The significance of food and eating practices in the South Pacific has a long and rich history. Many indigenous rituals and important cultural traditions that solidify kinship networks and reify community cohesion and hierarchies revolve around food. Anne Becker, a medical anthropologist at Harvard, has written about the relationship between food and care in Fiji, noting in her ethnography Body, Self and Society: A View from Fiji how, “The Fijian core emphasis on expression of care (best represented in the local idiom of vikawaitaki), is concretized in formal exchange, feast preparation, and routine food sharing in the community” (5). It is customary, when you travel anywhere in Fiji as a guest or visitor, for the host village to prepare food, as a demonstration both of their wealth as a community and their desire to care for and welcome you. Whether these food preparations are cakes and fruits for morning or afternoon tea, or a complete lunch or dinner, Fijians are always careful to cook an overabundance of food for their guests. The surfeits of dalo, cassava, curry and rourou signal both the South Pacific value for having a heavier, more robust frame as a sign of good health, and the social responsibility to care for the needs of your guest, no matter how vast. As Becker observes, “Just as there is a vested interest in creating an impression of abundance at the magisi, householders are equally concerned that their food supply meet extraneous demands. This is reflected in their habit of cooking extraordinarily excessive quantities of food, especially root crops, which are later fed to pigs if uneaten by household members or guests. Heaps of plantains, yams, taro and/or cassava are peeled and boiled for routine meals, but rarely finished. A woman observed that ‘in some homes, food is a problem, that is disgraceful…the most important thing is that we have enough food’ either to feed to one’s family or to contribute to mataqwali functions. She continued that to fall short of food during a meal constitutes the ultimate social disgrace” (69).
In more recent research conducted on the obesity epidemic in Fiji, Becker writes, “a number of cultural traditions strongly support robust appetites and body shapes, including local norms that encourage hearty consumption of relatively calorie-dense foods, esthetic ideals favoring robust bodies, the centrality of food presentation and feasts as facilitators of social exchange and networks, and local illness categories that formalize vigilance for weight or appetite loss” (2005:111). Due to the communal structure of Fijian society and the large size of families, households must always be prepared to offer food to passersby or visiting cousins. In return, the guests are expected to consume large quantities of food—both to demonstrate their own health and their appreciation for the food that has been prepared for them. Some of these eating practices have changed in response to the influence of Western media and the current health concerns of obesity and non-communicable diseases, but men and women alike still generally consume large quantities of food at both lunch (vakasigalevu) and dinner (vakayakavi), expecting those around them to do the same.
In my experience, women typically prepare the food, cooking multiple bowls of ota in miti, fried fish and mounds of root crops so that their guests and visitors can eat multiple helpings. Not eating large portions of the offered food is considered rude or to be a sign of illness. Before you can eat, there are also a number of rituals the guests must first perform. The leader of the host group, or the person of the highest status in the group (whether due to clan lineage or a senior professional position) must bless the food by touching the pots and pans in which the food was prepared, followed by a prayer in thanks to the hosts. The hosts and guests must gather in a collective masu or prayer, thanking the host community for the food and offering the food to God/Turaga/Kalou as well. When visiting communities you have never visited before, it’s also important to bring yaqona (the highly valued root that is made into kava or grog) to present as a sevu-sevu to the chief or Turaganikoro, an elected representative for the village. It is important to be aware of the social hierarchies that dictate and imbue eating practices here. It is considered exceptionally rude and potentially socially ruinous to start eating before the people of higher rank than you or before all the rituals have been performed. The smartest thing to do, despite a growling stomach, is to defer to the older men and women in your group and wait for their signal before you start to serve yourself.
Meals are usually taken on the ground. A cloth or sulu is typically laid out on top of the ibe/woven mats that cover the floors of most Fijian homes and community halls. Everyone gathers cross-legged on the ground—women must be careful that their knees are not exposed, with their legs are modestly tucked underneath sulus. Most Fijians eat with their hands, with two plates or bowls placed in front of them—one for their helping of food and one for the refuse of fish and chicken bones, orange peels and crab shells. These refuse plates may be shared between those sitting next to each other. The guests typically eat before the hosts; the women who cooked the food instead assume the role of warding off the persistent flies that buzz around the meals. These women will use fans or rags to create a steady current of air around the food in an attempt to keep fly contamination to a minimum, an important health task considering the prevalence of Typhoid and H. pylori in the country.
Throughout the meal, guests and hosts alike invite one another emphatically to “kana mai” or “kana vakalevu,” meaning “Eat a lot, eat more.” These invitations are almost rhetorical statements, but also serve as ubiquitous dialogical markers meant to affirm charity and care for one another’s well being. If your plate is empty, they will point out “Dalo there,” or “More fish here,” not because these dishes weren’t accessible to you, but rather to nudge you into third or fourth helpings. These repetitions and reminders to eat can be seen as concern for the health of one another, encouraging the production of heavier, fatter body sizes. The meals draw the group together into a tightly knit unit bound by the mutual desire to be full of food and care between clans. This concern for one another’s health reflects the emphasis of community over individual in Fijian culture, where people are seen as dividuals, rather than individuals—representatives of their family, villages and large kinship circles, tied together through mutual bonds of responsibility and respect. The self, in these social scenarios, is more porous and readily shaped by community expectations and roles than societies that give precedence to the autonomous, independent individual.
