I have recently returned from Fiji where I was working on my cookbook Kana Vinaka, which is about creating contemporary island cuisine to increase consumption of local produce, and connecting farmers with hospitality outlets. On the trip we came across an interesting, long-time local, Dick Watling. He is an environment consultant who has some land next to the river at Hogmata, some 23kms up the Sigatoka Valley. Dick grows the Peach Palm, which he acquired from Hawaii.
This quick growing and self-sustaining edible palm is the famed and treasured ingredient of the famous "Millionaire's Salad" of whose fame I learned at a young age growing up in Hawaii. The unfortunate circumstance is that this beautiful and delicious delicacy was only available tinned and for many people, even today, this is mainly the way it is served.
After working on chutneys, Indian flatbreads, sweets and appetisers with the kind and helpful people of FRIEND Fiji in Lautoka for a week, we headed off to Suva to do the big Saturday markets shop before heading to Kaibu in the Lau Group, where with the generosity of the Managing Director, Rob Miller, we were being transported and accommodated to continue our experimentation and research for the book in his resort's modern kitchen. Rob also provided us with fresh-caught local game fish, deep sea snapper, crustaceans as well as herbs and veges from the island's large organic garden.
The Suva markets have provided us with hearts of palm before, but it was always an inferior substitute for the real thing... young coconut or Sago palms, which were always sold as large encased sheaths to protect the hearts, which then had to be whittled away when needed to expose it's delicate heart. Once exposed, it needs to be used quickly or put into acidulated water to slow it down from turning brown.
A chilled package of over a kilo of beautifully white Hearts of Palm just harvested from Dick's Hogmata farm awaited us after our hectic shopping at the markets. Once on Kaibu, we played with a great many veges, fruits, local pork, beef, fish, shellfish to create many tasty and stunning dishes, but the star ingredient of this visit was the Hearts of Palm from Sigatoka.
The texture, flavour, freshness, stark beauty of the palm hearts inspired me to create four beautiful salads that were a whole level up from that first "Millionaire's Salad" that I saw and tasted as a young food and beverage manager many years ago. We even created some new dressings to compliment the salad: ginger miso sesame, chilli hoisin, fresh lime and coconut vinaigrette, bush lime and coriander aioli, then worked in other seasonal produce to make the salads more flavourful and truly local. These included local prawns, mountain fern shoots, baby watercress, ivi nut, watermelon, orange kumala, wandering spinach and fresh grated coconut.
The success of these dishes called for a visit to Dick's office and home in Suva on our way out of Fiji, where after much delightful conversation about how he got started with the Peach palm and his trials and tribulations to get the plantation up and running, we made a date for me to visit his farm. This let us see the plantation itself, how the palm is harvested and prepared for market, and I could show Dick the uses, tastes and textures of different parts of the heart and the different sizes of the palms. It was a delightful and informative day for both of us and we are still in close communication over the uses and marketing of his Hearts of Palm (HoP) to the hospitality industry and knowledgeable local foodies.
Look forward to seeing more on this exciting fresh renewable local resource.