Posted by: Anna | September 19, 2011

Eat, Drink and be Merry – the Fijian Way

In Fiji, we have heard American pop music and passed KFCs. The cool thing, to me, is that even with the influence of the West, Fijians maintain a strong connection to traditional Fijian life. Many Fijians, if not most, are born into villages and grow up in a small, cooperative way of life. The traditions that have governed in Fiji for generations are still evident today, even to a casual two week visitor like me.

Like anywhere, Fiji uses the uniqueness of its culture to entertain visitors, who are entranced with kava (traditional narcotic drink), mekes (traditional dances), and lovo (earth oven / meal cooked in an earth oven). Unlike a lot of other tourist spots, Fijians seem much more engaged with these traditions and truly use them and live them in their lives. It’s not just a show.

Kava is a drink pounded from a root, by hand. In the early evening of our second day, driving down the highway in Fiji, we passed groups of young men, standing around a small barrel with a long metal or wooden stick, banging away. At first, we had no idea what they were doing. But now I know — banging kava. The pounded root, once it reaches a powder, is mixed with water in a kava bowl. In the evening, groups gather, sitting cross-legged on a woven mat on the floor, drinking kava from a polished coconut shell, singing songs and listening to a guitar. Kava is served first to the oldest man, who claps once and says “bula” (meaning welcome, hello, and sort of a general good wishing  — used in more circumstances in Fiji than any word in English). He then takes his bowl and drinks it all in one gulp. He returns the bowl, claps three times, and says “mutha” (no idea on the spelling, sounds rather like mother / mutha – meaning empty).

Our first time drinking kava we were surprised by the tongue numbing sensation and frankly, not surprised by the dirty water taste (it rather looks like dirty water). Fijians polish it off like candy, but most tourists quickly learned to ask for a “low tide” (very small bowl) instead of a “high tide” or a “tsunami” (big, full bowls). Sarah took to kava more than almost any other tourists we saw, but Tommy and I could never fully embrace the kava. It’s a pleasant experience, sitting and singing, but give me a glass of wine anytime.

We were told that traditionally the young virgins of the village chewed the root and spit it out instead of mixing it with water straight away. The young men did the initial pounding, but you had to be 35 to drink it, so the pounders didn’t get to participate in the consumption. Women never drank kava. Today, things are more democratic, although the men still seem to far outdrink the women. Each village has its own traditions about when another round is served and who can ask for it, how to mix it, and so on.

Today you can buy pre-pounded kava in the markets, although we still saw people pounding it themselves. Having had it both ways, the flavor is stronger and spicier (hints of cinnamon) when it’s fresh. I heard it was illegal in the US (I have not verified this) because of its narcotic properties, but I think it’s actually very mild (none of us ever really felt any narcotic effects).

I was lucky enough to see two different mekes. The traditional Fijian meke (dance) is a fierce, war-like affair danced with spears and machetes. The men stomp, leap, charge, and yell, giving me the impression that a Fijian warrior would not be someone to tangle with lightly. In classic Fijian style, we saw the meke danced at our “resort” on Taveuni, by the uncle and cousins of our divemaster. Everyone in Fiji is related within a region, it seems.

Friendly warriors, I think.

The other style of meke I saw was actually Polynesian, as opposed to Melanesian. I never knew this — another example of how little I knew about the world before I left home — but the South Pacific is populated by two different ethnic groups: Polynesians and Melanesians. Hawai’ians are Polynesian, and Fijians are Melanesian. Each group has similar cultural threads; the mekes of Polynesians have certain hallmarks, as do the mekes of Melanesians.

Tuvalu (Polynesian) ran out of space in the early 20th century and worked out a deal with Fiji to send some Tuvalu people to live on an island in Fiji. They would become Fijian citizens, but they could maintain their Polynesian Tuvalu traditions. Thirty nine volunteers came in the first group to settle on a foreign island in Fiji. This island was only a twenty minute boat ride away from our resort in Taveuni. Because two of the residents of the island work at the resort, they invite tourists to come and see a meke on their island, in Polynesian style.

It was incredibly different from the Fijian meke – joyful and gentle where the Fijian had been bold and fierce. We sat in the long meeting hall and enjoyed the dance and the powerful drums, beaten in what looked like a trance by some of the men. The women and men did the same dance, each with a different style, and everyone (about 75 people) sang. We learned that many of the songs reference specific events to this group, such as the original number who came over from Tuvalu, or the date they arrived. We even got to dance along, probably looking like fools but smiling from ear to ear.

Smiling at the a beautiful flower headdress.

We asked the people if they identified with Fiji or with Tuvalu; they insisted they were Fijian. I was fascinated by this small group of people maintaining their traditional culture, although it evolves to reflect recent history (such as a song about arriving in Fiji), while living so close (only a few miles) from a very different culture.

Maybe the best part of Fijian culture we got to experience was the lovo, the meal cooked in an earth oven. For special events and celebrations (or tourists who want to see one!), Fijians prepare a lovo. They start by digging a small hole and filling it with wood, then piling rocks on top. They build a fire and let it burn for a couple of hours, to heat the rocks. When the rocks are hot, they prepare the food — anything you can cook can go in a lovo, including fish, chicken, whole pigs (!), taro, sweet potato, taro leaves wrapped in coconut (amazing), and more.

Braiding the fish and whole chickens for the lovo - quickly.

We watched the guys braid the meat and fish into leaves with great dexterity. The food is then placed on the hot rocks, and more coconut leaves are piled on top. Then palm leaves are piled on, further sealing the heat in. Traditionally, giant elephant ears are added as the third layer, with rocks to hold them down and create even more of a seal. When the elephant ears are singed, they know the lovo is ready. Unfortunately, on the island we were on, there were no elephant ears, so they used a big blue tarp (not as charming).

Everything ready to cook on the hot rocks. The small sticks prevent the food from sticking to the rocks.

This is a small lovo - for a big celebration, it might be several yards across. Ours only fed abou 20 people.

We headed off for our evening sundowners, kava, and singing. In about an hour and a half, it was ready. The guys unburied everything and the kitchen served it up for us on plates, like the Westerners we are. The meal was delicious; the coconut leaves imbued a light, toasty sweetness to everything. The taro leaves were the best part, soaked and cooked in coconut milk in a fire, they were sweet and delicious and spinachy, all at the same time.

Lovo - ready to serve. Yum!


  1. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!

  2. I love your fresh flower headdress, Anna! Hope your feet are feeling better.Maybe you need some kind of protective footgear…like the light weight “Toe” running shoes that I see everywhere??? Take care. XOXOOX

  3. This makes me think we make everything much more complicated than it needs to be — including cooking.

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