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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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Likliku, the most romantic resort in the world...unless you're alone. Photo by David Lansing.

Likliku, the most romantic resort in the world…unless you’re alone. Photo by David Lansing.

This is what the Likuliku brochure says: “Once upon a time across the bluest of oceans, an island was born of lava and sand—an untouched paradise whose heart was a turquoise lagoon of unimaginable beauty and tranquility. The first visitors came and explored. To honour the magic of the place, they named it Likuliku, meaning “calm waters.”’

That’s where I’m staying. Nice, huh. But just so we’re clear, there is no island named Likuliku in Fiji. There’s a lagoon called Likuliku but the island itself is called Malolo. I’m not sure what Malolo means but there’s another resort, on the southern end of the island, called The Funky Fish Resort, so maybe that’s what the first visitors really called the place: The Funky Fish (after all, these “first visitors” were warriors and fishermen).

But if you are the Ahura Resorts company, which owns Likuliku, and you’re going to spend a gazillion dollars to build 46 bures along a turquoise lagoon “of unimaginable beauty and tranquility,” including ten villas suspended over a coral reef in the middle of the lagoon, then you are not going to call your place The Funky Fish. You are going to call it Likuliku and tell people the word is from the ancient, and largely forgotten, Malolo dialect and that it means “calm waters.” Frankly, I think it really means “fuck like bunny” if my first day here is any indication of what goes on.

The place is swarming with couples, all doe-eyed and moony, who just tied the knot three days or a week or an hour ago. They come down for breakfast late, still sporting bed-heads, and hold hands while nibbling fresh pawpaw and watching the sandpipers and shorebirds scavenge for their own breakfast along what has to be the most placid lagoon in all of Fiji (hence the “calm waters”).

I’ve been here a couple of days now and have yet to meet anyone who wasn’t either on their honeymoon or at least pretending to be (which reminds me of a certain resort area outside of Acapulco frequented by wealthy Mexican businessmen who take their mistresses here for quiet, unobserved trysts, but that’s a story for later). If you think this makes me jealous and bitter, you are right. Still, watching all these honeymooners around me is kind of interesting. A bit like observing bonobo monkeys or mating whooping cranes. Sometimes I feel like I should be wearing a white lab coat instead of swim trunks and videotaping the encounters.

One observation: People who have just tied the knot jabber at each other constantly. I mean, they’re so new at this whole “mister” and “misses” thing that they actually still have things they want to tell each other, even if it’s just an observation—such as I heard at lunch yesterday—that the other person’s hair “smells really, really nice.”

That is just so adorable. And I am envious, of course I am. Because my hair smells of chlorine on a good day and even if I used the Pure Fiji coconut milk conditioner that is provided by the resort, which I don’t, I just can’t imagine anyone leaning over a table by the pool and telling me how fantastic my head smelled.That would just seem creepy.

The other really cute thing is that newlyweds tend to order drinks that they’ve never had before and will never have again, like a mojito made with coconut crème, the house specialty at the Dua Tale (which means “one more”) bar, and then toast each other. “Here’s to you!” “No, here’s to you!

When I see something like this I instinctively want to grab my camera and snap a photo of the joyous event and put them in little cardboard holders with the Likuliku logo on the sides and sell them as souvenirs at the front desk. Sort of like what they do with the horrified thrill seekers on Splash Mountain at Disneyland.

And wouldn’t that be something to have? A photo of you toasting your loved one, your sunburnt skin making you look like a pink glazed ham just out of the oven, your complimentary floral sulus wrapped around your waists (“Honey, what ever did you do with the sulu you wore on our honeymoon?” “I’ve been using it to wax the car for about nine years now.”), pleased as punch just to be sitting across from each other holding a rum and coconut crème drink with a little green umbrella listing on the rim? Back when you still had something to say to each other?

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