The greens party

Three chefs in the Ma­manu­cas are cel­e­brat­ing gar­den pro­duce and re­defin­ing Fi­jian cui­sine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

IN the thriv­ing vegetable and herb gar­dens of Liku­liku La­goon Re­sort in Fiji’s Ma­manuca group, j ust north­west of Nadi, New Zealand-born ex­ec­u­tive chef Ihaka Peri is show­ing me the fruits of his green-thumbed labours.

In this sandy ter­ri­tory, tucked into a cove on Malolo Is­land, it would seem a small mir­a­cle if any­thing were to grow, but here we have log- bor­dered beds with myr­iad va­ri­eties of chilli, feath­ery clumps of dill, cherry toma­toes, fen­nel, co­rian­der and wild as­para­gus. Al­most all that is good and nu­tri­tious, in fact, and what is left af­ter those pesky In­dian my­nah birds and scut­tling land crabs have had their fill.

And all those laden ba­nana and pa­paya trees? Turn the fruit into the most de­li­cious ice cream imag­in­able, or caramelise the ba­nanas, topped with a creamy milk sor­bet.

Peri seems star­tled at what the re­sort gar­den­ers can achieve and is pleased to be car­ry­ing on the grow-your-own tra­di­tions es­tab­lished by his Aus­tralian pre­de­ces­sors, launch chef Shane Wat­son and tal­ented duo Brett and Chloe Kryskow.

Peri re­placed the Kryskows last year and has worked un­der Wat­son at Syd­ney’s Wild­fire. His French part­ner, Aure­lie Bras, heads up Liku­liku’s food and bev­er­age depart­ment and she is work­ing won­ders with the re­sort’s wine list.

Si­tal the gar­dener steps in to usher me around the plots of flour­ish­ing Thai basil, but­ter­nut pump­kins and sugar baby mel­ons. He is par­tic­u­larly proud of the palm-leaf roofs he’s con­structed over the rows of baby let­tuces — ap­par­ently those beady-eyed my­nahs haven’t worked out (yet) how to get in.

Peri uses ed­i­ble gar­nishes such as lit­tle white wa­ter­cress flow­ers and co­rian­der sprigs to dress up his in­ven­tive dishes, which are light and Asian- in­flu­enced, and a homage, I imag­ine, to Wat­son.

Peri has con­tin­ued Liku­liku’s ‘ ‘ cooler’’ tra­di­tion as well, in­tro­duc­ing each day’s lunch with an icy shot in re­fresh­ing com­bi­na­tions such as passionfruit and orange, wa­ter­melon and mint or straw­berry and gin­ger. Dishes such as seared scal­lops, cau­li­flower puree, crisp pork belly, tomato fon­due and pancetta foam, or Asian-style con­fit pork tortellini, braised cab­bage, mi­cro co­rian­der and com­pressed ap­ple salad, do seem a very long way from the of­ten bor­ing and stan­dard fare on the buf­fet spreads at feed-’ em- up mid-range Fiji re­sorts. Peri’s cook­ing is at the cut­ting edge of what has taken decades to hap­pen in Fiji — a proper re­gard for the lo­cal, for the time-hon­oured and the cli­mate-ap­pro­pri­ate.

Un­til re­cently it would have been brave to la­bel an a la carte dish as a ‘‘lo­cal del­i­cacy’’ but now we see the vil­lage raw-fish sta­ple of kokoda on many a five- star re­sort menu, typ­i­cally made with walu and of­ten re­joic­ing in ex­tra cross- cul­tural flour­ishes from ex­pa­tri­ate chefs, such as basil and le­mon­grass. The best re­sort chefs are haunt­ing the mar­kets of Suva and the farms around Si­ga­toka, the food basin of the main is­land of Viti Levu, to line up farm­ers to cul­ti­vate mi­cro-herbs and high­est-qual­ity root veg­eta­bles.

I like to think of this new Fi­jian fare as cui­sine of the sun, a style Roger Verge pi­o­neered in Provence in the early 1980s and which be­came a catch­phrase for French Mediter­ranean cook­ing.

Mean­while, at Liku­liku neigh­bour Vomo Is­land Re­sort, South African- born ex­ec­u­tive chef Ge­of­frey Crabbe over­sees the pretty, open- sided Be­yond the Reef Res­tau­rant with its ta­ble d’hote menus and view of sparkling pool and sea be­yond.

