Pacific people love food. We love growing it, preparing it, cooking it, and most importantly, eating it! New Zealand-born, Fijian-raised chef Robert Oliver has worked in kitchens all over the world, but no matter where he ventured, he couldn’t go without his pineapple and coconuts. For years he thought about writing a Pacific Island cookbook, often describing to his ‘foodie’ friends in New York and Miami the unique seaweed dishes in Fiji, the hubbub of Pacific markets and the incredible spirit of sharing kai amongst villagers. His book was to share the exciting, vibrant and tasty dishes with chefs and cooks the world over, from those cooking in restaurants and hotels, to those creating family meals in their own homes. It was also to put to our own Pacific chefs and cooks “This is who you are, your food is as great as any!”.
His cookbook dream has been realised. Me’a Kai features more than 400 pages of recipes from Tonga, Samoa, Rarotonga, Tahiti, Fiji and Vanuatu alongside information, tips and stunning photographs. QIANE CORFIELD-MATATA caught up with Robert to talk about his love of Pacific cuisine and his favourite dishes to cook. He has also given a selection of recipes from Me’a Kai for you to try at home.
“Who wouldn’t love to be in on a project that has you cooking an age-old soup recipe in Vanuatu, sipping espresso with coconut cream in Tahiti, being shown the preparation of traditional foods and otais of Tonga, eating lunch prepared by some of the finest home cooks in Fiji, feasting on umu in Samoa, and cooking and laughing with great friends in Rarotonga?” says Robert Oliver, chef and author of the new Pacific Island cookbook Me’a Kai.
“I don’t think people anywhere else in the world understand hospitality as we do in the Pacific. It is such an essential part of who we are. It’s our very nature.”
Robert has had a passion for food since his younger years living in Fiji. Born in Taranaki, raised in Suva, he was exposed to Pacific and Indian cuisine from an early age. The Suva market, he says, shaped his culinary life.
“It was such a bombastic culinary experience, and still is. Living in Fiji we were all of a sudden exposed to amazing markets, Fijian foods, Indian foods, crops and seafood that I would have never imagined before.
“Exposure to a fully charged-up new culture is very exciting and your brain seems to grow – mine headed towards the kitchen.”
His talents grew naturally, experimenting with dishes and flavours. In his younger years Robert was lucky enough to work with Australian chef Bob Hedger in Sydney. He worked as an understudy to the chef, who had lived and trained in Thailand. With this his only formal training, he took on the world and hasn’t looked back.
Throughout his career Robert has worked in places from Trinidad, which he says ranks as a food destination as hot as New York City or Paris, to the United States, and here in Aotearoa. But with all the flavours the world has to offer, he still says the South Pacific is the best.
“Food is the global language of love. Offering food to someone says so much to that person: you are welcome, you are one of us.
“The Pacific has some of the best and most diverse food offerings in the world.”
Q. What Inspired You To Do A Cookbook?
A. I had been working in the Caribbean, opening hotels with Almond Resorts out of Barbados. Most of the food was imported and yet there were many great farmers there who could really do with the business. So I started writing my menus right off the land, based on what was available locally and what could be grown locally in the future.
One of the biggest barriers was that the cooks in the hotels didn’t see their own culture’s dishes as being hotel fare; they didn’t see their Caribbean food as being as good as ‘European’ food. I did and knew that if I could get more local food product into the menus, even more would be bought locally and less imported. I remembered that Fiji was
the same, lots of great local food culture and not a whole lot on the hotels’ menus, and yet tourists wanted it!
So Tracy Berno and I wrote the book to highlight the incredible foods of the Pacific as an entry point to plan to have the hotels buy more food locally and thereby provide an economic lifeline to the rural farmers ( who could all use a few extra dollars!), and also give our tourists better food.
Q. Did you have specific ideas when putting the book together?
A. It really just flowed. And you’ll see that ach island’s journey was quite different rom the others. We are a very diverse region. think this will be asurprise to many readers.
The Pacific is complex. People in NZ who think they know Samoa, for example, by knowing Samoans in NZ, will get to know a whole new beautiful dimension of Samoan culture through the Samoa chapter. And this goes for all of the islands. I think that maybe we have taken for granted the incredible islands right next to us.
Q. How did you choose which Pacific Islands to feature?
A. Fiji was natural. We three (Tracy, Shiri Ram our photographer, and myself) were all very connected to Fiji. The others just seemed to make sense. At one point we didn’t have the Kingdom of Tonga on our plan, we felt that we were already being ambitious, and then I met Papiloa Bloomfield Foliaki who in two minutes had us convinced that Tonga must be in the book, and she was right. Tonga was incredible. And as it turned out, HRH Princess Regent Pilolevu wrote our book foreword. Thanks Papiloa.
Q. How did you find the people and the recipes?
A. Really, they found us! We started off with a few contacts in each place, often through friends or though the tourism agencies, and from there we let it grow by itself. Pacific people love to share, and they did.
