February 2014

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An Indian magiti

Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.

Dinner last night was a “family style” Fijian-Indian feast called a magiti. Likuliku puts on a magiti once a week, partially as a tribute to the Indo-Fijian culture (I don’t know how many Indian workers there are in Fiji currently, but at one point they made up almost half the population) and partially so that the executive chef, Shane Watson, can have a night off.

The “family style” thing means that they bring big platters of food to your table to share—even if, like me, you’re dining alone. So just like all the newlyweds surrounding me, I got a large bowl of lamb curry, another bowl of reef fish curry, and a third bowl—just in case I was still hungry—of chicken curry. Which was a shame because I’m not particularly fond of curry. It reminds me of several months spent traveling across Africa, years ago, when we put curry on just about everything, from scrambled eggs to canned tuna, because we had no other spices.

This was in addition to the mud crabs (also in curry!), spiced grilled pawns, split pea bar, tandoori chicken, dhal soup, and the pappadums I had as a precursor to the multiple curries. You know, sort of an Indian amuse bouche.

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Snorkeling in the deep end of the ocean. Photo by David Lansing.

Snorkeling in the deep end of the ocean. Photo by David Lansing.

At this point I started to get a little kink in my neck, mostly because my head was bent at an odd angle while trying to swim and stare at Heidi’s hini at the same time. I dog-paddled, pulling out my snorkel and lifting the mask off my face. We’d really drifted. Abel was standing up in the dive boat, whistling and waving his arms over his head to get my attention. The wind had come up and the ocean was rolling. I couldn’t hear what Abel was saying but I knew he wanted us to swim back towards the boat. I waved back to let him know I got the message, then cleared my mask and stuck my head back under the water looking for Harry and Heidi.

They were nowhere in sight.

My mother had this rule when we were children: If anyone gets separated from the rest of the group, stay where you are. Do not get clever and try and figure out where the others are because you’ll only get more lost. Instead, stay put. And that philosophy has always worked pretty well for me (although there was this one time on a train in Switzerland when I fell asleep and when I woke up, everyone was gone so I just stayed where I was and next thing you know, the train had crossed into Italy).

But what do you do if you are in the middle of the ocean a good 15-minute swim from an anchored dive boat that seems to be getting smaller and smaller as you drift away in a strong current and your diving partners, who, you imagine, are somewhere up ahead of you—even farther from the boat—have disappeared completely? Staying put did not seem like a good option. So I started swimming off in the direction I figured Harry and Heidi would have gone, following the reef wall that curved gently to the left farther and farther until…it just ended. And there ahead of me was an outerspace of deep green water.

Which is when I remembered something Abel had said just before Harry, Heidi, and I slipped off the side of the dive boat: “There are strong currents in the passage running into the open ocean from the reef. Do not follow the wall into the open ocean. You’ll end up in Samoa.”

He was right about this current. It moved like a river. And the swells were getting bigger. The dive boat was nowhere in sight.

I’ve only gotten seasick once in my life. That was in a storm off the Canary Islands when I was strapped into a theater seat in the hold of a cargo ship that tossed and turned so violently that, while I vomited, the strap from the restraining belt cut deeply into my skin. That was bad. But I’d have to say that throwing up in the open ocean is worse. For one thing, there’s nothing to hold on to. For another, it seems to attract a sudden crowd. I would never have guessed that barracuda like regurgitated bananas, but evidently they’re game.

Harry was the one who pulled me by my arm back to the dive boat, but Abel said it was Heidi who spotted me. “I was thinking not good things, Mr. David,” Abel said. “But Miss Heidi see you soon enough.”

She smiled at me and patted my pale arm. “You gave us a scare,” she said like a reproachful mother. “That’s why you need a dive buddy when you’re snorkeling.”

I smiled weakly and put my head back on Heidi’s lap. She smelled of coconut and citrus. Harry pulled a red beach towel out of his backpack and spread it over me. “You’re shivering,” he said. Then, noticing me gazing at the lettering on the towel—their names along with what I assumed to be the date of their marriage arranged inside a white heart—shook his head sheepishly and said, “I know. Hokie, huh?”

“Not at all,” I said, closing my eyes as Heidi placed a cool hand on my forehead to shade me from the sun.

That night the three of us had dinner together. Heidi wore a cute white top with NEWLYWED spelled out in silver sequins across her breasts. I thought it was charming.

