Celebrating the taste of the islands

by Lauraine Jacobs / 21 April, 2012
The first South Pacific Food & Wine Festival was a way to celebrate the flavours of this unique part of the world.

It’s no surprise New Zealanders see our Pacific Island neighbours – with their warm waters, sandy beaches, balmy nights and friendly service – as an ideal holiday destination. The only catch? I’ve never heard anyone rave about Pacific food. But this is changing.

The first South Pacific Food & Wine Festival was held at Fiji’s Denarau Island last month, and local and international chefs embraced island produce, showcasing the cuisine in a celebrity chef theatre and cooking a series of  dinners around the resorts.

Three Kiwi chefs took the stage: Peter Gordon, master of fusion-style cuisine; Robert Oliver, who has become an expert on island fare following the success of his cookbook, Me‘a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific; and Michael Meredith of Merediths in Mt Eden, which won of the 2011 Restaurant of the Year award. In his “free-styling with coconut” presentation, Meredith delivered three outstanding dishes: coconut ceviche, a playful take on the famous raw fish dish; frothy coconut water; and coconut yoghurt.

The region’s holiday resorts used to rely on produce imported from Australasia, but these days chefs have quality locally grown salad vegetables, herbs and tropical fruits to choose from, although they still use imported dairy products and meat. Next to the theatre, a large marquee housed a hospitality exhibition with innovative purveyors from around the Pacific.

One producer, Tomohito Zukoshi, discovered cacao trees in Fiji’s Savusavu nine years ago. “We’ve been waiting 30 years for you,” the locals told him when he bought their cacao pods to use in making chocolate. He now produces fine chocolate commercially, under the brand Adi Chocolate Fiji, and exports it as far afield as Belgium. Tauranga’s Jennifer Boggiss and her father, John Ross, work with farmers in Tonga’s Vava‘u Islands to produce worldclass Heilala Vanilla beans, extract and syrups. These products are available in New Zealand and are also exported.

Chutneys, pickles and jams, along with handmade cards and handicrafts, are the focus of another flourishing business. Ten years ago, Sashi Kiran started Friend (Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development) in the hope of alleviating poverty through social and economic empowerment. The foundation works with communities to encourage the use of natural resources, teaching skills to help create sustainable lifestyles.

Traditional recipes are gathered, then the crops are grown to provide ingredients for the sweet mango pickle, chilli chutney and other products that are made in the foundation’s commercial kitchens. I brought a few jars home and we’re enjoying them with curries and meats.

Chef Brendon Coffey, who has presided over the kitchens of the Sofitel, one of Denarau’s leading resorts, for more than nine years, encourages local producers and growers to sell their goods to the hotel. He took to the festival stage with his wife, Sharon, to demonstrate Fijian Indian curries. As many Fijians are the descendants of Indian immigrants, curries are a common feature in homes and hotel buffets throughout the islands.

The Coffeys shared two of their recipes. The first is a chicken curry that takes about 40 minutes to cook. I chopped up a whole bird, but chicken pieces would work just as well. I found the curry leaves in my local Asian market. There’s no real alternative to curry leaves, as their fragrance is unique. If you must, choose other fragrant leaves such as basil or kaffir lime.


  • ½ cup vegetable oil

  • 1 large onion, finely sliced

  • ½ tsp cumin seed

  • ½ tsp mustard seed

  • 6-7 curry leaves

  • 4 cloves garlic

  • 20g fresh ginger

  • 1 tsp turmeric

  • pinch chilli powder

  • 1 size 16 chicken, chopped into bite-sized pieces

  • ½ tsp salt

  • 2 tbsp garam masala

  • ½ cup chopped coriander leaves

Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the onion and gently fry until starting to turn a light gold. Add the cumin and mustard seeds, then fry gently until they start to pop. Add the curry leaves and half the garlic and ginger and continue to fry gently until the onion is golden brown. Add the turmeric and chilli powder and fry a minute longer.

Add the chicken pieces then stir in the salt and garam masala, ensuring the chicken is well-coated. Cover the pan with a lid and cook over a mild to moderate heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining ginger and garlic, stirring to combine. Add the coriander, then check the seasoning. Serve. Serves 4-6.

This dhal is full of vegetables and can be served alone as a soup or as part of an Indian banquet.


  • ¾ cup red lentils

  • ½ cup yellow split peas

  • 1 litre water

  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into batons

  • ½ tsp turmeric

  • 2 tsp salt

  • 2 tbsp sugar

  • 420g tin crushed tomatoes

  • 1 stem curry leaves

  • 25g garlic

  • 25g ginger

  • 80g butter

  • ¼ tsp cumin seed

  • ¼ tsp black mustard seeds

  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced

  • 1 bunch coriander leaves, chopped

Wash the lentils and split peas together 2-3 times in cold water. Bring the litre of water to the boil and add the lentils, peas, carrot, turmeric, salt, sugar, crushed tomatoes, the curry leaves and half the garlic and the ginger. Simmer for 40 minutes, then remove from the heat. Use a blending stick or a food processor to roughly blend.

In a separate pan, heat the butter until it begins to foam. Add the cumin and mustard seeds and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the onion and cook gently until golden brown. Stir in the remaining garlic and ginger. Carefully pour the blended soup onto the onion, ensuring the soup does not separate. Reheat gently and stir in the coriander. Season to taste. Serve in heated bowls. Serves 6.
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