My Market Family

Two years ago I joined the Peace Corps.  I had no idea what was in store for my life.  Third world living, new languages, weather and of course food.  By no accident I was placed in a small city to which, in my humble opinion, has the best market in all of Fiji, and of course I’ve been to all 8 markets that exist on the 2 main islands.  The Lautoka market has become a haven, a classroom and a social outlet.  The breadth of my knowledge has expanded in incalculable ways.  I have not only discovered new foods and how to prepare them but I have discovered how wonderful it is to forge relationships with people whose lives are also centered around food.

Who wouldn’t love shopping at this market with a smile like that!

I have become acutely aware of what “eating seasonal” means.  One automatically becomes so in touch with changing weather patterns; in the U.S. we lose this relationship because you can get a banana in Cleveland from Ecuador in January.  In Fiji, if it’s not the season for bananas you are not eating bananas.  What a blessing this is.  Sure you can buy imported apples and broccoli from a few select stores, but you are going to pay handsomely and the quality is inferior.

I’m indebted to those that became my “market family”.  The people I saw on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.  When I was gone for a few weeks they would actually notice I was gone.  When they found out I was single they would try to get me to marry their son (I was propositioned for an arranged marriage to an Indian woman’s son…it was mortifying as you can imagine).  When I was sick, they could see it in my face.  They have provided me with priceless education and friendship.  My Peace Corps service is ending in a few short days and I will miss these people dearly.

Sunjay & family: I would sit down with them every week to talk about life while drinking a coconut water and eating pineapple.

My dear friend Sandeep. I was dressed up in a sari for the Hindu holiday of Diwali.

Apple lady:  The first person who continuously spoke Hindi with me & helped me push through my struggle.  She would speak with me in Hindi in front of other people and brag about me as if I were her own daughter : )

My business savvy friend and her husband.

Coconut cutter:  There will be a gaping hole in my heart the size of a young coconut when I leave Fiji.  Coconuts are one thing I will miss most.

How did I live without so many coconuts?! Between eating the gratings, making coconut milk & drinking coconut water I think I’m up to 5 a week.

Seaweed lady: My guru for all traditional Fijian foods.  She is brilliant.  I will miss her sass and knowledge.

My sassy seaweed supplier, Eta. She was running late that morning and whispered quietly to me…”I met my friends out last night and we did a pub crawl..” hahahaha!!! I love her even more now.

No recipe this time as I am crazy busy packing and going to farewell dinners!!  Cheers!

Grapefruit Shake-Up!

Did I ever tell you I grew up in the carnival?  Yes, it’s true, I am a third generation carnie.  But a few things set me apart like an education and having all of my teeth.  My grandfather started AJ Sunny Amusements in 1956 and the business was later taken over by my father and aunt.  I began working the midway at the age of nine doing small things like sorting money or making lemonade. However most of my time was spent taking advantage of living the life every child dreams of which consisted of eating French fries and cotton candy for lunch and cutting in line to pick whatever seat I wanted on one of our psychedelically painted rides.

Working the midway. So according to this picture I guess I started working when I was about 18 months.

We’ve all had the ubiquitous frothy lemonade shake-up in the large, waxed paper cup that we must hold two-handed for fear the bottom may drop out (tragic!).  We’ve watched a carnie (maybe even me) shake this refreshing summer beverage with enthusiastic vigor.

My palate has diversified since my steady diet of sno cones and funnel cakes and living in Fiji has helped that considerably.  With my carnival days behind me and being a Peace Corps volunteer my current chosen profession, I’m going to be honest….. it can be really challenging.  The harassment, unreliable public transportation, harassment on the unreliable transportation….. sometimes when I get home on a sweaty Friday afternoon a nice cool drink (with vodka) is critical to maintaining sanity while enduring third world living.  However, on this occasion I will have to gracefully decline for 2 reasons: 1. I am on a volunteer budget and 2. I’m not even sure if the local vodka here is meant for human consumption.

I dare your mouth not to water.

It is citrus season in Fiji now.  There are at least eight types of citrus I can think of but I’m sure there are more I have yet to discover.  Small, sweet n sour kumquats, meyer-like lemons, traditional limes, candy sweet mandarins and the list goes on and on.  A few are eaten out of hand but most commonly they are used to make juice.

I was missing the tangy taste of a grapefruit and lucky for me I came across the Fiji version of just that.  They are MASSIVE and can weigh 3-4 lbs.  I picked a hefty one, squeezed the bloody hell out of it & shook it like a Polaroid picture.  This drink is a refreshing deviant from the norm and is so vibrant in its flavor that it could pull you out of a cotton candy coma.

