It was a bone cruncher, a teeth chatterer, a real kidney shaker. It was the kind of road that reminded me that I wasn’t twenty anymore. But there was a reason to endure this relentless physical abuse. I was in search of the wild chile peppers in the highlands of Fiji.
I am used to traveling the lesser known trails. I have survived the rock-strewn Badia of Jordan, the endless red sand roads of the Australian Outback, and the leech-infested jungle paths of Guatemala. But the no-name route I now took to the highland village of Yalavou had its own unexpected challenges.
Early morning fog rises out
of the Sigatoka River Valley,
Fiji's "salad bowl".
Rising out of the Sigatoka River Valley known as Fiji’s fertile "Salad Bowl", I immediately met several oncoming pick-up trucks traveling at warp speed. I had not seen a vehicle for over a half hour and was reminded very quickly to bear left. Fiji is a former British colony and thus adopted the nasty habit of driving on the wrong side of the road. This means you shift with your left hand, not your right. The windshield wiper control is where your directional signal is supposed to be. And judging where the left edge of your car is on a one lane path that drops off 600 feet can be extremely unnerving. But I pressed on, eager to find these elusive chiles.
Then came the free-ranging animals. Horses, usually in groups of two or three, jumped from out of nowhere and into the middle of the road. They galloped in front of my Toyota like they were running the Belmont. Suddenly, the horses just stopped. I did too–just in time.
The horse herds were lightweights compared to the bulls. These were large, mean-looking animals. Very mean with huge horns, angry stares, and snorting noses. I was expecting to get rammed by the monsters as I rounded the numerous, hair-pin turns on this route of ruts. These bulls were candidates for Pamplona. They had a look that said "Gore this tourist badly."
Oh, sure, I could have just stayed along the gorgeous southern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island in a tropical archipelago of 300. There are several towns along this stretch that have great outdoor markets. Travel to Suva’s daily municipal market and you can find chile peppers that are common throughout the Pacific. There are Hot Rods, bright red chiles about two inches long. Bongos can also be found, a delicious cherry-shaped pepper.
The 'Hot Rod' above and the 'Bongo'
are two commercially grown peppers
easily found in Fiji.
Suva is Fiji’s capital. In 2000, it was the scene of a nasty coup that pitted native Fijians against the quickly-growing East Indian population. All is quiet these days, and while the two groups still have problems to work out, they do have common ground. Curry, brought to Fiji by 19th century Indian immigrants, has become a national favorite for all. The British encouraged the migration for they needed cheap labor to work the lucrative sugar cane fields. Today, curry powders of all sorts grace Suva’s food market, and the aromas are wonderful.
But I was in search of wild peppers, those uniquely Fijian. I traveled west along the Coral Coast to the town of Sigatoka. At the market there, I saw small chiles that lacked that commercially-grown look. I asked an Indian vendor where I could find these chiles. She smiled, flashing a gold tooth which matched her nose ring, and pointed upwards to the mountains.
That is how I came to this god-forsaken road leading to Yalavou. It is only twelve miles but it takes about an hour and a half to make the journey. Actually, the trip was getting a bit more pleasant. The road runs along a precarious mountain ridge. While treacherous, it offers stunning vistas of rain forest and farmland.
I now encountered other animals. A mongoose, another Indian import, raced across the road and disappeared into the bush. I rounded a blind curve only to find a Pacific Harrier Hawk in the middle of the road. He sprung into the air and gracefully glided over the edge. A bit further, a Golden Whistler flew off in a flash of brilliant yellow. This rather large flycatcher lives in the jagged peaks of Viti Levu. I was approaching my destination.
Soon I saw Yalavou, a small village of perhaps 200 people. It was here I had the good fortune to meet Tevita Nebura. While Tevita’s expertise is cattle (yes, there were more of those mean looking bulls), he also has great local knowledge of the bush.
Tevita at the pigeon pepper bush.
"Tevita, do you know if any wild peppers grow around here?"
"Bula!" I responded enthusiastically. This is the only Fijian word I know as it is the common greeting in these islands.
"No, boro. That is our name for pepper. Sure, just follow me."
Lucky for me most Fijians know English. It is the official language of the country. Kids learn it when they go to school where instruction is in both English and Fijian. We were off to the bush.
I dreaded getting back into my Toyota 4-wheel drive. My kidneys were just settling down to where they belong. Fortunately, we drove only for two minutes.
"Stop here." said Tevita. We got out and immediately walked to a small-leafed bush about waist high. "This is boro ni ruve or Pigeon Pepper. For some reason, the wild pigeons like to eat these peppers so that is what we call them."
The fiery 'Boro ni Ruve' or pigeon pepper.
The tiny peppers were green, slender and no more than an inch long. Little rockets.
"Is it OK to taste one?" I asked.
Tevita grinned widely. "Sure. Go ahead."
I bit off half. Fire spread immediately into my mouth and upper throat. Suddenly, I no longer felt my jarred bones from the road from hell. The pigeon pepper had my attention now. Endorphins were killing the pain even though my mouth was flaming. Tevita howled, clapping his hands. Two children watching nearby began to giggle as I waved at my open mouth in a symbolic attempt to cool the fire. Tevita was still laughing.
"Come. I show you a different bush pepper," he said.
We drove back to a house and approached another wild bush about the same size. "This is boro valuvalu or White Pepper. This is even hotter than the pigeon pepper. You want to try?" Tevita asked, laughing.
