Fiji and Tonga: FOOD                                      

Last Updated: May 15, 2002 

"You know, they eat dogs here in Tonga," said Sandy, the manager of Billy's Place (a resort), and American wife of Tongan Billy.

"Yes, I'd heard that," said Scott.

"Roland (the dive master) has had three dogs. He went away on trips, and the first two disappeared," she said. "Before he left on another trip, he started the rumor that he had injected a special poison into the third dog - one that does not harm the dog, but will hurt anyone who eats it. It was there on his return from a next trip. But, the dog bit a neighbor, and the local police destroyed it."

Roland has lived in Tonga for seven years, and runs one of the only two dive operations on the island group where we stayed. After diving with Roland, we'd get refreshments at his house (a blend of tomato juice and lots of lemon juice which beautifully cut the salt residue of diving), update our dive logs, and pet his talkative orange tabby cat.


Drink and Logbooks after our dive in Tonga - Roswitha and Roland 

"Dog is really quite good. It looks and tastes like good beef," said Sandy, literally licking her lips.

"That's different than my experience in Korea," recalled Scott. "I found it whitish, a little stringy, and gamy."

We found it challenging to eat in Tonga and Fiji. Not because of the dogs, but for the lack of them. We stayed in very small communities, and it took a while to figure out the rules of engagement.

Taveuni, about 27 miles long and 10 miles wide, is the third largest of Fiji's many islands. At its northern tip perches Matei, home of the island's airport. A road wraps around ¾ of the island, but it is only paved a few kilometers either side of the landing strip. It almost seems civilized until one tries to venture further, around to the Eastern village of Lavena or to the island's largest town of Waiyevo. Then, one recognizes the need for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Unfortunately, the taxis are not, so any excursions are challenging.

Because we were staying at Coconut Grove, we were assigned the taxi company (both taxis) owned by the cook's wife. Ishwar and his son were the people we'd call whenever we went anywhere, including committing the heresy of going somewhere else for a meal. Coconut Grove is one of the three places that we could figure out to go to for food; its restaurant is open to outsiders. However, if we wanted to have dinner, we had to let them know in the early afternoon so that they could go get food. The Fijian choices were limited; it was mostly Western food. Karen's guesthouse also serves food, but the evening that we walked there (with mosquito escort), we found that reservations were needed there as well. We found Karen and Peter playing cards in their skivvies, and they had no interest in selling us a meal. They were kind enough to try to call Ishwar for us, but the phones were not working, so we walked all the way back to the other end of Matei to Tovu-Tovu, the only restaurant in town. It was a good thing that Roswitha had brought flashlights, since there are no streetlights. We had eaten good roasted lamb and lovo fish there the previous evening, but we were concerned that they might close before we got there. Not only did we make it in time, but the local Rotary Club meeting was going on, adding an entertaining background and distraction.

One of the common Fijian dishes we did find was Roulou, basically a pureed taro leaf soup tasting much like a spinach soup. We also found that, due to the presence on an active Indian population, it was easier to get Indian food than Fijian. (Of course, these Indians have been there for four or more generations, since the British brought them to the Fiji Colony to work the sugar plantations, so they are Fijian, too. This is a matter of seeming tension and division, and a story for another place.) For example, when we wanted to carry lunch for our hike to Lavena, we picked up vegetable and curry fish Rotis (basically, an Indian burrito) at the local grocery store. We found more curry and daal (split pea soup) than taro root and lovo (meats cooked over hot stones in the ground). And, all the soups used plenty of butter making them taste delicious.

The closest we got to Fijian food was during our hike on the coastal trail near the village of Lavena. Simone, our guide, showed us the plantations of taro, cassava, and papaya. He opened a just-sprouting coconut to let us savor the spongy meat, and cracked open "Fiji Peanuts" which drop from trees. On the walk we also encountered a chile plant (some type of chinense), so the conversation turned to peppers, which Simone claimed to like. The chile turned out to be too hot for him, but went well with Scott's roti. He pointed out four types of chilies along the way. Scott piqued Simone's interest with the description of Mango-Chile ice cream, and we won't be surprised to find on a future trip that it has caught on. Simone had lived for a few years in Nadi (pronounced Nandi), but complained that "you need money for everything. Here you can just go into the jungle and get it." Sounds great, but not quite a concept for a restaurant.


Fiji Peanuts  Fiji Peppers - one of four kinds we were shown on our walk  Scott joining the GUYS in a Kava ceremony at Coconut Grove. This may be very good for tongue surgery. 

The island of Lifuka in Tonga looked more promising. Our (6-year-old) Lonely Planet described Sandy's cooking at Billy's, and, on our drive from the airport in the red taxi (there are two or three taxis on the island), we saw many pigs and piglets running around (as well as a few dogs). Upon arrival, we found out that Roland was soon going to pick us up, along with a friendly German/Sydney couple, Karen and Erhardt for two afternoon dives. That left no time for lunch, or even to discover the rules and limits.

