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.

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.

What Are You Having For Lunch? I’m Having Seaweed….

I had a craving for seaweed…and no I’m not pregnant.  I like seaweed, it can be gummy and slimy true, but it can also taste like the sea and provide a sense of vitality.  There are so many varieties of seaweed and I am a humble novice, but I have tried a few types in Fiji and I decided I would whip some up.

I was looking for seagrapes, in Fijian known as nama.  You can only get it on Saturday at our market because the village women harvest it from the sea the day before or early in the morning then bring it in to us “city” folk.  There is only one place you can find it too, outside, where all of the Fijian women have their make-shift wooden tables lined up with their native foods fresh or prepared, decorated with chilies and lemon.

Seagrapes fresh from the ocean.

This particular kind of seaweed is most commonly found in the Philippines; however it is in full bloom in the waters of Fiji.  It is said that some species of seagrapes can be toxic to fend off predatory fish & that the toxin can also affect humans. However, Fijians have been eating it a whole lot longer then Wikipedia has been writing about it so I’m not too concerned.  It is also said to have anti-fungal and antibacterial properties so I’m plating myself up a Fijian sized portion because after 3 weeks of rain my house is like 1 big mold spore and I could probably use some medicinal foods : )

Seagrape salad fixin's.

This dish is a traditional recipe to the native Fijians. The seagrapes and tuna make sense together.  The seagrapes are very briny and sea-like and the tuna is fishy, it’s a good match.  The cucumber and lemon juice liven it up and the carrot adds just a touch of sweetness to sooth the heat of the chilie.  The seagrapes are firm and tender and the texture is like caviar….each little bead pops & explodes in your mouth.  I would suggest chilling it for at least an hour before serving it.  It can be served chilled or at room temperature.

Traditional Fijian seagrape salad, enjoy!

You can skip the tuna if you are vegan or veg and bonus, without the tuna this salad is 100% raw!!  Another way the locals prepare it is to make homemade coconut milk and add that in addition to the lemon juice.  You can add a few ounces of canned coconut milk if you wish, but I’m a purest & can never go back to the canned stuff again!

Cheers!

Seagrape salad

1kg seagrapes

1 small onion, chopped fine

1 small carrot, peeled and grated

1 handful cilantro, chopped rough

½ small cucumber, skin peeled and chopped

1-170g tin of tuna in oil, drained

4 tblsp fresh squeezed lemon juice

2 small chilies, chopped fine (optional)

Sea salt to taste

Soak the seagrapes in water for about 5 minutes then drain and rinse them in a colander extremely well.  They can hold onto sand and will be very salty if you do not rinse them thoroughly.  Look for little bits of coral as this is what it grows on and it would be no bueno for your teeth to chomp down on a bit of that.

Add onion through tuna and stir gently to combine. Dress with lemon juice and chilies if using add sea salt to taste and toss to coat.  Store covered in the refrigerator for one hour before serving.  Serve chilled or at room temperature.