one they call "dalo," which is the root of the elephant ear plant. The natives often serve these roots boiled, as a side to their seafood. The Indians prefer to serve these babies fried, with a side of luscious fresh tomato, coriander, or mint chutney. Move over french fries and ketchup ...*GF, soy-free
Silky Chocolate Pudding - When I was trying to figure out which sweet to add to the menu, I remembered this recipe because its secret ingredient is avocado. Now avocadoes do grow in Fiji, but are not widely consumed by the Indians. They are a little difficult to find, as they grow in the "Interior" of the island. The farther inland you go, the closer you get to the volcanoes at the centers of the islands; the terrain becomes more mountainous, and the population becomes less evenly mixed. Very few Indians live in the interior villages, thus leaving the hidden yum of avocadoes to Native tongues. *GF, soy-free