Q. The book talks about the Pacific’s sustainability movement, can you tell us more?
A. There is an amazing group of visionaries in the Pacific, often far apart from each other. Adi Tafuna’I in Samoa, Suliana Siwatibau in Fiji, Susan Parkinson in Fiji, Papiloa Bloomfied
Foliaki in Tonga, Te Tika Mataiapo Dorice Reid in Rarotonga and Tap Pryor in Rarotonga all work on creating a clean, green Pacific.
The organic movement in the Pacific has a traditional effect, it keeps the Pacific the same as it was – unpolluted, green, and safe for generations. As Dorice Reid said to me, ‘By
becoming organic, we are staying the same’. Taking care of our land and oceans is central to Pacific traditional thinking.
These people are not famous, but by doing this, they are local heroes.
Q. What were some of your own favourite dishes to eat growing up?
A. I loved vakalolo – Fiji’s outrageous taro based pudding with coconut caramel sauce. I used to plan my flights back to New York so that I could hit the market in Suva before my flight and stock up on vakalolo to take home. US Customs were intrigued to say the least! And I love Viti Whippy’s (also of Fiji) guava jelly.
I love to cook from all world cultures. I love clean food. I love that coconut oil is back in vogue and can reclaim its rightful place in a healthy kitchen. I have favorites from all over the world, and many of them from the Pacific. Simple, clean food, and always with coconut!
Q. What’s the best thing about some of the countries where you have worked?
A. The Pacific Islands: Ingredient wise, I think that Fiji’s ota (river fern) is amazing and would hit the ‘foodie’ scene with a bang if it was ever exported. But it is too delicate to export so you all have to come to Fiji for this!
The whole Pacific has a highly attuned palate around all things coconut. Coconut milk is either thick or thin( made with a little water added), smoky (a hot stone is added to help release the oils, but also imparts a gorgeous smokiness) and umu baked ( the amazing Samoan umu preparation where rich coconut milk is cooked in an umu in a coconut shell and makes the most incredible rich mayo type dipping sauce). Where many folks would think of coconut milk as one product, we have many types and forms and know when it’s fresh! I love that you can go into a supermarket in Suva and pick your coconuts and have them freshly grated to order!
Trinidad: one of the great food nations where all things African, Indian, Chinese, and many more seem to weave together and metamorphose to create an incredible unique and purely “Trini” food product.
Miami, FL USA: Where I am now! I went to an amazing restaurant called Sugarcane here one night and had fried pigtails with blue cheese and celery salad. It was amazing! Miami is a bold young city where chefs from many countries, most notably the Latin Caribbean and South America, experiment and dazzle in this hot, exciting place.
New York: I lived in New York City for 18 years and was never less than amazed. Most of New York eats out and most of New York is from somewhere else, so the city is in a
state of constant creative evolution and food is accessible and affordable.
New Zealand: I love our new restaurants and that we are really celebrating our own product.
Q. Have you a favourite?
A. After writing this book, the Pacific. We are hoarding a big and tasty secret! We really take our food for granted, we are humble about it and a bit deferential, not thinking that our wonderful home dishes are as valid as those in the rest of the world. Let me tell you, they are!
Tracy, Shiri and I are so thrilled that we get to tell the world about our amazing Pacific Island foods. It is a real honour. And we are thankful to all of the generous folks in the Pacific who shared their dishes and stories with us.
Octopus is plentiful in the Pacific and a common sight when reef snorkelling, but I rarely see it on menus. Tui’s version is made with cooked, cubed taro, but I have since made it with cooked, sliced green bananas and it is just as delicious. This Samoan-style salad has a terrific coconut dressing. octopus (sufficient to yield 3 cups once cooked and diced)
1 head garlic
1 bay leaf
3 cups cooked, diced taro or breadfruit or
cooked, sliced green bananas
3 cups peeled and seeded cucumber, diced
1 cup mint leaves, shredded
2 teaspoons minced garlic, extra
1 cup rich coconut milk
cup lemon or lime juice
salt and pepper
lime wedges to serve thinly sliced or minced
chilli to serve
Cook the octopus in water with the first quantity of garlic and the bay leaf until the meat is tender – about an hour. Remove from the water, cool and dice. Alternatively, buy octopus that is already cleaned and cooked: you’ll save yourself the mess of octopus ink!
Gently toss the octopus, taro, cucumber, mint, extra garlic, coconut milk and citrus juice together. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until chilled through. Serve chilled with the lime wedges and chilli.
400g snapper fillet, finely diced
1 cup finely diced mango
3 tablespoons basil pesto
juice of 3 limes
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
cup very finely diced spring onion
salt and pepper
Combine all ingredients except the salt and pepper, mixing well. Refrigerate until well chilled, chilling four serving plates at the same time.
Season with salt and pepper and mould onto the chilled plates.
