Vavavi’s Soul Food

By Kite Pareti

Editor’s note: Vavavi has moved location since this article, but still offers a rich local food experience.

It is a bright Saturday morning, and I am heading out of Nadi to learn how to make some delicious local food.

Lovo is a traditional cooking method, practiced for centuries in Fiji and across the Pacific, where a range of food is thoroughly cooked underground. 

On arrival The Lookout, a bar and grill venue located on a hilltop in Vuda with breathtaking views of Nadi Bay, I was greeted by a lovely couple, Anna and Samu, and Samu’s two younger siblings. Anna and Samu are the founders of Vavavi, which means ‘baking’. It is a newly established family venture that aims to deliver an unforgettable Fijian lovo making experience for curious adventurers.

Joining us for the day was the beautiful Vaalele family, who were visiting Fiji for the first time from Brisbane, Australia. 

The Vavavi team warmly welcomed us with refreshing coconut drinks (or bu in Fijian), a great energy booster when you are out and about under the hot sun. 

Then the fun began. Anna and Samu showed us how to prepare the foundation of the “earth oven” by placing rocks and wood in the pit they had dug. It takes about 90 minutes for it to be hot and ready, said Samu. 

Once the pit was warming up, we moved to a nearby table. It was decked out with jars of freshly squeezed coconut milk as well as cutting boards and cutlery, so we could prepare the meat and veggies that had been sourced earlier from the nearby market and their generous neighbour’s backyard. 

“We are going to prepare a number of dishes today — palusami, chicken, fish, and some root crops,” Anna explained. 

“Some steak?” Denis Vaalele asked jokingly.  “No steak today,” Anna chuckled, “but you can have corned beef in palusami.” 

Palusami is a must-have dish when making lovo. Using big taro leaves, “you can add different ingredients such as tuna, corned beef, coriander, tomatoes, onions, garlic and of course, salt and some coconut milk. We’re basically making a little Fijian pizza,” said Anna. 

After wrapping our palusami, we were given a wooden stool to sit on, a knife, and a basin to learn how to prepare some of Fiji’s staple foods — cassava, taro, coconuts and falawa

“In Fiji, we have different types of cassava. We have the Delei, the Piqi, the yellow one, the one that grows up to six months, three months,” Samu explained. 

“When we returned from school as kids, we would have to peel our cassava before we go and play. We have to peel it, wash it, cook it, and wait for it to cook. We put it on the fire and played for a little bit. “Sometimes, when we return home after playing, it will be burnt… deep frying there in the pot,” Samu laughed. 

“What happens if it’s burnt?” Denis asked. 

Samu laughed: “You’ll have to go into the forest to look for cassava or get it from your neighbour.” 

We peeled our root crops and scraped a few coconuts, all of which were first time experiences for Denis, who is yet to visit Samoa. 

“I grew up in Sydney and Brisbane all my life,” he said. Denis works for an organisation called Strive, where 90% of youth workers are Pacific Islanders and they help troubled kids. He explained while taking a break from scraping coconuts: “Most kids there are Aboriginal, a couple of Kiwis but I haven’t seen an Islander kid yet. They struggle with good role models.” 

Asked if he’ll teach the kids how to make Fijian lovo, he said cheerfully: “Yeah. We have cultural days. Our Aboriginal kids have a culture similar to this too. They cook underground using rocks.”

His wife, Shania-Rei Vaalele, a Maori woman from Rotorua, shared how she grew up having hangi, a food making tradition similar to lovo. “We do it for 3-4 hours. The food is different though as we would have lamb, pork, stuffing, and sweet potatoes.” 

As a Pacific Islander family, Shania said they wanted to visit Fiji “not for the hotel food; we wanted to taste the authentic [fare].” 

The Vaalele family have visited Indonesia, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia, “but Fiji is the best so far,” Denis said. 

“What’s it like travelling as a small family?” I asked.

“It’s a bit hectic, because the small ones still take naps in the day at around midday,” Denis chuckled. 

The talanoa (conversation) continued as Samu brought out the next dish for us to make. 

Falawa, which means flour in English, is a staple in my village in Ono-i-Lau. We hardly have bread in the village, so we make our own,” Samu shared. 

“The ingredients for falawa include coconut, sugar, flour and water. It will be more enjoyable to eat when it’s baked in the lovo, and you can have it with tea. When preparing this, it’s all soul cooking. You do it by sight… no measurement.” 