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Snorkeling with Heidi and Harry

Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.

This morning, Abel, Likuliku’s dive master, took me and a newly-wed couple out snorkeling along Castaway Reef. Let’s call the newlyweds Heidi and Harry, just because you never hear those names anymore.

Heidi and Harry, who look just like all the other newlyweds at this resort (they’re young, cute, and ridiculously fit—what else do you need to know?) were not exactly thrilled to see me climb into the dive boat. I went and sat in the stern, next to Abel and a rusty red can of smelly petrol, while they took up positions in the bow. Once settled, they shifted their bodies in unison so Abel and I could get a good look at the backs of their heads. As Abel pushed off from the dock, the young couple started whispering to each other, as if all the fish in the lagoon were sleeping and they didn’t want to wake them.

“I hope I didn’t eat too many bananas for breakfast,” I blurted out, apropos of nothing. “They make me gassy.” I have a habit of saying stupid things when I’m uncomfortable. It’s a lifelong curse. Heidi glanced over her shoulder at me as if I’d just explained that Tourette’s syndrome ran in my family, which maybe it does. Harry got up and shifted seats so that he was now between me and Heidi and 15 feet of boat. Then he leaned over and whispered something in her ear while shrugging a shoulder in my direction. I imagined that he probably said something like, “He’s not a newlywed. Shun him.” Or something to that effect.

Abel, ever the Fijian gentleman, grinned largely at me, his teeth like Chiclets, and said, “Mr. David, you see any nice looking women in Yaro yesterday?”

Yaro is a Fijian fishing village on the north end of the island. Yesterday, Abel took me and two other newly-minted couples to the village, about a 15 minute boat ride away, where Abel took me around to meet all the available young ladies, at least two of whom were actually over 16, while the newlyweds drank kava with the elders and received gifts.

Anyway, Heidi and Harry and I hopped into the water and swam away from Abel’s boat, and as we’re making our way towards the reef, two things struck me as a bit unusual: Heidi and Harry were holding hands while snorkeling, something I’d never seen before, and Heidi was wearing a red bikini that had white lettering on her butt that said JUST MARRIED! Actually, the “I” was sort of stuck in the crease of Heidi’s butt and at first I thought it said JUST MARRED!, which made more sense to me, but when I got closer, I spotted the “I” hiding in her bottom like an eel in the shadowy recesses of a cave.

I found this so fascinating that I was having a hard time paying any attention to all the spangly, darting reef fish all around us. Was this a thoughtful bridal shower present from a best friend, I wondered, or did Heidi discover this little designer wonder on her own? Is there a ladies clothing store where Heidi lives that, in addition to selling panties that have hearts stenciled on the crotch, also carries swimsuits announcing your relationship status? FUN SINGLE! CONFUSED ENGAGED! SWINGER!

Or perhaps she’d found it online—you can buy anything online these days—at a nuptial store for clothing. What else might they sell? Matching bowling shirts proclaiming HONEYMOONERS; baseball caps separately labeled BRIDE, GROOM; flannel pajamas suggesting SEX TONIGHT? on the man’s top and NOT LIKELY on the woman’s?

There were a couple of reef sharks cruising beside me at this point but I didn’t have time for them, involved as I was in speculating on whether Heidi had a whole trousseau of JUST MARRIED! clothing in addition to the scarlet red bikini (which, at the moment, seemed to be attracting the attention of not only me but the little posse of ruffian sharks that had skittered past). Would I see her at breakfast wearing her JUST MARRIED! scarf to cover up her unwashed bedhead? Would she be donning her JUST MARRIED! cashmere shawl at dinner tonight? Did she, I wondered, have JUST MARRIED! bra and panty sets in appropriate South Seas colors: coral pink, cerulean blue, parrot green?

More tomorrow…

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Likuliku kokoda

Fijiana restaurant at Likuliku Lagoon Resort.

Fijiana restaurant at Likuliku Lagoon Resort.

It took me a couple of days to get Shane Watson to part with his recipe for kokoda (he kept complaining that he had to cook for a hundred guests and didn’t have time to sit down behind the computer and write out a recipe—slacker), but here it is. Frankly, I think he made it intentionally complex just so no one would actually make it. And, like most chefs, he probably left out a key ingredient. So the only way you’ll ever know how good it really is is to go to Likuliku. Which, I suppose, is the point.

