Rachel Jackson ’12 is the recipient of the 2014-2015 David Bird International Service Fellowship. She shares the following reflection from her trip to Fiji, where she worked with a rural family to implement soil conservation and sustainable agricultural techniques on their family farm.
Food is a passion and central component of my life. This passion takes many forms including agriculture and gardening, cooking and fermenting, and perhaps most pleasurably, eating. More than just sustenance, food represents culture, community, history and health. When I received the opportunity to travel to Fiji as the 2015 David Bird Fellow, I was thrilled to work with a Fijian family in developing sustainable agricultural practices and to learn about traditional Fijian cooking and food processing. I believe one of the best ways to experience a new culture is through its food. I spent most of my time with the Savou family at the remote Narogiovoce Farm, a lush 100 acres of ancestral land that the family is using to grow market vegetables and ginger for export. The family shared their food traditions with me.
The tropics are not new to me, but the South Pacific is. I live for most of the year in Costa Rica at Rancho Mastatal, a sustainability education center that teaches both theory and skills in agriculture, natural building, and whole foods cooking. With similar tropical climates and receiving more than three meters of rain, many of the same crops can be cultivated at Rancho Mastatal and the Savou’s Narogiove Farm. Cassava, sweet potato, taro, coconut, are ginger are grown and eaten in both cultures, but the techniques and recipes can be very different. I was excited to learn about how Fijians use these foods, and share my experiences from an analogous climate.
You can’t have Fijian food without coconuts. Coconut milk is a major component of both traditional and modern Fiji diets. I’ve been amazed at the variety and richness of coconut based dishes here! Fish, greens and baked goods are commonly cooked in coconut cream. No self-respecting islander uses canned coconut; the best flavor is from homemade milk. The process begins with harvesting the dry coconuts, removing the husk, and cracking the coconut in two. Here at the farm the family uses a ‘coconut scraper’ to get the meat out of the shell. Coconut cream is then squeezed from the shredded meat.
Nothing is wasted. The leftover meat after squeezing becomes pig food, and the husks and shells are used as fire starters or mulch. In the small island atolls, coconut has been referred to as the ‘tree of life’ for its usefulness in providing almost all the necessities of life: food, drink, oil, fuel, timber, thatch. If I were stranded on a deserted island with only one type of plant growing, I would hope it was coconut.
The farm has 25 acres of an old coconut plantation which provides coconuts for the family’s needs and plenty more to sell at market. The main difficulty in utilizing this amazing crop as a financial resource is the difficulty in getting it to the market without road access. Currently they take a single sack by boat and bus to the market on Saturdays.
Another Fijian cooking technique is the ‘lovo’ or traditional earth oven/pit fire, which the family used to celebrate daughter Esther’s fifth birthday. In a small pit, round river stones are heated on top of the fire. After the fire burns down, the remaining wood and coals are pulled out leaving just the hot coals. We wrapped sweet potatoes and whole chickens in woven coconut leaves, and a Samoan dish ‘palusami’ in foil. The food was placed on the hot stones and buried under leaves and earth. An hour or so later, we had an amazing feast.
One of my tastiest foods cooked in the lovo was the palusami, a dish made from taro leaves baked with coconut cream. Both the corm and the leaf of taro are an important part of the Fijian diet. While in Costa Rica we utilize two or three types of taro, by comparison there are 114 varieties that can be found in Fiji! A specific variety of leaf taro is used for this dish that has less oxalic acid in it—a substance that will cause an itchy, painful sensation in your mouth if the leaves are undercooked.
I learned new techniques for processing and cooking tropical foods and was able to share some of my recipes with them. We made live fermented ginger ale and homemade chocolates, useful new skills for a family with several cacao trees and two acres of ginger. Talking about food and cooking together was a great way to connect across cultures and get to know each other. It opened the door to deeper conversations.
See part two of the 2014-15 Bird Fellowship report here>>
Follow Rachel’s travels in Fiji and peruse albums from previous fellows on the Bird Fellowship’s Facebook page.