Is it a grapefruit? Is it a pomelo? I’m not really sure. But what I do know is that its delicious.

Getting excited about citrus!

Lets get real, this beverage would be award winning with a heavy splash of vodka (or gin).  Pair this drink with some caramel apples and Italian sausages and you’ve got a carnie party to attend.

Grapefruit Shakeup

1 1/2 cups fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
4 tbsp Sugar
4 tbsp boiling water
Ice

Makes 2

Make a simple syrup by adding boiling water and sugar together stirring to dissolve sugar completely.

Juice grapefruit and strain to remove any excess seeds and pulp.  Making one at a time, in a pint glass add half the grapefruit juice to half of the syrup, fill glass with ice and pour 8 oz. of water over top.  Cover the pint glass with either a plastic cup or traditional lemonade paper cup that fits snuggly over the lip.  Shake vigorously for 1 minute until it well combined and frothy.  Serve in either pint glass or paper cup.  Garnish with a grapefruit wedge if desired.

Have You Been Eating Your Ferns Lately?

Have you been eating your ferns lately?  Umm hmm, I didn’t think so.  Well, honestly, me neither.  I came across this magical green known as “ota” in Fijian about a  year ago.  I brought it home & scratched my head, because I had failed to ask two pertinent questions: 1. What the hell is this? and 2. How do I cook it?  A year later I got around to answering those two delicious questions.

The mystical, magical jungle-fern known as ota.

This frilly fern grows in the jungle and can only be found on Saturday at my market when the women from the interior villages come to sell nature’s bounty.  It grows tall, about 2 ½ ft high and along the river banks.  It has a spring like grassy aroma and I feel healthy just looking at it.  I’m sure its nutrient levels are off the charts with blood cleansing chlorophyll being top on the list.  It has this unusual slime factor that many other greens in Fiji also contain.  It makes it so that you feel a slight coating in your mouth, it’s not unpleasant, it’s just…..weird.  Of course like most Fijian dishes it is swimming in a sweet bath of coconut milk which the ginger helps to lighten.  If you are one of those folks that doesn‘t like coconut (you need to get your taste buds checked), you can make this without the coconut milk and just continue to sauté it until it is completely cooked and tender.

What you will need.

I am happy I came back to investigate this jungle fern once again.  I feel good eating it.  My healthy blood and full stomach are equally pleased.

Bubbling cauldron of fern and coconut milk.

Ota Vakalolo
8-9 cups loosely packed ota, or other edible fern
½ onion, chopped,
1 clove garlic, minced,
1 inch thumb ginger, minced
1 small chili, minced
3 cups -coconut milk (mine was homemade which is thinner then canned so you may use 2 cups canned coconut milk and 1 cup water)
2 tsp olive or coconut oil
Sea salt to taste
Lemon wedges, optional

To clean the ota pluck off the top stem and top fronds from the main stem.  Toward the bottom of the stem the other fronds tend to be more woody, so only remove the leaves themselves.  Pinching each side of the frond pull backward to remove leaves.  Wash thoroughly and drain well.

Heat a medium sized stock pot over medium heat and add oil and onion.  Saute until tender about 3-4 minutes.  Add garlic, ginger and chili and sauté another 2 minutes.  Add ota and sauté for 5-8 minutes until tender and wilted.  Add coconut milk and salt, stir to combine.  Cover and simmer over medium low heat stirring occasionally for 15-20 minutes until the ferns have softened and the coconut milk has reduced and thickened.

Serve with boiled cassava, lemon wedges and chilies as a garnish.

Mammoth Mollusk is on the Menu…..aka Giant Clam

When I first saw the amorphous, striped blob at the wharf I had no idea what it was.  With raised eyebrows I made my inquiry and was informed it was in Fijian known as vasua, or giant clam.  I thought to myself “Score!  This is so on.”  When I got home, (just to be sure and save myself some potential gastro-intestinal upset), I Googled “Can you eat giant clam?”  The answer to my gastronomic delight was…yes.  I’m going to just come out and say it, it looks, well…uh hmm, slightly vaginal.  But never mind its appearance, its traditional Fijian cuisine and time to experiment.

