ME’A KAI The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific
ROBERT OLIVER, with Dr. Tracy Berno and Shiri Ram
RANDOM HOUSE, 2010 http://www.randomhouse.co.nz
Nau te rourou, maku te rourou ka ora te manuwhiri
With your food basket and my food basket, everyone has enough to eat
This ancient Maori proverb, in international chef Robert Oliver’s tongue, would read, with your food basket and my food basket, everyone has enough for a feast! Me’a Kai is a feast for the palette in every sense of the word. The palette of the tongue, the palette of the canvas, food as an art form, food as survival, food as nutrition, food as celebration. By re-discovering South Pacific food from the past, this team of Robert Oliver, Tracy Berno and photographer Shiri Ram, have also provided us all with a blueprint for our future health.
As an author of 23 Pacific books, a chef at the Commonwealth Games and the co-director of Mohala Organic Gardens, specialising in Pacific fruits and herbs, I always knew that our traditional South Pacific kai was healthy, abundant and nourishing.
Yet the stereotype of Pacific food and Pacific Islanders is of islanders eating corned beef, fatty mutton flaps and chicken and reaping the terrifying results of this post-colonial diet with diabetes and other serious health problems. Because it is exactly that - a diet formed after colonials arrived and decided that it would be a clever idea to foist unwanted leftover fatty meats onto island nations because they would be cheap and a great way to get rid of food that first nations people no longer wanted, we need to see this stereotype for exactly what it represents – food colonisation, along the same lines as all other forms of colonisation, for the betterment of the colonial group at the expense of those colonised. Islanders took to these relacement foods often because they had moved away from their traditional diets and settled for the easier fast food diets of modern civilisation. That was the price of moving from a healthy subsistence lifestyle into a colonial co-dependent lifestyle.
Instead of bemoaning the terrible price of colonisation, chef Robert Oliver, researcher Tracy Berno and photographer Shiri Ram decided to do something about this which would challenge existing stereotypes and have a lasting impact on present and future generations of islanders, as well as those visiting our South Pacific islands.
We all have a part to play in ensuring that the exquisite food of our ancestors is revived and shared and demanded by visitors rather than settling for the tasteless, unethical, international supermarket food that so often finds its way onto menus in hotels and motels where delicious island vegetables, fruit and kai moana or seafood is native to the islands.
The result of this research is ME’A KAI, one of the most exquisite books I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing in my thirty year career as a book reviewer. ME’A KAI celebrates food in its context, from the growers at local markets to the cooks who gather and prepare the food to the actual experience of eating such delicious kai. Every page exudes colour, taste and beauty. The ancient rituals of food as thanks and in gratitude are revived supporting the slow food philosophy throughout the book.
This book deserves to win every book award imaginable from best research, best text, best photography to best design, presentation and promotion. Random House has excelled as a publisher in supporting the vision behind ME’A KAI and working with the team to bring this book to fruition as a delicious work of art in every sense possible. All the vibrant colours of the South Pacific surf out from the pages in the food, the design, the people, the islands.
Experiencing ME’A KAI, literally an invitation to “come eat”, is like going on a journey to these South Pacific islands and feeling the warm air as you land, sensing the smell of the surf and the seaweed, lumi in Fiji and limu in Hawai’i, as you walk the beaches, tasting the very essence of the islands in the food and pictures.
I spent several weeks exuding and enjoying the sensual experience of this book, keen to discover the heart of its success in taking the reader on such a journey where all your senses are awakened and kept alive as you sail through the pages. What I realised on this vaka voyage is that the essence of this book is the very deep and real love for the food, the islanders, the islands, the land and sea from which the food comes, the growers and fishers and chefs and family cooks all seen in their own contexts.
Even some of the most stunning cook books seldom take the reader on such a journey where we are navigating our way from traditional kai and the methods of growing, fishing, hunting or gathering this kai and the journey from earth and sea to the plate. It is this that makes ME’A KAI stand out while it empowers all the people involved in the production and making of the book – from growers and chefs and cooks right through to those who savour and love the food.
Food is seen in its historical and traditional context, celebrated for this and also shown to grow and expand its repertoire as new immigrants enter into the South Pacific islands, and like the Indians in Fiji, bring their spices along to add a new flair to traditional kai.
Food becomes a celebration of life in all contexts, whether you grow, fish, gather or cook the food for others.
Food is a way of sharing aroha, or love.
It connects people and is a gift from one to another. It brings people together, even in harsh times, to celebrate or commiserate, and it binds us internationally as few other things do. It is on a par with music for its international audience and like music, crosses cultural barriers, joining together people from all nations who take a genuine interest in the origin and context of the food they eat.
Sustainable food pioneer, Mary Cleaver, from New York, really hit on the heart of this when she described ME’A KAI as “Robert Oliver’s love letter to the Pacific.” This book exudes love in its concept, preparation, research and in the wonderfully vibrant and camp text by Robert Oliver. We cannot help but become as excited as he is about a new food discovery or finding out about the origins and traditions of various food dishes that are similar throughout the South Pacific, such as using fresh fish and coconut milk, but so subtly and vitally different in their flavours from island to island.