Once we got back, we discovered that Sandy no longer cooked anything but breakfast. There were two restaurants in the town of Pangai, and one of them was out of favor because a high percentage of people had gotten sick after eating there. There was, disappointingly, no Tongan restaurant. So, the one choice was Lindsay's Guesthouse, with the restaurant run by John, an ex-chef for international corporate hotels and such. John, a New Zealander and true curmudgeon (sorry, Thom, he out-curmudgeons you), as well as a country music fan, is a character. If he is in a good mood, and likes you, you get attentive service and larger portions. If he does not…well, we had no intention of finding out. Given that Scott is from Texas, and can talk that country music crap with the best of them, we were pretty well set. He normally has a Tongan helper, but while we were there, she was on another island, so he was doing all of it himself, from taking orders to shopping (which he does not do until you place your order) to cooking and cleaning up. Everything is cooked fresh, and is quite good. He usually has fish and chips (made with very fresh tuna), as well as some sort of stir fry or curry. Fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce; there were two strong hurricanes during the past rainy season, and almost all Tongan crops were wiped out. There has not been time to recover, and imports from elsewhere (usually NZ and Oz) are expensive and hard to come by. One evening Roswitha had a beautiful tuna steak, and Scott had a very spicy chicken concoction called chili (which it did not even slightly resemble). Proper for someone with English heritage, his chips were great. There is a rush to get the orders in at 6:00, because he will cook in the sequence orders are placed (more or less), after crossing the yard to the small market to get his ingredients. It can take up to 90 minutes to get served, unless you piss him off by asking for too many forks, a salad, or something similarly ridiculous. It seems that many of the expats living in Pangai eat at Lindsay's each evening; it can be crowded with up to 10 people.


John - the chef, waiter, server, chief bottle washer - and Scott  Franziska and Eva Lang  Franziska  Eva with a face Scott just taught her  Roswitha with a Tonic, unfortunately without Gin, also with a face Scott just taught her 

John also has a lovely dog named Rusty, and a cute puppy called Tiger. They both follow him out of the kitchen to the lucky customer, and then sit and beg. Sandy suggested that they are fattening up nicely.

For lunch, we shopped for ingredients at Lindsay's market. A cornucopia (OK, maybe a lean selection) of canned and packaged items, it might also have bread (the round kind or the loaf kind), and we once got lucky and found eggs. We also stopped at another market (was it the Pink one of the Blue one?) and found chocolate. With these, we made sandwiches to take on the dive boat. Tuna sandwiches (with no mayo, lettuce (US$ 8 per head if you get it at all, which is only if you are a major resort), or tomato, of course), peanuts (which may or may not have contributed to Roswitha's chumming), and Nestlé's chocolate made for a gourmet diving refreshment. This compares to the diving in Taveuni in Fiji, where the dive crew hit the beach for fresh coconut and papaya, pulled right off the tree.


Dive lunch break in Fiji, with fruit harvested right there 

On our last day in Tonga, we rode up to the one "real" resort, Sandy Beach. It is run by a German couple, and they have created an idyllic setting. We enjoyed a very good pizza.

Lest you think that it is completely hopeless, we did find a very good place to eat in Fiji, on the recommendation of an Australian couple we met on Castaway Island. Located on the coast North of Nadi (where the main Fiji international airport sits), First Landing claims to be near the site of the first arrival of the Fijians. Its tables sit atop a deck which meanders along a wide beach, among picture-perfect coconut palms and tiki torches. We enjoyed an interesting Tandoori Chicken Satay (think about that one for a second), Ika Kokoda (fish in coconut and lime sauce), green salad served on a papadam, and a well-prepared rib-eye steak. Both main courses were served with appropriate vegetables and a Rolou pâté, and we finished it off with caramelized pineapple and the traditional chocolate mousse.


View from restaurant at Castaway Resort 
Serenade at First Landing immediatly next to the ocean - they sang until we paid them to go away  Ika Kokoda and Ribeye Steak at First Landing 

There are also many good international resorts on Fiji - like Castaway or the one run by Jacques Cousteau's son Michel - but we deliberately wanted to see more of the "real" Fiji than a Club Med type experience.

Oh, yeah. I almost forgot to describe the meal at Tonga's glorious Fua'amotou International Airport on Tongatapu while waiting for the flight to Fiji. The snack bar had meat pies (which seemed to be stuffed with Spam), spring rolls (which seemed to be stuffed with Spam paste), and Jam rolls. Also popular - the most popular with the locals, in fact was - "Cup Noodle." It was hard to tell, but we suspect that it was dog flavored.


Nuku'Alofa Tongatapu airport restaurant. Heck, this is the whole airport.  Cup a noodle - dog flavour? 

 

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