On the Fijian food trail — the lowdown

Tukini Restaurant. Photos: Alexia Santamaria
Tukini Restaurant. Photos: Alexia Santamaria
Alexia Santamaria has some advice on authentic food away from the hotel buffet.

There's always a lot of discussion about eating out in Fiji, especially in Denarau, one of the most popular destinations for Kiwis looking for a quick sunny escape. The proliferation of large hotel chains means local food is not always prioritised and can sometimes be a bit more Scotch fillet and chips than ika vakalolo.

But there are good local options, if you know where to go. I asked Robert Oliver, culinary ambassador for Fiji Airways and an expert on Pacific cuisine, for some tips on where to find good Fijian food and then went and checked out as many as I could.

 

NADI-DENARAU AREA

Tu's Place

This is a bit of Nadi institution. Some of Tu's family come from the Yasawa Islands and Ian is a Kiwi and together they've created a simple space serving authentic Fijian food.

Every day Tu goes to the market for the freshest local produce for dishes like kokoda, rourou balls and fish lolo. Be warned — locals eat here so the portions are Fijian-sized. I ordered a (sublime) kokoda as a starter and it would have been enough for my whole meal. I couldn't make it through my main, but the friendly ladies happily packed it up for me to take home.

 

WESTIN DENARAU

Coco Palms, Meke Lovo (Wednesday and Saturday only)

I'm always slightly sceptical of  "culture show and dinner" situations but the Westin Denarau does a great lovo dinner. You can see the food coming out of the ground where it's been cooking for hours, then enjoy the chicken and lamb with buffet salads and sides such as ota salad, kokoda, palusami, fresh pineapple salad, steamed local fish and root crops like dalo, cassava and kumala.

They're quite generous with the chilli on some of the sides and salads and I loved that there was no dumbing down for Western tastes — Fijians love lemon and chilli with everything. The show is also really entertaining, and very informative about Fijian culture, costumes and dance.

Nadina

In between the pizza, kebab, Italian and steak-house joints at Port Denarau sits Nadina, a lovely Fijian restaurant at the water's edge with plenty of outdoor seating. Depending on the night, service can be a bit "Fiji time" but who's in a hurry when you're in paradise? The food is excellent and I'm still thinking about their kokoda — one of the best I've had in Fiji.

Amy is of iTaukei descent, brought up in the Highlands of Naitasiri, and jumped at the opportunity to move her restaurant to the port eight years ago, so people at the resorts could get a chance to taste the real Fijian deal. If you order anything with root crops there's every chance it came from Amy's home village or her own small farm.

Flavours of Fiji Cooking School is not a restaurant, but it would do any food lover a total disservice not to mention it. This is perhaps one of the most professionally run tourist attractions I've been to.

The guides take you round the market and explain everything with their trademark Fijian humour (apparently those big coconut brooms are very useful for clipping your husband around the ears for excessive kava consumption) then you progress to their beautiful kitchen, where you learn to cook an utterly delicious Fijian meal (if I do say so myself) followed by an Indo Fijian one too.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable and delicious experience — an absolute Denarau must-do for anyone who loves to cook and eat.

 

Food at Malamala Beach Club.
Food at Malamala Beach Club.
A BIT FURTHER OUT

Malamala Beach Club

There are so many reasons to go to Malamala Beach Club and food and cocktails are just two of them.  Malamala, a stunning island only 25 minutes by boat from Port Denarau, makes you feel like you could be in the Maldives with its clear waters, snorkelling and beautiful beach.

Although Malamala Beach Club's menu is not strictly traditional Fijian, there are lots of lovely local touches like root-crop fries (taro, cassava, sweet potato), coconut sugar salt with smoked pineapple ketchup, goat curry pie and coconut pudding. The Naked Lady and Drunken Coconut (with Fijian Coconut Vodka) are excellent cocktails.

Tukuni

Tukuni Restaurant is part of an incredible community development non-governmental organisation called Friend (Friend stands for Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development), founded by Sashi Kiran. You will see locally made Friend Fiji jams and chutneys all over the country.

It's an hour's drive from Denarau but for anyone really interested in the original food of the Fijian and Indo-Fijian cultures this is a must-visit. The food is outstanding, the interior of the restaurant is lovely, the cause — poverty alleviation — is wonderful and very soon they will have cooking demonstrations of Fijian dishes such as ika tavu.

Well worth the drive.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fiji Airways flies daily from Auckland to Nadi.

Air New Zealand offers flights to Fiji from Dunedin with one-way seat fares staring from $339.

Staying there: The Westin Denarau has comfortable rooms, gorgeous spa facilities and a focus on wellbeing with in-room workouts, healthy options on all its menus and its own farm.

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