25 Jun / Dietary Secrets of Lau in Fiji
With obesity and diabetes in the news of late, Chef Seeto’s visit to the southern Lau islands reveals the tyranny of distance has helped to preserve and protect the traditional Fijian diet and lifestyle in more ways than expected.
I’ve been lucky over the years to travel to more places in Fiji than most expatriates or even locals, but reaching the far remote islands and outskirts of the Fiji map has been a dream finally fulfilled. The most revealing aspect of my visit onboard Captain Cook Cruises’ Reef Endeavour is those Fijians living far from Viti Levu have been forced to maintain an ancestral diet rich in the foods of life, and not a factory. It’s no secret that Fijians from this region seem to be smarter and healthier, with a diet of seafood, fruits, vegetables, leafy greens and plenty of coconut. There are no supermarkets, no schools selling fizzy drinks and fried chips, no fried chicken shops, and no fast food chains. Children climb coconut trees to quench their thirst instead of mixing sugary orange powders with water, and you will hardly ever see a packet of salty chips, oily peanuts, Bongos or bottles of cola. The villages of the southern Lau group are blessed with healthier aging residents who still tend to their farms and gardens, and I truthfully did not see one overweight child over the eleven days cruising the remote islands. It was not surprising. Remove all the junk food, factory-made foods and drinks, processed baby foods, excess sugar, refined flour and oils and you are left with a diet that most iTaukei should be eating; the ancestral diet of the South Pacific.
WHAT ARE THEY EATING INSTEAD?
Fish, fish and more fish! Eating fish is an important source of omega-3 fatty acids. These essential nutrients keep our heart and brain healthy, which could explain why seemingly more of Fiji’s top academic students; military officers and politicians come from this region. Fiji’s founding father, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara came from Sawana, Lomolomo; with many past and present members of parliament and the military also hailing from the remote islands. With sugar, flour and butter a rarity, they do not form a major part of the diet compared to their mainland compatriots. A lot of Fijians in the urban cities enjoy a breakfast of roti (ghee and refined flour), cereals (refined flour and sugar) or the typical Western breakfast of sausages, bacon and eggs (refined flour, salt and oil). Compare this to the remote island breakfast of fish cooked in many ways (high in omega 3’s for the heart and brain), coconut miti (ancestral source of good fat for the brain and medicine), fresh fruits (ancestral source of vitamin C and fructose), boiled root crops (ancestral carbohydrate that slow releases energy across the day) and lemon or lemongrass tea (high in vitamin C); and you realize what has gone wrong on the mainland to cause an increase in non communicable diseases. And with very little TV, smartphones or iPads, guess what the children do; they play, run, climb and sweat everyday; the missing ‘lifestyle’ element of their urban cousins. When we arrived to each village the women asked for the same thing; sugar and flour to make scones, bread, buns and cake, as the monthly government ship was still a week or two away.
NO MILK, DAIRY OR RED MEAT
What is most fascinating about the South Pacific diet enjoyed by most people in the Lau group of islands, is the minimal amount of milk, dairy and red meat in the diet because of limited cows, usually reserved for big functions. Whilst this diet is greatly reversed on the mainland, I wanted to know where their source of calcium and iron was coming from. Calcium and iron are essential minerals the body needs to maintain, grow and stay healthy, and the Tongan influence of bigger builds and fairer skin revealed these two critical minerals were not in short supply. The answer is shellfish and leafy green vegetables, supplemented with white meats of chicken and pork. On many of the islands including Kabara, Oneata and Totoya, leafy green trees like the Indian saagan or boro-ni-idia (moringa leaf), cassava and dalo leaves are in abundance. In Kabara, I was lucky to try the local delicacy, vakasekera, cooked with squeezed saagan leaves, clam meat (sici), fermented coconut (kora) and coconut milk. This single dish has just as much iron as red meat, and is packed with plant calcium, and eaten just about everyday.
THE TREE OF LIFE
If it wasn’t for the abundance of coconut trees throughout the outer islands, I’m not sure if the early iTaukei settlers would have survived as easily. Everything coconut has become the latest dietary fad across the Western world. Coconut milk, oil and water has come into vogue in supermarkets and restaurant menus, and is being touted by celebrities and top chefs as a long lost elixir and fountain of youth. When I asked one of the boys at Vudu, Totoya what they do when they run out of sugar, he just looked at me and said, “We climb the coconut tree to drink the natural sugar!” Once shunned because of its high saturated fats, in moderation, coconut is a critical part of the South Pacific diet and provides much needed good fats for a healthy brain. Cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil and bu water contain high doses of all the good ‘anti’ remedies of anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-biotic, anti-viral and the best of all, anti-aging! Which is why supermodels like Rachel Hunter have become converts and believers in the island coconut. Whether modern medicine chooses to believe this or not is not important to the Lau people; they know coconut is one of the primary foods of life, so critical to the ancestral South Pacific diet that they are lucky to enjoy.
The message from Lau and every far distant island is resoundingly clear to the rest of Fiji struggling with the modern diseases of progress, NCDs and lower academic marks. Follow us.