The falawa is wrapped using coconut leaves, which I found quite tricky to do, to be honest! The fish and chicken were also wrapped in coconut leaves. And all of those delicious foods were placed in the lovo pit to cook for an hour. 

The Vaalele family were enthusiastic to learn, especially their youngest son, who helped bury the food in the lovo pit. 

While the lovo was cooking, we had the privilege of visiting one of Fiji’s most chiefly villages called Viseisei, which is a short drive away. Historically, the village is known for the arrival of the first Indigenous Fijians about 3000 years ago.

We were shown around the village by Josefa Tora, and the Vaalele family bought a few creative souvenirs made by the villagers. Josefa said Viseisei today has about 1000 people residing in 250 houses. 

Most houses have undergone changes. “In the past, we used to live in thatched huts. Nowadays, we have built standard houses because of cyclones. Yet, there is still one Fijian hut remaining in the village, which belongs to the village chief, located at the centre of the village,” said Josefa. 

“In the village, we live as five tribes. You can have a good qualification from school, and become doctors, teachers or engineers but when you return to the village, you still belong to a tribe like the fisherman’s tribe,” he added. 

Like other koros in Fiji, there is no wearing of hats in the village, ladies are only allowed to wear well-covered clothing such as long skirts and dresses, there is no running and shouting in the village, and drinking alcohol is only allowed outside the village boundaries. 

Viseisei, Josefa says, was also the first village to convert to Christianity in 1826, where “the priest of the village saw a vision of a man coming on a ship who would do good things for the village.” “The missionary from Washington, America gave the chief a Bible, a coat, an umbrella and a lantern. He covered the chief with the coat and said, ‘God is a comforter, he will comfort you.’ He gave the lantern and said, ‘This is the light for the darkness’. Then he gave the umbrella and said, ‘God is your protector, he will protect you and the people like this umbrella.’ Lastly, he gave the Bible and told the chief everything about God in the book. Josefa said the chief accepted God and the whole village followed suit. “It took one month and six days for all to be converted to Christianity.” He said on every 10th of October, the village of Viseisei holds an event to commemorate the peoples’ acceptance of Christianity. 

As an indigenous Fijian who loves God, learning this small but very significant piece of history is something that I’ll always cherish, especially when Josefa beautifully sang the hymn, Amazing Grace, to us, which echoed through the walls of the massive Jone Wesele (John Methodist) Church, that’s located in the heart of the village. 

After the insightful village tour, we headed back to The Lookout, anticipating the taste of our lovo-cooked foods. Coming straight from the pit, the food was extremely hot to the touch, but Denis managed to pop the packages into our woven basket and transport them to The Lookout’s balcony. 

From this vantage, we soaked in sunny skies and turquoise waters, and dished out our lovo-made chicken, fish, palusami, root crops, and kokoda (raw fish in coconut milk), laying them out on a long wooden table. It was a perfect homely meal. The juicy palusami with taro was my favourite. 

“I love cooking and I cook a lot,” said Anna, who is of Malaysian heritage, and grew up in Australia. 

Anna is a psychologist by profession, and has been living in Fiji for four years, but said she was ready for “something different.” 

“My work [as a psychologist] as very accommodating because I work online. I worked for a few months then I decided to move here.” She first lived in Rakiraki, before moving to Nadi. 

“I fell in love with the Fijian culture because it’s so community based. There is a very big sense of belonging in Fiji which you do not really get in Melbourne. Melbourne is just very materialistic and concrete, so I just made that change for myself, and I met Samu.”

The inspiration for Vavavi came as “a lot of my friends from Australia would visit Fiji and they would always suggest we do a lovo,” Anna said. “We would sit in our garage and do all the prep like we’re doing now. I was like…these guys have no idea how special lovo is because Fijians do it every week.”

“The whole process [of making lovo] is so different to any other cooking method you find in western culture and Asian culture. It’s very unique and very different from going to a cooking school. 

She added: “Fiji also has that beautiful connection to the land. Given the majority of tourists are from Australia and New Zealand, they really connect on that level and appreciate that outdoor connection to land, family and culture”. 

The Vavavi experience was definitely a great time, even for me as a local and regular eater of lovo food. As we parted ways, Denis said: “It feels like I’m leaving my family.”

Vavavi Food and Cultural Experience

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