Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Culinary Treasure Hunt

The other day Mela, our lovely housekeeper, gave me a list of ingredients to get for the Fijian dinner that she was going to make for us. I cannot remember the name of the dish that she was making, but the ingredient list called for fish, preferably ogo, dalo, coconut cream (specifically the one in the yellow tin), moce, and other things that were pretty straightforward, like onions.

As my friends and family are aware, I am obessessed with food. I know several languages, but only in relation to food items. However, this treasure hunt for culinary booty was going to be a challenge. You can't just go the the grocery store to buy this stuff. Well you can, but you wouldn't get the best ingredients. You have to go to market. If I were cooking myself, I'd probably go to the grocery store and buy it all, but if I brought substandard ingredients home I feared that Mela would tut and shake her head and I couldn't bear it (I will write an entire post on the dynamics of have a housekeeper at some point. With Mela's permission, of course).

Our outing started with a trip to Anna's school to get her uniform. I assessed the taxi driver. This one was too quiet, so I didn't ask him to stick around and wait for us. Fortunately the one that picked us up wasn't the ebulliant, won't shut up sort of taxi driver, but something in between. Once he ascertained what we needed, he became our navigator.

First off, the fish market. We pass an amazing fish market on the way to Anna's school. Right on the roundabout, stalls displaying tuna, grouper and colourful reef fish. Rather than stopping there we stopped about 100m down the road at a smaller stand. The fish was fresher here, according to our taxi driver. I was warming to him.

Pronounciation of the Fijian language has fairly straightforward rules. A "g" is pronounced like there is a "n" in front of it - like in sing. Therefore ogo is pronouced ongo with a sort of soft "g". Fortunately Mela had written the ingredients with the actual and phonetic spellings.

The woman swatted away the flies from the fish (which was not on ice). I asked her for ogo. She held up a string of three long barracuda looking fish, probably enough to feed a dozen people. She insisted that I had to buy them all. Instead I bought a string of five smallish snapper, the taxi driver watching the exchange intently from the car. He asked me how much I'd paid when I got back into the taxi. When I told him he gave a positive shrug. I got the feeling that he'd have got out and argued with her if I'd been ripped off. I warmed to him even more.

At the vegetable stand I asked if they had any dalo. Well, that was a stupid question, as there were dozens of bunches of the stuff at my feet. It is sold everywhere in Fiji and I didn't know what it was. Dalo is taro, which I happen to love. It tastes like really starchy potato and is lovely slathered in hot sauce.

Dinner doubles as a doorstop.

Moce was another matter. It should pronounced "mothe" with an accented "e" at the end. No one at the vegetable markets knew what I was talking about even though I was certain that it was very popular. Anna and I went into the grocery story and looked at all of the signs associated with the various piles of greens. In the end, I asked an older Fijian gentleman, who pointed to bunches of very dark greens which he called something else. When we carried the bag of greens to the car, the taxi driver told me that if I'd used the proper word for it, we'd have got it at the first vegetable stall we'd stopped at. Mela slapped her forehead when I told her. She's from another part of Viti Levu and had given me their local name for it.

She boiled in the fish with tomatoes and onions and made lolo, which is like a runny salsa using coconut milk. She also boiled the dalo and the moce (the proper name for which I cannot remember). I'm rather squeamish when it comes to fish, so John manfully took the meat off of the bone and arranged little fillets on a platter, leaving behind the little fish heads with their little fish eyes and little fish jaws that I find so distracting on the dinner table. Mike and David came over and we enjoyed the fruits of Mela's labour, though I felt that I'd definitely contributed my fair share to the bounty.

When our taxi driver dropped us off with the groceries, I asked him to write his name and number in my little notepad. He wrote his name as Mohd. I asked him how to pronouce it. He looked at me like I was from Mars and said "Mohammed". Man, do I have a lot to learn.

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