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.

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.

Come On Mom, Not Seaweed Agaaaain….

I came across yet another seaweed that piqued my interest.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen or tried and my inner Indiana Jones was calling. After a lengthy conversation with my seaweed supplier I was convinced it was time to jump in and give lumi a try.  The lumi itself is a unique food with the texture of whiskery yarn and smells strong of brine and the sea. When cooked it dissolves into a gelatinous slime which I realize sounds totally unappetizing, but combine that seaweed slime with coconut milk, onions and ginger and you have a traditional dish to die for!

My seaweed supplier & guru of traditional Fijian cuisine.

I met with my good friend Sala to help me on my seaweed adventure.  Once the lumi was thoroughly rinsed I peeled and grated ginger & Sala opened, more like sawed open, a large can of tuna.  Most locals I have encountered find kitchen gadgets pointless.  Cans are opened by stabbing it with a moderately large knife-saw away and there you have it…can opened.  I gave my friend a can opener to use once and given the blank look on his face I quickly realized he had no idea how to use it.  Such a beautiful thing to share culture through can openers.

I'm REALLY excited about making this seaweed!

We followed the recipe that Sala knew by heart and once she was satisfied the lumi was solid enough we sat down and cut a small triangular slice.  Its texture was silky smooth, moist and a semi solid custard.  The flavor of the tuna was pronounced and the seaweed itself never lost its signature taste of sea salt and brine.

The finished product ready to be dipped in a tangy sauce of lemon juice, ginger and chilies.

A screaming success, I ate it for three days!  This will be on regular rotation of my favorite traditional Fijian meals.

Lumi Vakalolo

1-$2 FJD heap lumi (about 4 cups)
½  large onion, sliced thin
1 -2 inch thumb ginger, peeled and grated
2 coconuts worth coconut milk (rung twice) or about 3 1/2 cups canned
2 tsp sea salt
1 tin of tuna in water, drained (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon
½ inch thumb ginger, peeled and grated
1 tsp hot chilis, chopped

To prepare the seaweed you must thoroughly clean it first.  Pull up thin handfuls and inspect it for other kinds of seaweed, small pieces of coral or dirt.  This must be done carefully and slowly. Remove any unwanted debris and place in a colander.  Let water run through it and move it around so all parts are rinsed by the water.  Once sufficiently rinsed squeeze it dry & let it sit to strain further in the colander.

In a large stock pot bring the coconut milk to a boil over medium high heat.  Once simmering add onions, ginger (and tuna is using), stir to combine. Slowly add lumi one handful at a time, stirring until all lumi has been added.  Stir constantly over medium high heat until the lumi is totally dissolved and when the spoon is lifted it is no longer stringy and is a thick consistency.

At this stage pour the mixture into a shallow 13 x 9 casserole dish or a shallow dish of a similar size.  If you use a smaller dish it will be thicker which is fine, however it will take longer to cool and become solid.  Let the lumi cool at room temperature uncovered for at least 30 -45 minutes.  If you are in a hurry you can place it in the refrigerator to speed this process up.  The lumi is completely set once you can cut it with a knife through it and it will no longer run.  It should be the texture of thick custard.

Squeeze the lemon juice in a small shallow dish and add the grated ginger and chilies.  Stir to combine. Cut lumi into squares or triangles and serve with the lemon juice mixture for dipping.  Serve with boiled cassava.

This may be served cool or at room temperature.  Refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days.

Spread Some Holiday Love with Popcorn Balls!

Get out your dental floss folks because we are making popcorn balls!

I had the semi-genius idea to make a popcorn ball Christmas tree while half asleep/half awake one lazy morning.  It felt brilliant, like the kind of recipe where I needed to run to town immediately and gather all items necessary.

After growing up in the carnival and having an aunt that gave us popcorn balls for every occasion, they are a celebratory staple in my kitchen.

The sticky, gooey, goodness pre-form.

Do you remember me telling you about how it’s okay to make mistakes and try things out in the kitchen?  Yeah, well this recipe is one of those times.  Once the popcorn ball Christmas tree was assembled it looked like something a 3rd grader made.  Kind of embarrassing actually.  And as my friend and sous-chef for the project Marie so aptly stated, “We’re sober even.” Sigh……

The decorum assembly line.

As I gazed upon the popcorn monstrosity I thought “There is no way on this planet I will post a picture of something so ugly.”  But then I thought, “Do it.  I need to be true to the way I live, mistakes and all.”  The idea looked so much more beautiful in my mind.  I had visions of gold dusted and sugar pearl studded popcorn balls, a classy and elegant centerpiece for the most high fashion of Christmas parties.  Alas it was an over sprinkled hot mess!

My hideous popcorn ball Christmas tree that looks like a 3rd grader made it. It seemed like a good idea.....

In the end I deconstructed the tree and passed out the popcorn ornaments to my friends and neighbors and they loved them!  So even though it was an aesthetic flop it was a tasty and rewarding success.

Happy holidays to my family and friends at home and abroad.  May your life be filled with love and forgiveness.

Popcorn Ball Christmas Tree

Ingredients

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups water

11/2 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup un-popped popcorn

1 ½ tablespoons virgin coconut oil

Colorful decorations such as: colored sugar crystal sprinkles, edible gold dust, sugar pearls, toasted coconut etc.

Yield 13-15 tennis ball sized balls

Directions

Add coconut oil to a large pot and heat over medium high heat, pop covered until all kernels are popped, add 1 tablespoon of salt and shake to combine.  If you would like you can use microwave popcorn or an air popper according to its directions.  I have neither luxury so old fashioned popping it is.

In a medium sauce pan combine the sugar, water, 1 teaspoon salt and vinegar. Cook over medium heat to the hard ball stage 250 degrees F (120 degrees C)using a candy thermometer (good luck find one of those in Fiji). Or simmer uncovered for about 25-28 minutes until dark amber in color and thickened.  Stir in the vanilla and slowly pour the hot mixture over the popped popcorn, stirring to mix well.

Oil hands lightly and shape into tennis ball sized balls. Mixture will be extremely hot so be careful. Place balls on a large plate or wax paper to cool.

Place your decorations in shallow dishes and roll balls into decoration.  If you are using edible gold dust use a small, clean paint brush to paint each one or if using the sugar pearls you will need to place them one at a time. To make the tree look less busy leave some balls undecorated.  Chill decorated popcorn balls in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before assembling the tree.

Arrange balls in a circle and then build your next layer on top and so forth until you have 1 at the top.  As a suggestion you may build the tree on a cake stand to be used as an edible centerpiece(if it looks better than mine did!). Allow your guests to take one popcorn ball home or eat it at the party!