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   Aug 19

Herbs & spice and all things nice

A chocolate and basil cake provides essential vitamins and minerals.

When I was filming our first episode for Fiji TV’s Taste of Paradise program at the Suva Municipal Market last year, an elderly Fijian woman walked on to the set to ask a very simple question.

“Do you use all of these in your cooking?” she politely asked. The woman was pointing to my table of garlic, ginger, basil, lemons and lots of the fresh herbs and spices you can buy at the market. At first I thought it was a silly question to ask a chef, but then I realised that the knowledge to create new flavours and recipes in Fijian cuisine is not as widely known because the country has not been exposed to as many foreign cuisines compared to most overseas countries. Fiji was never conquered or had its native culture displaced by the colonising empires of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, German, Japanese, Americans or even the English. History and geographic isolation has protected Fiji’s heritage but it also meant that the country’s food is not as diverse. There has been no centuries of experimenting with flavours and foods from different cultures to create a melting pot of exotic cuisine that would be unique to that country or region. Despite a unique combination of Melanesian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Indian and Chinese cultures, there has been very little fusion or cross over foods – until now.

NCDs drive a culinary revolution

You may not know it but Fiji is undergoing an enormous change in understanding the food they now eat, both the good and the bad. Awareness of non-communicable diseases and its links to an unhealthy diet and lifestyle has given rise to a new generation of Fijians who are learning to cook for freshness, health and more tantalising flavours than their cultural foods. In most Fijian homes and villages, there is Indian, iTaukei and Chinese foods prepared and cooked for the family but very few have experimented to create new combinations from all three. For example, if I were going to create a dessert with jackfruit (seen as a Indian cooking ingredient), and grated cassava and fresh coconut (seen as South Pacific ingredients), how would I include an element of Asian flavour? Did you guess lemongrass root, orange peel, ginger, dhaniya roots, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, black pepper or chilli. These are classic combinations of ingredients used in South East Asian and Chinese cuisine but rarely used in Fijian cooking, let alone dessert.

Herbs and spice instead of sugar and salt

Before Ronald Gatty decided to introduce aromatic herbs from Sri Lanka, India and Guatemala to create his organic spice farm at Wainadoi, many herbs and spices were either not available or not used in local cooking. When the Melanesian and Polynesian ancestors were digging their lovo pit, I doubt they were thinking of using bruised lemongrass, cumquat lemons and ginger with their spoils of war. While the spice trading nations were spreading the exotic herbs and spices from the Far East and subcontinent to the new world, Fiji’s dangerous reefs and its fierce reputation as an the Cannibal Isles kept many of the traders and their herbal spices away. Today, Fiji is blessed with many spice farms and enterprising new farmers who are learning to grow the herbal ingredients. Using more herbs and spices in your cooking, as the Ministry of Health continually promotes, not only adds new flavour and depth, but also reduces the need to add more salt and refined sugars.

Herbal benefits in cooking

Herbal medicines have been around since prehistoric times. They have been used for medicinal purposes for as long as recorded history. People from many cultures around the world use herbal medicines. They were used in Ancient Chinese, Greek, Egyptian, and Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine. Native American and African cultures use herbs in their healing rituals

The Chinese know the power of ginger to settle the stomach, treat nausea and recover from colds; the Mediterranean’s love of garlic helps improve the immune system; the Polynesians knew the power of medicinal leaves and roots to heal and revitalise. Fresh herbs also contain potential health benefiting and detoxification properties from their essential oils, vitamins and minerals. Including them in your daily diet is easy once you know how to use them, but including them in cakes and desserts helps to make a Fijian’s favourite part of a meal with health.

Spicing up desserts

There are many herbs that Fiji can grow to use in dessert recipes to bring them alive with herbal flavours and make them healthier. Lavender is great in an orange cake. Basil bakes well with cakes and cookies with citrus. Lemongrass and coconut are perfect partners. Black pepper gives strawberries a little heat to balance the sweetness. Star anise adds depth and earthy tones of liquorice to sugar syrups. Mint and peppermint are fantastic when combined with chocolate desserts or biscuits. And surprisingly, chilli goes with anything chocolate; especially the dark rainforest chocolate from Fiji’s “Willy Wonka”, Tomohito Zukoshi.

So what was that healthier dessert I was going to make with jackfruit, cassava, coconut and herbs? It is the gluten free, Filipino cassava bibinka cake.

Next week in the final part of the Karma Kamicamica series, I share luscious dessert recipes made from vegetables like eggplant, beans and zucchini.

* Lance Seeto is an award-winning international food writer, author, television presenter and inspirational chef based on Castaway Island Fiji. He is also a member of the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM).

Source: The Fiji Times

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