Fijian food is tropical, diverse, and delicious!
Although Fiji is known for its amazing blue waters and lush foliage, Fijian food was one of the most memorable aspects of my recent visit to Vita Levu. From exploring beer gardens in Nadi to rural food stands by Momi Bay, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to see what really makes up the essence of the cuisine. Fijian food is sweet, hearty, natural, and most importantly, delicious! Here are the five dishes and drinks that really blew me away.
It’s hard to imagine such a little beige bun could be in complete control of my emotions. Each bite into the dense yet fluffy dough released a wave of rich, creamy coconut. Nearly paradoxical, I wanted to tear through every bun as quickly as possible while savoring every moment. For such a small pastry, it was impressively heavy thanks to the saturated coconut cream. Even the buns with little exposure to the cream somehow absorbed an impressive amount of flavor through some form of magical pasty osmosis.
During my time in Fiji I spoke with a local iTaukei about lolo buns, curious as to their origin. To the best of their knowledge, lolo buns came about in response to a massive storm that took place some time ago. The storm, likely a tsunami, aggressively affected local agriculture, leaving limited supplies of flour, livestock, and of course, coconuts. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of the story, it was fun to learn about local cuisine from a native Fijian. If anything, at least it got my mouth watering!
Ultimately, lolo buns are like taking a Chinese steamed bun, swirling it like a cinnamon roll, and dunking it in sweet coconut cream sauce. The most amazing part? I normally can’t stand coconut. Lolo buns, what have you done to me?! If you want to taste the amazingness but don’t want to go all the way to Fiji for them, here’s a pretty easy recipe that makes buns close to what I had.
Historically, sugar has been Fiji’s cash crop. In fact, as the tourism industry began to flourish, the government asked farmers to focus on a greater variety of crops to maintain infrastructure. Thankfully, Fijians haven’t completely abandoned the cultivation of sugarcane, because now they have some amazing rum!
When it comes to Fijian rum, two names stand out: Bati, and Ratu. Having tasted both during my time there, I can say I was incredibly impressed by the Ratu Signature. Aged 8 years, the Signature was shockingly light and refreshing for how sweet and complex the flavors were. While I can’t personally attest to some of the advertised flavor profile (eg. coconut), I can definitely say it boasted a sophistication one would expect from an established global brand. Contrasted against the Bacardi Ocho, another 8-year rum I tried when I visited their San Juan facilities last year, the Ratu Signature is lighter, smoother, and frankly more interesting on the tongue. My guess is this comes from cultural influence. Fijians want to drink something that reflects their tropical surroundings, Bacardi wants to soak up the Carribean sun with a nice cigar.
It may come as a surprise that nearly 40% of Fijian residents are Indian. At first, admittedly unfairly, I expected a handful of Indian dishes added to the end of predominantly-Fijian menus, limited by supply of ingredients and therefore meal quality and overall demand. I’m thankful to say that my hypothesis was completely off, and the food greatly exceeded my expectations.
From restaurants to street vendors, traditional Indian dishes in Fiji are exquisite. Curries are available at nearly every restaurant, roti is plentiful, and delicious lassis can be found with domestic, tropical fruit. The biggest surprise during my time in Vita Levu was at the Sleeping Giant Gardens, where we were offered homemade rotis filled with seasoned, spicy potato. For the equivalent of $0.50 I got a filled roti bigger than my hand, and it was delicious.
Indian food in Fiji is genuine, affordable, and too good to miss. As soon as I got back from vacation, I got a Masala Dabba spice kit to recreate the same flavors at home, without breaking the bank at local restaurants. From my experience, it’s really difficult to recreate Indian cuisine without proper spices. Having a little stockpile of everything is a great way to become more comfortable with unfamiliar dishes. Never stop exploring, right?
Like the lolo bun, Ika Lolo is a mouth-watering coconut-based concoction. Imagine the same delicious coconut cream from before, but add tender vegetables, delicious bongo chili peppers, and about a pound of lightly breaded whitefish. While specific serving arrangements vary across establishments, the two main ingredients are always the same: whitefish and coconut cream. In this case, the coconut cream is specifically “miti”, a combination of coconut cream, citrus, and vegetables (usually onion and/or pepper).
I learned quickly that any chance you have to try local Fijian Bongo peppers, you take. My tolerance for heat is higher than average so these never really got to me, but they’re decently spicy. Somewhere between Jalapeno and Habanero, for an easy reference. The magic comes from when it’s mixed with coconut cream: the heat is reduced to a slight burn and the mouth-watering flavor profile is released. When the pepper, coconut, and vegetable flavors combine, the mild whitefish taste is completely masked, making this dish accessible to those who aren’t big fans of seafood (such as myself).
A hugely underrated feature when you’ve already made decent progress in the meal. As the fish is cut apart, bits of the breading will detach and float around in the coconut cream. These bits, similar to lolo buns, become delicious sponges of coconut. Saturated with intensely flavorful coconut and bongo pepper, I lost sight of the rest of the meal. Somebody needs to start serving breaded bongo lolo by itself!
Last but not least, a personal favorite! While fish tacos aren’t exactly Fijian, I have to say that every fish taco I had while I was there was world class. The freshness of ingredients and variety of styles made every meal unique and every taco delicious. Amazingly, none of the fish actually tasted very fishy. Only subtle hints would occasionally creep through the fresh citrus and herb seasoning.
Interestingly, everywhere I went served them a little differently. Tacos I had in Nadi, a part of Vita Levu with a more Indian population, used traditional naan as the tortilla. Tacos I had in Momi Bay, a more remote and rural area, were served on hard shells and included a more significant portion of local fruits and citrus.
If I had a single recommendation to give after exploring Fijian food, it would be to embrace the area outside of your comfort zone. While I try to explore new things, I had to overcome a pretty strong bias to try the above dishes. Coconut, and especially fish, aren’t my favorite foods. Looking back, I can honestly say that Fijian cuisine helped me overcome bias, grow my palette, and experience things I wouldn’t have otherwise. By understanding their foods, I better understood Fijian culture. All because I wandered and pondered.