Likuliku Kokoda

500gfirm, white fleshed fish fillet such as spangled emperor, coral trout, or rock cod

250gnama sea grapes, soaked in fresh water for 24 hours

100gtomato, deseeded and finely diced

1 bchcilantro, leaves picked and washed

1red onion, finely diced

4large red chilis, deseeded and finely diced

2red peppers, finely diced

100gpalm sugar, grated

500mlcoconut cream, made fresh or tinned

200mlbush lemon juice

100mlrice wine vinegar

100mlfish sauce

Trim and slice the fish, across the grain, into small bite size pieces. Marinate the fish in 100ml of the lemon juice and the vinegar to “cook” for several hours, covered, in the refrigerator. The fish is ready when it is no longer translucent and has a firm texture. Drain the sea grapes and pick through to ensure there is no sand in the grapes. Combine the grated palm sugar with remaining 100ml of lemon juice and stir to dissolve. Add the fish sauce and coconut cream and stir to combine, taste and adjust if necessary with a little more fish sauce. Drain the fish through a sieve and discard the juice. Place the fish in a stainless steel bowl and add the nama sea grapes and the remaining salad ingredients and the dressing. Toss well to combine. Leave to marinade for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator so the flavors can combine. Finally, taste again for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Spoon the mixture into individual bowls or glass ware, drizzle with a little red chili oil, and garnish with cilantro leaves. Enjoy with a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

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The search for perfect kokoda

I think I mentioned that while I was on Tokoriki, I tasted a Fijian ceviche-like dish, kokoda (koh-kon-dah), for the first time. It was a revelation. The small chunks of raw reef fish were marinated in the juice of local bush lemons, firming the flesh and turning it opaque. Served with fresh coconut cream and red-pepper flakes in a coconut shell, the fish was as flaky as phyllo pastry and just as delicate. The citrus added depth to the one-note tones of the coconut cream the way tart berries do to vanilla ice cream. I dipped a spoon into the spiced-up cream, trying to identify additional flavors—onion, coriander, maybe green pepper.

I’ve been thinking about kokoda ever since. In fact, you might say I’ve become a little obsessed. I’ve had it several more times but never has it tasted quite as good as that first dish on Tokoriki. Is it the wrong type of fish or perhaps too much—or not enough—of the coconut cream? Or maybe the absence of hot peppers…or too many peppers?

For such a simple dish, there seems to be a lot of variables. So I started taking notes on the blank pages of the book I’m reading, Osa Johnson’s I Married Adventure. “Way too much coconut cream,” I wrote about one. “Rubbery fish,” was the verdict on another. “Strong and oily…barracuda?”

I couldn’t help but think that the best kokoda was the first one I’d had. Then again, I’d probably say that about the first doughnut I’d ever shoved in my mouth as well. Is our first, eye-opening taste of anything always the best, the standard by which all other versions are measured?

I happened to mention this to the chef at Likuliku, Shane Watson, yesterday during lunch. Actually, what I said, when he stopped by the table to ask how everything was (while no doubt wondering, like everyone else here, why I am alone), is, “How come there’s no kokoda on your menu?”

Thing is, Shane is from Australia (Sydney) and gravitates, I’d say, towards what I’d call South Seas Asian food—chili-spiked rice noodles, oyster tempura, seared loin of yellowfin tuna with sesame seeds…that sort of thing. Which by the way, is all quite delicious. Still, I told him, I rather fancied a little kokoda.

Not a problem, mate, he told me. “We’re off for the fish market in Nadi tomorrow. See what we can come up with for you.”

So today, feeling a bit curious, I wandered into Fijiana, Likuliku’s alfresco dining room, a little bit early for lunch. Shane spotted me and invited me back into his kitchen to show me what he’d picked up at the fish market: spangled emperor.

“Lovely, init,” he said.

It was. In fact, I’d say it was the most beautiful dead fish I’d ever seen.

“For the kokoda?”

“That’s it, mate.”

Well, long story short, the dish was spectacular. Far and away the best kokoda I’ve had to date. The spangled emperor was delicate and flaky and tasted sweetly of the ocean, as did the tiny sea grapes, harvested that morning in the Likuliku lagoon, that Shane added to the dish. The coconut cream was light and didn’t overwhelm the fish. Chili oil suggested heat without overpowering the delicate flavors of coriander, shallot, and rice-wine vinegar. It was, without doubt, a kokoda triumph. And what I’m having—again—for dinner tonight.

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