Throughout the book, the native languages of each of the islands is honoured and used to describe the various dishes and the languages themselves become a succulent flavour as their beauty is sounded on the tongue as we savour both the description and the dish itself. You can see the links between the island cultures not only in similar dishes prepared differently but also in the similarity between the words that describe the dishes, from taro to dalo to talo,etc.
Once you’ve tried and sampled the recipe for Kokoda, you’ll find it’s one of the best raw fish dishes in the world, let alone the South Pacific. Vegetarians can luxuriate in Tabua Miti – Amaranth with Pacific Coconut Dressing or Vanuatu’s Kwowo Gwaro Kwere [Vanuatu style coconut spinach]. Growers can learn more about the Vanuatu rituals for planting yams. Those who love sweet flavours can indulge in Rarotongan coconut rolls, or Moa Samoa with sweet chicken in Samoa.Or you could sit back and enjoy chilled Rourou [taro leaf] soup on a hot summer’s day in Fiji. Whether you are in Rarotonga, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti or any of the Pacific Islands, you will find a dish here that will become one of your favourites in months to come if it is not already. Me’a Kai- Come Feast!
Dr. Tracy Berno’s research is present throughout the book in the honouring of the women who so often gather, provide and cook the foods alongside men who sometimes do all the cooking, such as with an underground oven or cooking by fire above ground.
Shiri Ram’s photography superbly supports the vision that inspires this book, bringing the colours, textures, shapes, senses and tatses of the food alive on the page. You can almost savour the food on the tongue as you savour this experience, always the sign of a truly successful cook book.
The only difficulty I had experiencing this delicious book is the choice of quotes from “outsiders”, often reinforcing colonial island myths, such as Robert Louis Stevensen, etc. I longed for words from our own Pacific writers such as Albert Wendt or Sia Figuel, Teresia Teaiwa, Frances Koya-Vaka’uta, Mohit Prasad or many others. I thought about this, realising there must have been a reason for this absence. I assumed, in the end, that the book was aimed towards the visitor and wanting to capture the history of tourists falling in love with these islands, since promoting eco tourism using the products and foods is an important part of this text. All the same, I would have loved to have seen the beautiful words of some of our past and contemporary Pacific authors mingled among these quotes. That aside, the book is brilliant!
Beyond all else, ME’A KAI provides a blueprint for our shared past and future survival in the South Pacific. The vision is to bring together growers, fishers, food providers, cooks, chefs and the eco tourist industry so that the very best of delicious locally grown food contributes to a sustainable tourist industry that can provide an income for the growers and fishers, market stall communities, the cooks and chefs and owners of tourist facilities that are so important to the income of the islands. The book convinces even the most sceptical observer that this is indeed the only way to go to provide a sustainable future income for Pacific Islanders that leaves our land organic and nourished for future generations to live on and benefit from.
It is impossible to summarise ME’A KAI because few descriptions could ever match the delicious experience of discovering these foods and savoring them in a huge range of different and inventive recipes, that are, as Robert Olivers states, utterly unique on this planet and worthy of the best restaurants in the world. And he, of all chefs, should know.
I urge readers to buy this book as a gift to yourself or to loved ones. I hope ME’A KAI inspires other communities to delve into the historical and traditional contexts of their food and listen to those in the present still growing, fishing and preparing food in traditional ways and cook or adapt these recipes for your own needs.
Anyone who cares about food production on this planet, the ethics of how our food gets to our plates [read Felicity Lawrence’s “Not on the Label” if further interested in this], growing or preparing nourishing and sustainable food or creating a sustainable tourist business in the South Pacific or anywhere on this globe, read and give ME’A KAI to loved ones also interested. This may the the most beautiful taonga, or gift, you could ever give to another, to the planet or to yourselves.
Check out the lush bibliography, the notes towards a more sustainable way of producing our food and the language glossary in the back to learn more about the inspiration for this book.
ME’A KAI deserves to win every possible book award available, as stated earlier. Even further, it deserves to be considered for sustainable awards in all genre areas and become a part of cooking courses and a fireside book for every home. There is literally something for everyone in this book and the price is very reasonable for the research, knowledge, inspiration and design which is truly a taonga to be treasured by us all in the South Pacific and globally.
Dive into the pages of ME’A KAI and be stunned by the beauty and clarity of the water, of eating food cooked in pristine coastal sea water and using local seaweeds or fruits, fish or vegetables. Let the waves of nourishment flow over and through you, cleansing every cell of your body. Prepare to rethink your stereotypes about Pacific Island kai and delve into a richer and deeper korero about our food, the mo’olelo or talkstory that surrounds each dish. Mo’olelo, literally, is to “let the spirit fly between people”.