Gorgeous Colors of the Giant Clam

Going to the local wharf on a mild afternoon when the boats have come in for the day is my bliss.  The small fiber glass boats are brightly painted blue and yellow and the air smells of salt, diesel and fish.  It’s gritty, a little seedy and in a way reminds me of my carnival days.  As I went to buy the giant clam I knelt down to hold it up, inspect and make sure I was getting a good deal.  I spoke with the shoeless, tooth missing, Fijian fisherman who caught it and asked the price and about the best way to prepare it.  As I was doing this a small crowd began to form around me.  Four then five men started making their way to the most unusual sight of a white woman buying something as exotic as giant clam.

The Lautoka Wharf.

I was given at least five methods of preparation but finally decided on one I was comfortable with and could handle solo.  I began to chop it into pieces and discarded some oozy, odd looking bits that I decided were not in my best interest to consume.

Excited About My Experiment!

The flavor of the clam itself is similar to that of a traditional clam but richer.  I would say it tastes more like octopus then clam.  It is chewy of course and has that signature briny flavor from spending every one of its living moments absorbing the sea.  Having it bathe in coconut milk is the utmost of traditional and I enjoy it, but its rich on rich & makes me need to sprawl out belly-up for a Giant nap.  “Vakamiti” is a Fijian method of making raw coconut milk with the addition of salt, onion, lemon juice, chilies, tomatoes and cilantro.  The onion, cilantro and lemon lighten it up and kick the hell out of your taste buds.

I am thrilled with my experiment gone right!  The quantity was far to Giant for me to consume alone so I took the finished product to my Fijian neighbors next door.  When I ran into him the following day and asked “Hey, how was the vasua?”  He replied, “Oh man, juuuust lovely.  You can cook better then one Fijian woman.”

My life is now complete : )

Vasua Vakamiti- Giant Clam in Coconut Milk

Vasua Vakamiti-Giant Clam in Coconut Milk
2 giant clams, approx 4-5lbs, chopped into 1 inch bite sized pieces
2 cups coconut milk
1 small onion, diced
1 tblsp chilies, diced (or your preference of heat)
2 tblsp cilantro, minced
Juice of 2 lemons
Sea salt to taste

Wash clams thoroughly and chop accordingly.  Place in a medium sauce pan and fill with enough water to cover.  Bring to a boil cooking for 8-10 minutes.  Once cooked, drain and cool.

Combine coconut milk through salt and stir to combine.  Add more of any ingredient to your liking, the measurements need not be exact.  Pour coconut mixture over cooked giant clam.  Serve with boiled cassava.

Fiji Comfort Food At Its Finest

At the time of writing this it had been raining for two weeks straight.  I don’t mean a drizzle here and there and some moody gray skies.  I’m talking sheet rain with fire hydrant force behind it and cyclonic winds followed by devastating flooding and power outages. This kind of weather, when I’m literally stuck indoors for days at a time, makes me want to eat, but not just anything, I want to eat carbs and sweets and lots of them.  I want comfort food, something warm and creamy.

I tried this traditional Fijian dessert at a cultural event when first arriving to the islands.  Vakasoso in Fijian means “something added”.  In other words, you take something in its raw state & add something to it, in this case coconut milk, making it infinitely more awesome.

Vakasoso is warm and rich, so call your spot on the couch in advance because this dessert will directly be followed by a nap.  Vudi, pronounced voon-dee, is in the banana family.  It’s not a banana, it’s not a plantain, but more like a combination of the two.  It has the fragrant aroma and flavor of a banana but has a higher starch content similar to a plantain.  If it just so happens that you are not living in the South Pacific then you could substitute bananas for this recipe.  However, if the bananas are too ripe they will just turn to mush, so make sure they are ripe but still a bit firm.

The Humble Ingredients. The tool on the left is an ancient war tool used to.....no, not really...it's only a coconut scraper.

The ripe vudi may be a bit high in sugar, but its natural sugar.  Never the less, skip the extra sugar if you are conscious of your intake.  And DON’T worry for one second about your waistline….coconut milk is GOOD for you.  The naturally occurring fats in coconut oil PREVENT heart disease and the multi-chain triglycerides (MCT’s) are a long chain fatty acid and are one of the healthiest fats in existence.  So don’t waste one drop of that glorious milky sauce! Lick the bowl…….I did ; )

The Divine Decadence.

VakaSoso

2 large ripe vundi, sliced into 1/4-1/2 inch thick rounds

1 cup coconut milk

3 tbsp shredded coconut

1 tbsp sugar (optional & most likely unnecessary)

Simmer covered over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Serve warm or at room temperature.