Lap lap is easily made at home. This adapted recipe uses a grated taro lap lap base, topping it with spiced roasted chicken and gingery coconut gravy. Oven baking the lap lap base
means that it doesn’t get the same smoky flavour that an earth oven gives, but the banana leaves still do their magic.
Cook the lap lap in a casserole dish so that you can bring it to the table straight from theoven and eat it in true island style! To make it for four, use a larger chicken and up the quantities of everything else by another half.
2 large squares banana leaf
5 cups grated taro
1½ cups coconut milk
2 cups cooked island cabbage, squeezed dry
4 small tomatoes, halved salt and pepper
1 small whole chicken (about 1kg)
juice of 1 lemon or lime
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon chilli flakes or powder
1 teaspoon coconut oil (substitute:
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons thinly sliced ginger
2 lime or lemon leaves (optional)
½ cup flour
2 cups coconut milk
2 chillies, whole
½ cup roughly chopped spring onions
salt and pepper
Pacific plantains are the world’s best: they are fatter and sweeter than the typical Caribbean and African varieties. This recipe makes good use of the plantain’s sweetness, and eating sweetish foods with meats is very common in the Pacific. For a nutritious Pacific breakfast, I like to stew ripe plantains in water (there is no need for sugar) and eat them chilled with grated fresh coconut and fresh coconut milk.
5 ripe plantains
½ cup melted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
3 star anise
Peel the plantains and cut into large pieces. Place them in a saucepan, cover with water, then bring to a boil. Boil until soft (about 15 minutes). Drain and toss with the butter and
spices. Serve hot.
Okay, there’s no denying it: poke looks weird! But man, it tastes really good! I bought some of both sorts – banana and pumpkin – at Punanga Nui market, and kept picking at it for a few days. It has a reassuring, comfort-food quality; I can imagine loving it as a dessert and enjoying it when appetite is low. The Cooks version uses arrowroot, which is a throwback to old baking days. I remember my grandmother always having arrowroot in her pantry and I haven’t seen it much since then. (It can be quite costly now, except in Asian stores.) My mother tested this recipe at home in New Zealand using cornflour instead, and it really wasn’t the same – there wasn’t the pleasing, almost bouncy chewiness that arrowroot gives.
Tracy test-cooked pumpkin poke, also in New Zealand, using arrowroot she bought at a supermarket. ‘Tastes like Raro’ was her summation, so make the effort to get arrowroot for poke.
pumpkin, peeled and chopped (for 4 cups
cooked) or 4 bananas
2 cups arrowroot
1½ cups sugar
vanilla seeds or ground cinnamon
or allspice (optional)
3 cups coconut milk
¼ cup sugar
2-3 drops vanilla essence (optional)
Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Grease a 23 cm
Bake or microwave the pumpkin flesh to cook it – boiling absorbs too much water – or peel and slice the bananas and boil for 12 minutes, in enough water to barely cover. Mash the pumpkin or banana until veryn smooth. Combine the mash with the arrowroot, sugar and vanilla, cinnamon or allspice, if using. Mix well.
Place in the cake tin and bake for 90 minutes, until a thin crust forms on the surface and the poke is firm when pressed. Meanwhile, make the coconut sauce. Gently warm the coconut milk then remove it from the heat. Do not let it boil, as it will separate. Whisk in the sugar and the vanilla, if using, until the sugar has dissolved. Let the sauce cool. Let the poke cool, cut into 5 cm squares or scoop out with a spoon, cover with coconut sauce and serve.
‘Otai can be made with any fresh fruit mixed with coconut – try ripe pineapple, mango or pawpaw – but in Tonga it is most popular made with watermelon, and Tonga’s watermelons
are the region’s best. The rich volcanic soil and relatively cool temperatures of the main island, Tongatapu, mean that the fruit sugars develop slowly and attain a rich, full flavour.
Watermelons are sold at the roadside all over Tonga. When I was a kid travelling on one of the old P&O liners, the Himalaya, we stopped off in Nuku‘alofa where Tongans boarded with mats, tapa and...watermelons. The ship later docked in Auckland and Customs wouldn’t allow the foreign fruit ashore, so people threw hundreds of melons onto the wharf, where they smashed open. Years later, I can still smell the strong, sweet aroma of Tongan watermelons. This ‘otai has the seeds left in; they are supposedly good for headaches.
6 cups diced watermelon
2 cups grated fresh coconut
2 cups coconut milk
juice of 1 local lemon
1 tablespoon local honey (optional)
ice cubes (optional)
The trick with ‘otai is to mash the watermelon without completely juicing it: the fruit needs a bit of its structure left to give the drink body. Mash the watermelon with a wooden spoon or stick until it is a chunky slush. (Papiloa used a stick and mashed the flesh while it was still in the skin.) Add the grated coconut, coconut milk and lemon. Mix well.
Trickle in the honey, if using – Tongan watermelon doesn’t need any –and add ice cubes if desired. Feel free to add light rum!
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