This wooden mortar and pestle were
used to mash up the fresh red chile
peppers for the goat curry.
I declined. My mouth was still burning from ten minutes before. This ‘white’ pepper was actually a very light green and a bit smaller than the Pigeon Pepper. Tevita explained that both these peppers are eaten in a variety of ways. Fresh peppers are finely chopped and you use a small amount to spice up each bite of food. Other times, the peppers are sun dried, crushed into a powder, and used to flavor curries. The villagers also boil the chiles, pour off the water and pickle them in vinegar for later use.
The masala yellow curry is added to the goat.
Just as the heat from the Pigeon Pepper was fading, Tevita invited me for a curry dinner. The villagers had killed a goat that day. It was now cooking in a pot above an outside fire in a mixture of red chile peppers, yellow curry powder, orange Masala powder, and onions. It was delicious.
I had found the Fiji Fire. Fortified, I began my trek down the back-breaking mountain road to Sigatoka. The bulls and horses were waiting ahead. So were the ruts, rivers and precarious ridges. With a chile burn still glowing in my belly, it seemed all worthwhile. The drive home would be a breeze.
Here is the classic chutney that is served with Fiji’s curries. It can also be a side dish for various rice recipes. It will last in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
2 cups freshly grated coconut
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
3 tablespoons. lemon juice1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 green chile, such as serrano or jalapeño, seeds and stem removed, minced
salt to taste
In a bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Allow to sit, covered, in the refrigerator for at least one hour to blend the flavors.Yield: About 2 ½ cups
Heat Scale: Medium
This dish was originally designed to cool down very hot curries, but then adventurous cooks had the idea to spice it up! Go figure. Serve this as a condiment.
2 cups light sour cream or yogurt
1 cucumber, grated1 carrot, grated
1 clove garlic, minced
1 green chile such as serrano or jalapeño, seeds and stem removed, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt to taste
In a bowl, combine all ingredients and mix well. Allow to sit for an hour to blend the flavors.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Goat Curry--Fiji Style
Don’t worry, I don’t require you to slaughter a goat for this dish. Substitute lamb for the best results, or you can use beef, chicken, or pork. This dish makes a lot of curry, but it freezes well. All of the spices can be found in Asian or Indian markets. Serve over rice with the chutney and the raita on the side.
8 cloves of garlic crushed with 1 teaspoon salt (use a mortar and pestle or mini-chopper)
1 teaspoons each ground fenugreek, coriander, and black mustard seed
2 teaspoons each cumin and turmeric powder
5 small, red, hot dried chiles, such as piquins, crushed, or substitute
1 tablespoon cayenne powder
2 tablespoons imported Indian curry powder
½ cup cilantro, chopped
2 pounds goat or lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large onion, chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 carrots, diced (or substitute a small, peeled eggplant)
1/3 cup yogurt
Mash the garlic and salt together in a mortar. Add just a bit of water to make a paste. Add the ground fenugreek, coriander, black mustard seed, cumin, turmeric powder, red chile, and curry powder and pound to a smooth paste, adding water as necessary. Transfer to a large pan and add half the cilantro. Add two cups or water and cook over medium heat until thick.
Add the meat to the sauce. Stir to coat the meat and partially cover, stirring occasionally. Cook over medium heat for 30 minutes.
Add ½ of the chopped onion, the potatoes, and carrots, partially cover and cook for 45 minutes or until everything is tender. The sauce should be very thick. At the end, add the rest of the chopped onion, stir in the yogurt, and sprinkle the rest of the cilantro over the top.
Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Medium
Kokoda (Fijian Spicy Fish)
This fish dish is a Fijian favorite and utilizes common ingredients of the islands. It is the Fiji version of ceviche. Serve it with a fresh fruit salad.
4 large fillets of white fish such as mahi-mahi
Juice of 3 large limes
½ teaspoon salt
1cup fresh coconut cream
1 large onion, minced
1 small green chile, such as serrano, seeds and stem removed, minced.
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 bell pepper, seeds and stem removed, diced
Cut the fish into bite-size pieces. In a non-reactive bowl, combine the fish, lime juice, and salt. Marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Remove from the refrigerator, add the coconut cream, chopped onion, and chile just before serving. Sprinkle the tomatoes and bell pepper over the top. Serve on a bed of lettuce in coconut bilos (half coconut shells).
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
Squash and Chana Dhal
In Fiji, this vegetarian side dish is made with lauki, a type of gourd. Use yellow squash or zucchini. Channa dhal is available in Asian or Indian markets.
1 cup channa dhal (yellow split peas)
1 small yellow squash, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons vegetable oil or clarified butter
2 medium onions, chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1½ teaspoons red chile powder
1 teaspoon mustard seed
½ teaspoon crushed garlic
½ teaspoon minced ginger
½ teaspoon salt
1/4 cup lemon or lime juice
Wash the split peas throughly and place in a pan with four cups of lightly salted water. Boil, uncovered, until the peas are soft, about 20 minutes. Add the squash and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the squash is soft.
While the squash is simmering, heat the oil in a saucepan and saute the onions for three minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, except the lime juice, and stir well. Continue to saute for 5 minutes.
Drain any excess liquid off the peas and squash, add the onion mixture and stir well. Sprinkle the lime juice over the dish and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium