Food is a serious thing in the South Pacific.
It is labor, nourishment, hospitality and worship all wrapped up together with every other part of the distinctive cultures in the islands.
Food is gathered and pounded and wrapped up in leaves and cooked in underground ovens. And increasingly bought from store shelves and microwaved on countertops.
Food is simple, essentially what grows on the limited terrain and in the tropical climate, and yet it’s complex and strong, like an alloy comprised of different metals.
When I think of Fiji, I can taste the green coconuts I would pick up and drink from a hole in the husk on a hot afternoon.
I can still taste the slightly familiar and yet strange breakfast dish that was composed of crackers smashed into a bowl with grated coconut and the chilled milk of the nut poured over the mixture. An homage to breakfast cereal, perhaps, but as utilitarian a way to break your fast as anything ever consumed.
Sea creatures plucked from their hiding places on the massive corral reefs that surround the islands and served raw and marinated or cooked only minutes after leaving their briny abodes are the pride of the islands, and sucking up a small sea cucumber from the outstretched hand of a village woman while standing in thigh-deep sea water goes down as one of the more memorable dining experiences in my life.
The weight of a hefty feast of cassava, taro and breadfruit can render the average human immobile for hours, and it’s then that your Fijian hosts will begin to play music and expect you to dance with them.
Drinking kava, a watery, slightly muddy-looking beverage made from the powdered roots of yagona plants, will numb your mouth and throat and your mind a bit, but a good feast of fish curry and kokoda, Fiji’s version of ceviche, will put you right.
I was young when last in Fiji, and I don’t remember every detail any longer. I watched many families prepare the lovo, the underground cooking pits, and I made my share of roti while staying with Indian families there.
I watched the Fijians pound the poi and pluck the eyeballs out of the fish heads they would serve the chiefs.
I remember these little details, but I couldn’t replicate most Fijian dishes if I tried.
All but one.
I like to say that goat curry saved my life.
Sick and drained after spending two months traveling around the islands, we landed in a small village on the north coast of the island of Vanua Levu, I had come down with a combination cold and other maladies no doubt caused by the mosquitos feasting off my cassava-thickened blood.
Yellow fever was passed around as a diagnosis for a while, but the symptoms didn’t quite match up.
The old lady of the village we stayed in had a different diagnosis for me.
Island fever, she pronounced slowly, as if there was no cure.
It’s time to go home, she said.
But not before I kill a goat and feed you.
Fijians take enormous pride in their hospitality.
The old man of the village took a rather large club with him and went outside to where two small goats were tied to a pole.
He whacked one on the head so hard, that it fell right where it stood, it’s little legs splayed out evenly in every direction. It would be rather humane, if it wasn’t so brutal.
The next day, my head was so swollen with whatever my disease was, I couldn’t breathe well, my ears were plugged, and I had a hard time getting off the floor mat where I was trying to sleep it off.
Still, I made it to the cooking kitchen, where the old lady chopped up the goat meat roughly into one-inch chunks.
She took a large, heavy bowl and used it like a mortar, grinding up spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and fenugreek into a kind of paste that she mixed with some water, onions and garlic.
The old lady slowly kneaded the mixture into the meat chunks and let them sit for a while.
I sat there pale and trying not to fall asleep in a tall chair, when she waived some tiny green chilis in front of my nose. They made my eyes burn a little, and they revived me.
She pounded them into the meat and spice mixture, so that their bright green color faded into the muted brown of the curry.
Then she took her large hands and gathered up the meat and dropped it into a large cooking dish, which she put on a hole in an iron oven with a wood fire smoldering inside.
I dropped off my chair into a corner of the kitchen and napped for a while.
When I awoke, she stood over me with a bowl of rice heaped high with the curried goat.
After one bite of the almost noxious mixture, my ears and nose opened up, and my face began to run into the food, so that I couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended.
“Eat it all,” she told me. “If you want to feel well again.”
I had to shower after that meal, because every evil thing leached out of every pore on my body.
I cried into that spicy goat curry, willing myself to finish it in spite of my wrecked palate.
My eyes were opened that day. I had never willingly ate anything that spicy in whole before.
Within an hour of showering, my head seemed to shrink to a normal size, I could hear the frogs outside our hut again and the surf out on the reef seemed to carry all the way to my ears, though I hadn’t heard it in weeks.
My nose was clear and my eyes bright. I sipped on a young, green coconut as the stars came out, and I could taste that powerful curry lingering on my lips much the same way as a fine cigar or a cognac stays with you for a while.
Fijian Goat Curry
2 lbs goat meat chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 small onion
4 cloves of garlic
3 small chillies
1 finger of ginger
salt to taste
2 tbsp of olive oil
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder or seeds
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cardamoms
2 tsp curry powder
1 cup chicken stock
Either use a mortar and pestle or a heavy duty blender or food processor to chop the onions, garlic, ginger, chilis, cinnamon stick cardamoms cloves and curry powder into a sort of paste.
It should be thick and fragrant and range from orange to brown in color.
Heat oil in a large dutch oven or heavy cast-iron pot. Briefly sauté the puree in the oil and add the goat meat. Stir to mix and add the cup of chicken stock to thin.
Simmer the meat in the mixture for 45 minutes to an hour and serve over basamati rice.