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KaiFebruary 10, 2024

Swapping snorkel and mask for knife and fork

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Tuna, scallops, crayfish, octopus, prawn, mahimahi and kingfish arrive on guilty-ish fancy plates in Fiji. Back home, marine protections are under a new, well, 64-year-old, threat – Shane Jones – so what should we be eating?

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

The first thing I packed for my trip to Fiji was a snorkel and mask I found in a cupboard at my flat. I imagined hours spent floating above colourful reefs of coral, sponges and funky sea weeds, watching tropical fish dart around nibbling at things. As it turns out, there’s not much snorkelling to be done around resorts on Fiji’s main island, and when you’re being hosted by one (thanks Marriott!), they are keen to keep you onsite, busy with resort activities. The most important of these is eating. Many hours are set aside each day to outlaw hunger. And so I found the sea life on my plate rather than through my borrowed mask.

There was fresh tuna tartare; lightly seared tuna; baby octopus smaller than my palm in a mystery buffet casserole; a scallop, in its shell, in parmesan sauce; seared scallops drizzled with green sauce; long octopus legs chargrilled; grilled crayfish tail; grilled mahimahi; mahimahi poached in coconut cream; prawn balls coated with coconut flakes and deep fried; lobster kokoda, kingfish kokoda, tuna kokoda, mahimahi kokoda. I was there for four nights and in that time I ate more sea creatures than I ever have before.

Seared tuna on watermelon with various accoutrements, from Voi Voi Bar Momi Bay.

It was not without guilt. Unfortunately, my boyfriend is a marine ecologist, which instantly wins him points at social occasions (“that was my dream job as a kid,” says every beautiful woman ever) and has kept me, for five years, unable to eat my signature dish of canned tuna on rice. We do not eat any fish unless we catch it ourselves. It’s not because we think that fish have feelings, but because whole ecosystems are collapsing, and that is a worry.

In Aotearoa marine conservation is facing a new, well, 64-year-old, threat – Shane Jones. Our minister for oceans and fisheries has long, strong links to the fishing industry and has received thousands, likely tens of thousands, of dollars in donations from fishing companies. Last week at the South Pacific high seas forum, he stressed that fishermen’s jobs are his priority. He blocked a proposal that would restrict trawling over wildlife hotspots on underwater mountains in the South Pacific. Jones has his eye on the Hauraki Gulf. “I’ve watched a relentless effort to try to destroy the commercial fishing industry in the broader Hauraki Gulf,” he said in December. Right now, there’s legislation before parliament to increase the protected areas there. It’s been more than a decade in the making, a mammoth effort by scientists, iwi, and policymakers, and Jones’ comments suggest he won’t let it pass. 

Back in Fiji, my guilt was quelled, a little, by our hosts telling us the fish are bought directly from local fishermen. As I enjoyed the delectables I imagined small-scale fishing, with no bycatch, and no tangled nets left behind. Later I found out that one resort goes through 12,000 eggs a day, which made me wonder about my assumptions. I was travelling with The Good Travel program which is offered across Marriott Bonvoy resorts. It gives people opportunities to participate in environmental protection, marine conservation and community engagement. We had an hour’s slot to meet a fisherman on our schedule, but he fell sick, so we ate more fish instead. Later we trialled a kids club activity, building a fish house from washed up coral stones, to provided habitat for coral and reef fish in the resort’s lagoon.

One dish that kept making appearances in different iterations was kokoda, Fijian raw fish salad. It’s considered Fiji’s national dish, and one of my hosts said it’s often eaten at home on Sundays with the family. In other words, it’s the Sunday roast of Fiji. The fish isn’t exactly raw, it’s cooked by leaving it in acid (lemon juice or white vinegar) for a few hours. It is delicious, and not hard to make. Perhaps it will replace canned tuna on rice as my signature dish.

I have stolen the following recipe from a cooking class at Marriott Resort Momi Bay. Is this a traditional version? Probably not – tomatoes don’t grow well in Fiji, and nor do onions. If you’re eating them there, it’s likely they’re from Aotearoa, so I guess it’s the perfect recipe for us!

The finest dicing I’ve ever managed.

I have stolen the following recipe from a cooking class at Marriott Resort Momi Bay. Is this a traditional version? Probably not – tomatoes don’t grow well in Fiji, and nor do onions. If you’re eating them there, it’s likely they’re from Aotearoa, so I guess it’s the perfect recipe for us!

Momi Bay kokoda

(makes 2 small portions)

80g fish fillet 

½ tomato

½ onion

Lemons

½ red capsicum

½ green capsicum

Salt

Pepper

A little fresh chilli

80ml coconut cream

Cut the fish into 1cm cubes, put it in a little bowl and cover in lemon juice (if you don’t have lemon, use white vinegar). Cover the bowl and let sit for three hours.

After marinating, the fish will be white, as if cooked. Rinse the lemon off.

Dice the veges, mix with the fish and coconut cream in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add fresh lemon juice and chilli to taste.

 

But which fish should I use?

Not snapper, please. We’ve been going way too hard on it for way too long and its populations are plummeting. If you’re buying fish, Forest & Bird put a guide together a few years ago. From the best options I’d suggest kahawai, albacore tuna or skipjack tuna for kokoda. If you’re not making kokoda and just want to taste the ocean, green-lipped mussels are sustainable, yum and cheap!

I don’t want to eat fish!

You can still eat kokoda. Substitute the fish with canned palm hearts. They’re my mum’s absolute favourite. I find the brine can be a little too salty so I always rinse them thoroughly. You can give them an oceany flavour by adding a bit of nori.

Keep going!