Pacific revival

New Zealand chef Robert Oliver. Photo: supplied
New Zealand chef Robert Oliver. Photo: supplied
As the shortest day gets closer and the temperatures plummet, a visit to a Pacific Island sounds very attractive. But if it is not possible, cooking one of the light and bright dishes from Eat Pacific could hit the spot.

Eat Pacific: The Pacific Island Food Revolution, edited by New Zealand chef Robert Oliver, features recipes from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tahiti, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.

The book is the companion series for the popular Masterchef-style Pacific television programme Pacific Island Food Revolution, featuring local cooks, food and judges which is hosted by Oliver, who was raised in Fiji and Samoa. The programme’s cooking challenges are based on issues the region faces.

Oliver came up with idea as a way to revive Pacific cuisine and help combat the diabetes and obesity epidemics in the Pacific Islands. The show is now in its third season and has an estimated 5 million viewers a week.

"It carries the message of healthy eating into the home via the same medium as the advertisements for all those sweet and salty packaged goods: the telly.’’

Each Pacific country has its treasured dishes and each cuisine — the cultural system of food — has its distinct flavours and dishes.

"There are profound emotional connections to what we call ‘local food’.

"These dishes anchor communities in their culture and have ceremonial and medicinal use. In other words they are culture.’’

Oliver has drawn together many of the recipes from the show to feature in the book but also talks about some of the issues facing the Pacific Islands due to climate change and the important role food system resilience plays in that. He also includes a handy guide to Pacific fruits and vegetables.

"But through what we choose to eat, climate change is not just government business, it’s everyone’s business.’’

Food sovereignty is at the heart of the Pacific Island Food Revolution’s philosophy: "the celebration of authentic Pacific food culture, as created and owned by Pacific people, will nourish all aspects of Pacific life, from the individual to the collective, from the economic to the cultural, from the agricultural to the ceremonial’’.

Food is not just what is on the plate — it is where you come from, family and community, culture and identity, he says.

"What other food culture has coconut cream made with hot rocks, tropical fruits dropping off trees in lavish abundance, the numerous seaweeds and other countless treasures of the ocean that we take for granted? And the dishes, laplap, palusami, ota ika, vakasakera. Ours is a culture of superfoods.’’

The Book

Recipes and images from Eat Pacific: The Pacific Island Food Revolution edited by Robert Oliver, published by Massey University Press, RRP $60.

Julz Henao’s Pumpkin Coconu tSoup with Chicken and Vegetables

This dish has a fancy restaurant look, a Julz superpower: taking traditional Papua New Guinea food culture and giving it a modern urban spin. He shows us the great global potential of this rustic and generous cuisine. For best results, cook the chicken over a fire, but you can also roast it in the oven. 

Serves 4-5


splash of olive oil

2 Tbsp chopped onion

2 Tbsp chopped garlic

1 Tbsp chopped fresh ginger

500g pumpkin, chopped into cubes

¼ tsp Chinese five spice

1 litre chicken stock, warmed

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
400g fresh coconut cream

2 Tbsp butter


Chicken and vegetables

2 chicken breasts

salt and pepper

1 cup green beans, blanched and diced

1 sweetcorn, blanched and kernels cut from the cob

100g carrot, finely diced and blanched

150g potato, diced and blanched

Garnishes (optional)

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
paprika oil (3 Tbsp neutral oil heated with 1 tsp paprika, then strained)

dehydrated spinach powder

drizzle of coconut cream

chopped parsley

coconut oil


Soup: Place a heavy-based saucepan over the fire (or cook on the stovetop). Add the olive oil and allow it to get hot.

Add the onion, garlic and ginger and sweat until the onion starts to soften. Add the pumpkin and Chinese five spice and cook until fragrant. Add the warm chicken stock and coconut cream and bring to a simmer. Once the pumpkin is cooked, strain the pan over a bowl to catch the cooking liquid and retain.

Transfer the pumpkin to a blender, adjusting the texture to your desired consistency with the strained liquid. Add the butter and blend for a velvety texture. Season with salt and set aside.

