The greens party
Three chefs in the Mamanucas are celebrating garden produce and redefining Fijian cuisine
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
Vomo’s Geoffrey Crabbe
Tadrai’s Auadh (Soni) Ram
Likuliku’s Ihaka Peri