Don’t Just Look At It…Eat It!!!!! Pumpkin Curry

Look at how cute and delicious I am. Eat me!

If I see one more recipe that calls for a can of pumpkin I’m going to lose it!!  Yes, of course, I know we are busy, but really, we know the difference in flavor from canned peaches to fresh peaches right?  Yes, we do, exactly my point.  And the last time someone sucked down a pumpkin spice latte or pumpkin flavored anything for that matter, did it actually taste like pumpkin?  My guess is probably not; most likely it tasted like cinnamon, cloves and ginger…no pumpkin to be found!  Did you know that pumpkin actually tastes amazing & not just in pie?!  Oh indeed it does.  And how about those seeds….all warm and salty and toasty.

Pure fall. Don’t waste a thing…eat those seeds!

What a gift to have pumpkins growing this time of year.  Eat them fresh & forget the can!

Pumpkin curry was the first meal I ate at my host family’s house in Fiji.  The pumpkin was familiar but done in a way that my palate had never experienced.  My host mom would always make it for me whenever I came home for visits and it will forever be a nostalgic food.

Pumpkins in Fiji! They are a kitchen staple.

Not in the mood to cook but want to try pumpkin?  Cut a cooking pumpkin (they call them “pie pumpkins”) into quarters, scoop out the seeds (toast ’em & eat ’em!), place the slices in a glass baking dish.  Bake them uncovered with cut side down at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes.  Pumpkin is finished when it is fork tender. Want savory? Sprinkle with sea salt and butter or olive oil.  Want sweet? Sprinkle with butter, honey & cinnamon.  Want curry?  See recipe below……

This recipe is exactly how my host mom made it except that neither of us measures anything so I did my best to note that.  I’ve made this recipe probably over 50 times and only ONCE did it actually taste just like hers (I actually called her rejoicing in my success).  This curry is warm, velvety and a gorgeous color.  In Fiji it was most often eaten with roti (unleavened flat bread) but here I made it with rice.

Prepped and ready to be curried…yummmm….

Eat it with your hands!!!

Kaddu ke Tarkari- Pumpkin Curry

(From the home of my Indo-Fijian host-mom, Sarojni Singh)

4 cups pumpkin, skin peeled, chopped into half inch cubes

1 medium white onion, chopped medium

2 cloves garlic

1 tbsp ginger root, peeled

2-3 small chilies, (adjust quantity according to your heat preference & the type of chilli)

½ tsp fennel seeds

1/2  tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp mustard seed

Sea salt

1 1/2 tblsp coconut or olive oil (I chose a healthier oil as they only use soy or canola)

Optional: 2 tblsp chopped cilantro (mom doesn’t use, but I like it)

Pound garlic, ginger and chilies in a mortar & pestle with a heavy pinch of salt or chop very finely.  In a very hot skillet or pot add oil, then onion, fennel, mustard seed & cumin.  Saute until onions are browned & spices are toasted, about 2-4 minutes. Add garlic-ginger mixture and sauté for another minute, ensuring the garlic does not burn, lower heat if necessary.   Add pumpkin and cook covered on medium high heat until pumpkin has softened, stirring often.   Water is drawn out from the pumpkin as it cooks, so do not add any unless it seems to be very dry even after 20 minutes of cooking. Smash the pumpkin as it begins to soften with the back of a spoon. It should be a thick chunky texture when complete.  Add cilantro if using, stir to combine and salt to taste.

Note: There are alot of variations of this recipe and some people  also use cinnamon, turmeric or masala powder to spice up their pumpkin curry.  Sadly the pumpkins in the US are a bit different then in Fiji & sometimes they just don’t have the same umph of flavor.  If you find your pumpkin to be slightly lackluster then substitute half of the pumpkin for butternut squash.

Cheers!

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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!

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.