Chicken and vegetables: Season the chicken lightly and place it over the fire to cook. Make sure the chicken is cooked through. Shred the meat and set aside.

To serve: Reheat the pumpkin soup, checking the seasoning. Add the blanched vegetables and chicken. Once hot, transfer to a serving bowl. Add the garnishes.

Robert Oliver’s Masala Fish with Green Mango Cashew Kuchela

This is a quick version of my favourite dish at Sangeeta Maharaj’s excellent Suva restaurant, Eden. It’s a meld of i-Taukei and Indo-Fijian flavours, and not only looks great but is also a no-fail dish. Vinaka, Sangeeta! 

Serves 4


juice of 1 lime

1kg cleaned fish fillets, cut into portions — any fish you like

2-3 Tbsp masala powder

sea salt

2 Tbsp virgin coconut oil

3 Tbsp julienned ginger

4-6 thin slices turmeric (optional)

3-4 dry red chillies, plus extra for garnish if desired

1 frond curry leaves, picked

6 cloves garlic, sliced

2-3 Tbsp mango kuchela or pickle

3 cups diced firm but ripe maqo (mango; use pawpaw if maqo is out of season)

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
2 cups cashew nuts (raw or roasted — use peanuts instead of cashews if you prefer)

3 cups coconut cream

salt and pepper

plain oil for cooking

lime wedges, to serve


Sprinkle the lime juice over the fish, then dust well with the masala powder and sea salt.

Place in the fridge to marinate while you make the sauce.

In a frying pan, heat the coconut oil and add the ginger and turmeric (if using). When toasted, add the chillies, curry leaves and garlic and fry until the leaves are crispy and the garlic lightly browned.

Remove from the oil and set aside.

Add the kuchela to the pan and fry until toasted. Then add about a quarter of the fried garlic, curry leaf, ginger and chilli mix.

Add the maqo and cashews and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes.

Add the coconut cream, bring to the boil and reduce slightly until saucy. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat a pan with a little plain oil and fry the fish in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan.

Place the coconut maqo sauce on a platter, top with the fish and garnish with the remaining fried garlic, curry leaves, turmeric, ginger and chilli mix.

Serve with lime wedges and garnish with extra dry chillies if desired.

Bertrand Jang’s Island-style Banoffee

We were thrilled and honoured to have Suva boy Bertrand teach us how to make one of his top-selling desserts in our masterclass episode. 

He has a brilliant talent for beautiful cakes and desserts with uniquely Pacific flavours that reflect both the Pacific Islands and Aotearoa New Zealand and evoke memories for all occasions. This is one of my favourites from his fabulous Auckland eatery Sweet & Me. Vinaka, Bertie! 

Serves 12


125g butter

⅓ cup coconut sugar

1 egg

¼ cup milk

1½ cups coconut flour

¼ cup cornflour

1 tsp baking powder

Coconut custard

1 cup milk

¼ cup cornflour

1 cup coconut cream

¼ cup sugar

1 cup grated fresh coconut

pinch of salt

1 tsp Heilala vanilla extract


2 Tbsp brown sugar

1 cup coconut cream

6 bananas (whole)


Preheat the oven to 180°C. For the base, cream the butter and sugar, beat in the egg, then gradually beat in the milk. Add the remaining base ingredients.

Knead together but don’t overwork the mix. Roll out the dough and line the base of a greased 21cm pie dish. Chill for 20 minutes. Blind-bake for 20 minutes, then remove baking beans and paper and bake for another 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 160°C.

For the custard, place half the milk in a bowl with the cornflour and mix until dissolved. Put all the other custard ingredients, except the vanilla, in a pot and bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer, add the cornflour mixture and cook, stirring, until thickened. Remove from the heat, add the vanilla and stir to combine.

For the vakalolo, caramelise the sugar in a dry pan until the crystals have cooked through and reached the smoking point. Now gradually add the coconut cream, stir, then set aside to cool.

To assemble, pour the custard over the cooked base, then pour over three-quarters of the vakalolo. Neatly arrange the bananas on top. Bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool, refrigerate, then serve with the remaining vakalolo.