This chef’s name does rather make you think in­stantly of Henry Crabbe, tele­vi­sion’s portly po­lice­man restau­ra­teur of Pie in the Sky fame, but Vomo’s Crabbe is am­i­ca­ble about the j apes from guests, even though all those pas­try ref­er­ences must surely grate.

Crabbe has worked at Queens­land’s Bedarra Is­land Re­sort and the cel­e­brated Huka Lodge at Taupo on the North Is­land of New Zealand. Like Peri’s, his por­tions are sen­si­bly light — weath­er­poof, if you like, con­sid­er­ing the en­er­vat­ing heat in Fiji for much of the year — and sen­si­bly small­ish.

He sources in­gre­di­ents lo­cally — duck from Lau­toka near Nadi, mud crabs from De­na­rau, shell­fish (in­clud­ing suc­cu­lent slip­per lob­ster, which he souses with a zesty olive and orange dress­ing) from Vomo’s wa­tery front yard — and from across the Pa­cific.

For din­ner on a daily-chang­ing menu, you might find a tomato soup with minted yo­ghurt as a palate- cleans­ing amuse-bouche. For en­tree, a warm snap­per fil­let carpac­cio with black bean dress­ing, co­rian­der and spring onion salad; for mains, ex­cel­lent risot­tos, In­doFi­jian cur­ries and pael­las are reg­u­lar stars, and lo­cally caught walu could come pan-fried with chick­pea puree, as­para­gus and beet­root crisps.

A plat­ter of plump trop­i­cal fruit is en­livened with fresh and sweet­ish is­land co­conut; sor­bets are made with fragrant trop­i­cal fruit, green pa­paya is shred­ded into a salad with lime, fen­nel, roasted cashews, grapes and a lemon and sweet chilli dress­ing.

Crabbe shares his favourite recipes on the Vomo web­site and clearly is pas­sion­ate about what he does.

Aside from reg­u­lar de­liv­er­ies of fresh pro­duce and what neigh­bour­hood fish­er­men can sup­ply, he re­lies on what’s brought across to Vomo aboard a weekly re­frig­er­ated boat.

Lo­gis­tics are a com­mon curse for is­land chefs; like their coun­ter­parts on cruise ships, they must or­gan­ise with pre­ci­sion and have back-up plans in place for the va­garies of is­land time and capri­cious trop­i­cal weather.

Else­where in the Ma­manu­cas, at the newly opened and fully in­clu­sive Tadrai Is­land Re­sort, on the north­ern side of Mana Is­land, launch chef Chad Arthur, late of Wa­hoo at Pere­gian Beach on the Queens­land Sun­shine Coast, has handed over the ex­ec­u­tive reins to Auadh (Soni) Ram, who has worked at Ac­cor and Radis­son re­sorts in Fiji.

While I haven’t tasted his cook­ing, I imag­ine Ram will be cel­e­brat­ing his Indo-fi­jian her­itage in his menus at Na Vatu res­tau­rant in this re­sort of five spa­cious, con­tem­po­rary vil­las, which makes it tiny enough for priv­i­leged guests to dis­cuss any spe­cial or­ders with the chef.

Arthur’s sig­na­ture seafood dishes in­cluded seared scal­lops with lemon and fresh herb risotto, and crispy-skinned coral trout with paw paw and peanuts, best served with a wa­ter­melon mar­tini or a Tadrai punch as the sun sinks over Se­lena Cove.

Ram will no doubt be lo­cal­is­ing the core menus and he has al­ready in­tro­duced cur­ries with tra­di­tional ac­com­pa­ni­ments and a pan-fried lob­ster with orange but­ter sauce on a bed of co­rian­der rice and veg­eta­bles.

With a ver­i­ta­ble tri-na­tions of chefs at the helms, it seems as­sured that the fu­ture of Fi­jian cui­sine is in good hands at these lead­ing re­sorts in the lovely Ma­manu­cas. liku­liku­la­goon.com vo­mofiji.com tadrai.com

Palm trees hold sway in the out­door din­ing area at Liku­liku La­goon Re­sort in Fiji’s Ma­manu­cas

Goat’s cheese tortellini with smoked beet­root puree, left, and nori-rolled coral trout at Liku­liku

ZOOM FIJI

Vomo’s Ge­of­frey Crabbe

Tadrai’s Auadh (Soni) Ram

Liku­liku’s Ihaka Peri

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