Bowls of water are also distributed along the floor for their guests to rinse their hands after they’re done eating. If you want to excuse yourself, you have to first thank the hosts for the food and ask if you can take a rest: “Vinaka na kakana, kerekere vakacegu.” Only after the last guest has finished eating may the hosts partake of the food, and this is usually after deferring to the appetites of the men first, as men have a higher social status than women.
During our school health outreach trips, it is also common for the host communities to send us with parting gifts. The village may gather sugar cane, plantain, papaya, bananas, guava, passion fruit or moli for the guests to take home and share with their families. Food helps to solidify the bonds between villages and clans, create social ties and foster relationships between strangers. In fact, for many of our outreach trips, the meals are the most important component, solidifying and ensuring a future relationship with that community. Though food preparation in such large quantities tends to be labor intensive, it is also a great source of pride for the women who prepare it. It is almost a devotional practice, not unlike communion. You take their food into your body as a source of strength and faith in your relationship with one another.
Typical Fijian Fare:
Dalo/taro: root crop that grows year round; root must be washed, peeled and then boiled before eating; usually marbled purple or gray in color; staple of Fijian diet—any meal will be served with at least one plate heaping with slices of dalo; increases testosterone and can lead to more masculine features in women (especially growth of facial hair)
Cassava/tavioka: root crop that grows year round; similar to dalo, cassava must first be peeled and boiled before eating; usually white or light yellow in color, stringy consistency; other staple starch of Fijian diet—typically Fijians prefer either dalo or cassava with their meals
Breadfruit/uto: seasonal starch that grows on trees; either boiled or cooked over an open fire; yellow in color, consistency lighter, softer and spongier than dalo or cassava; tends to have more flavor than other local starches
Fish in coconut milk/ika vakalolo: fish is usually either boiled in a broth of onions (varasa), cabbage and spinach (bele) or fried (tavoteketaka) in oil, usually with onions as well. Fish dishes are typically served in lolo, which is made my scraping brown coconut (bu), soaking the shavings in water, then squeezing the water our of the coconut shavings. Despite our love of coconut shavings back in the States, this excess coconut is actually given to the pigs and rarely eaten. Sometimes salt and citrus fruit (moli) is added to the lolo as well. Lolo tends to be delicious but high in fat content. Fish is served with the bones and usually the head and fins are still attached.
Palusami: traditional Fijian dish; can be made over an open fire or in a lovo (earth oven usually specially prepared for birthdays and other auspicious celebrations) which usually gives the food a smokey flavor; boiled rourou cooked in lolo; sometimes palusami is stuffed with shrimp, corned beef or fish as well
Ferns/ota: ferns found throughout Fiji; there are two kinds, both of which are edible; can be boiled or served raw; when boiled, the ota is usually served in lolo with onions, carrots, and chilies, as well as tinned fish or tuna.
Miti: lolo prepared with salt (masima), onions, tomatoes, citrus fruit (moli) and shredded carrots
Rourou: made from dalo leaves; leave have to be washed and boiled for at least 15-20 minutes. When preparing rourou, the cooks usually get itchy hands and if the rourou isn’t cooked for long enough, it can cause itchiness in the throat and mouth. Rourou can be served in a variety of ways—rourou vakalolo; rourou vakalolo with boiled eggs, onions and tomatoes; fried rourou patties in lolo; rourou vakalolo with tinned fish; rourou vakalolo with onions, tomatoes, carrots and kai; rourou is high in iron content
Mussels/kai: there are fresh and saltwater kai. These are usually cooked in lolo and added to rourou, ota or bundled into roti parcels.
Roti parcel: a favorite Fijian snack; comes from Indo-Fijian cooking tradition; roti (Indian tortilla) filled with chicken curry, potato curry, pumpkin curry, mixed vegetables, tinned fish or kai. “Vegetarian” roti parcels are usually just potato curry, sometimes with tinned tuna. Taste best with chutney, tamarind sauce or chilies for flavor.
Dhal: lentil bean cooked into soup with tomatoes, onions, carrots and any other vegetables available; one of healthier meal options available in Fiji
Plantain/vudi: seasonal; can be boiled before ripe and cut into slices as additional starch, or boiled when ripe to add to stir fry or soaked in sugar or lolo for dessert
Sweet potatoes/kumala: purple on the outside and wish on the inside tend to have less flavor than brown on the outside and orange on the inside variety; seasonal; orange kumala can also grow in fingerling sizes
Curry: traditional Indo-Fijian dish that has been incorporated into many iTaukei meals; usually cooked in lots of oil; if chicken is used, still contains bones—often called “chicken shrapnel”
Lumi: seaweed; cooked in lolo on a baking pan into gelatinous squares; salty with disquieting texture
Tahitian chestnuts/ivi: seasonal nut; high in vitamin C; must be boiled before eating; sold wrapped in leaves or plastic bags in most markets
Druka: seasonal food that grows similar to sugar cane; very little is known about its nutritional content; usually boiled in fish broth
Chop suey: Chinese dish that has also been incorporated into many Fijian meals; chicken or beef, carrot, cabbage and other vegetables cooked in copious amounts of oil and soy sauce
Eggplant/baigani: usually cooked into curries or fried with lolo and onions
Pumpkin/pumpukini: usually cooked into a curry; pumpkin leaves can also be boiled and cooked in lolo or fried