ME’A KAI feeds and nourishes the spirit on every level and lets it fly between us in the growing, preparation, cooking and sharing of these beautiful gifts from the land and sea.
ME’A KAI asks us to look at our food and our lives in a different way, to recognise that which is traditional and contemporary and that which sustains the land also sustains us as tangata whenua or people of the land. One cannot survive without the other. Both need to be nourished for future generations.
ME’A KAI urges us to be grateful that we can access and use this knowledge and inspiration before it is too late, so that we can return to the more healthy lifestyles of our ancestors. That applies to all people on the planet today.
ME’A KAI is indeed a love letter to the Pacific Island people. It is both a love letter and a welcoming feast for anyone who dares to pick up this book and work towards the vision it challenges us to create together. It brings us closer as communities who love to grow, gather, cook and share our food with each other in a way that is sustainable for ourselves and for the future of the islands we live on.
As our ancestors said:
Nau te rourou, maku te rourou ka ora te manuwhiri
With your food basket and my food basket, everyone has enough to eat
This ancient Maori proverb, in international chef Robert Oliver’s tongue, would read, with your food basket and my food basket, everyone has enough for a feast!
ME’A KAI is a feast for the palette in every sense of the word. The palette of the tongue, the palette of the canvas, food as an art form, food as survival, food as nutrition, food as celebration. By re-discovering South Pacific food from the past, this team of Robert Oliver, Tracy Berno and photographer Shiri Ram, have also provided us all with a blueprint for our future health. Mahalo, tena rawa atu koutou.
[Please see below for further information about the text, author, researcher, photographer and the inspiration behind the book, provided by Rachel Dewhurst at Random House. I seldom include this with reviews but in this case, it is vital for readers to have access to the kaupapa that inspired this book and we all hope will inspire others. Mahalo to Rachel and the team at Random House also for creating and promoting such an exquisite production.]
[c] Dr Cath Koa Dunsford
ABOUT ME’A KAI:
Two years ago, New Zealand-born chef Robert Oliver, who has had a stellar career in the United States restaurant industry, went back to Fiji, where he grew up, to rediscover the art of Pacific cooking. He travelled to Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands to track down the most skilled local cooks. Adapting their recipes for modern kitchens, this outstanding, landmark book brings together a treasury of South Pacific cooking, arranged country by country, with 90-plus recipes and stunning photos that capture the essence of the Pacific.
And there’s much more than just recipes. As well as showcasing traditional and modern South Pacific cuisine, Me’a Kai, meaning “come eat” in Tongan, covers fascinating encounters with local cooks and food producers. Flipping through its pages is like going on holiday! And it will inspire readers to seek out local food on their next Pacific holiday.
But there’s much more to Me’a Kai than this. It is a book with a clear mission: to support sustainable tourism in the South Pacific. Robert Oliver has worked as a chef for more than 25 years, running highly successful restaurants in Miami, New York, Las Vegas and the Caribbean. It was while working with resorts on the Caribbean islands of Barbados and St Lucia that Robert first started to try to improve the links between local growers and large resorts. He found that most of the food used by resorts in the Caribbean was being imported, as the local farms were not set up for commercial supply, although there were clearly many able farmers on the islands.
Robert started working with the farmers to develop supply contracts that worked for both the hotels and the farmers. The food tasted better, the nutritional value of fresh local food was better for the guests, there were greater environmental benefits in buying locally rather than importing and the livelihoods of the local farmers improved.
He recognised the same issues existed in the South Pacific and returned to Fiji to begin the same process in the islands where he had grown up. There he encountered Tracy Berno, a determined academic from the University of the South Pacific who had been working for some time to connect farmers to hotels. Both Robert and Tracy through his culinary journeys, Robert knew that the local ingredients are fantastic – widely available, inexpensive, delicious and a veritable nutritional powerhouse. All too often however, this food is not offered in the resorts – juice coming instead, for example, from a Tetra Pak imported from New Zealand when fresh fruit was falling off the nearby trees; tinned fruit at the breakfast buffets and food items such as tinned fish curry on offer when the lagoons nearby were full of fish. Why are these countries leaking their much-needed tourism dollars out of the region to buy items that could be produced locally?
Robert and Tracy decided to put together a gorgeous recipe book that would say to Pacific chefs: “This is who you are! Your food is as great as any.” They approached Fiji’s best photographer, Shiri, whose response was “If it’s good for the Pacific, count me in!” And so began the journey that has led to the creation of the stunning Me’a Kai.
Their goal is to improve the quality of food offered to the South Pacific region’s tourism market and to contribute towards rural prosperity in the Pacific by creating an increased demand for locally grown foods.
Underpinned by a philosophy of sustainable tourism, sustainable agriculture and sustainable cuisine, Me’a Kai is much more than just a cookbook, it is a fundamental part of this process.
Me’a Kai is a must-have for those with an interest in food or a love of the Pacific.
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