Embrace Your Inner Bula: You’re On Fiji Time This Week!

For all the travelers out there who are feeling a little bit housebound these days and are missing your exotic ports of call, this post is for you. For anyone who finds themselves in a food rut, tired and bored by all the usual dinnertime choices, this post is for you too. And for anyone feeling especially grumpy, frustrated or lackluster when it comes to navigating this strange roller coaster of a turbulent world, this post is also for you.

That may sound like a lot of importance to place upon on the shoulders of one food related blog post but the salve for all these wayward troubles can pretty much be soothed in one word thanks to our featured destination of the week.

Tonight’s post takes us to the beautiful islands of Fiji, via the kitchen, to make a very quick, very easy  fish dish that tastes of coconuts and day dreams and relaxed coastal living. Welcome to Week 16 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour. Welcome to Fiji, dear kitcheners!

There is no doubt that Fiji is one of the most picturesque places in the world. But there is more to it than just sand and sun and beautiful beaches. Beyond all of the stunning panoromas, swaying palms and exotic flowers, there lives something even more beautiful. So beautiful in fact it can’t be translated via photograph.

It’s not a tangible item that you can hold in your hand or buy with your credit card or gift to a friend. It’s not a specific place you can visit, or a hotel you can check into, or a body of water you can bob around on. It’s not a rainbow, or a waterfall, or a sunset, or a mountaintop view or a brightly colored flower. It’s not a hike, nor a sunbathe, nor a visit to the spa.

Fiji’s exotic flowers.

It’s a feeling.

An inward attitude. A manifesto. An intrinsic, deeply rooted way of being. Something completely unique to the 22 islands that make up the country of Fiji.  It’s called bula.

Technically referred to as a greeting similar to saying hello, bula carries much more significance than a simple salutation. It resonates as a way of life for anyone lucky enough to visit or live on one of the islands. It also happens to be one of the most commonly talked about things that people miss most about Fiji once they leave the country.

First bula starts out as a pleasantry. A sincere wish for happiness, good health and a zesty energy for life. Then it subtly transforms from a word you are saying into a feeling you are emoting. It becomes an infectious enthusiasm of spirit. A radiation of joy. An exuberance of attitude. Regardless of current circumstances or situations, in spite of challenges and setbacks, embracing the bula spirit means expressing happiness, appreciation and friendliness. In other words… smiles and good nature for all. Whether they are strangers or loved ones, coworkers or customers, kids or adults, neighbors or newcomers, this extension of outward positivity has labeled Fijians the friendliest people in the world.

Practically a national language in and of itself, bula is a trademark of the island’s hospitality. It encourages warmth and welcome. Good cheer. Grateful attitudes. And a delight in the moment right in front of you. Besides their unique heritage and their idyllic landscape, it is the characteristic that Fijians are most proud of and what sets them apart as a community from everyone else in the world.

This type of jubilant reminder couldn’t have come at a better time. Especially for this week in regards to the Recipe Tour. As I’ve mentioned in a few posts over the last couple of months,  it’s been a bit of a challenge to keep the Tour on track since the tornado in March and then the pandemic right after. As you all know, it’s easy to get caught up in the global events unfolding each day and then to let that news cloud your mind, dampen your spirit, and affect your disposition. Sometimes writing about food while all this chaos is going on in the world seems trivial and I struggle with the desire and importance of wanting to share a good recipe while so much catastrophic stuff is going on.  But learning about Fiji’s bula spirit this week and then making one of their traditional island recipes really let in a breath of much-needed fresh air and perspective, both literally and figuratively.

If you saw the sneak peek video for this week’s recipe on Instagram, you may have noticed that it looked a little bit different than all the other videos from all the other weeks. That was due to a rainstorm that thundered its way through the preparation parts of this  week’s film shoot.

It was one of those storms that comes on quickly, toting dark grey clouds the size of whales and sucks up so much natural light, you have to turn on every single lamp in the room just so you can see what you are doing right in front of you. Rolling in just a few minutes into the cooking process, right as I began sauteing onions in a pan for the cream sauce, this storm turned the kitchen so dark and moody, the photo/video shoot had to immediately go on location (aka the balcony) so that I could grab as much natural light as possible. Otherwise the whole cooking process would have resulted in murky colors and grainy details. Fortunately for this purpose, there’s a small nook on the balcony between two potted herbs and some blooming flowers that is impervious to damp weather. It’s the one little dry spot that can accommodate an impromptu photoshoot without ruin to camera or food subjects.

In the video, you may have noticed what sounded like crashing waves roaring above the Fijian music playing in the background. That was actually the sound of the wind and the rain from the storm.   The heavy rain and the 60 mile an hour winds that eventually would come later that evening, kindly held off long enough so that the entire series of food photos were done from start to finish before I had to scurry around the balcony and bring everything inside.

It can be a little bit stressful cooking under the pressure of weather and good light, especially when preparing a dish that doesn’t offer any leeway for prolonged preparations. Generally, it takes anywhere from 3-6 hours to prep, photograph and video each week’s recipe for the Tour, depending on the level of difficulty and the cooking steps involved. Over the course of the last sixteen weeks, I’ve developed a nice little routine when it comes to making and photographing the recipes. But this week, the storm threw a wrench in the rhythm. This dish couldn’t sit around waiting on the weather to pass nor could it be made halfway and finished up the next day.

Instead of getting all flustered with the change in routine and getting caught up in some silly forced notion of perfectionism when it came to the photos, I thought about Fiji and how they might have handled this situation. I bet the first thing they would have done would be to smile and then say bula. Which is exactly what I did. Instead of fighting the weather, I appreciated the new way of thinking that the storm presented.  I didn’t fret over the lack of light and the frenzied pace of cooking. Even though there were mad dashes outside to photo and then mad dashes back inside to cook some more. I went with the flow  and managed a new rhythm. I poured sauce over fish while clouds poured rain over me. And I smiled about it. I embraced the bula spirit.

And you know what happened, dear kitcheners? Everything turned out just fine. Delicious in fact. Do you know what else happened? This was the first time in 16 weeks that a Tour recipe was prepped, prepared, photoed, cooked and on the table for presentation in under an hour. That’s a new first in the Kitchen! All because the rain storm scurried me along. Funny enough, this is the way of typical rain storms in Fiji as well – quick to arise, heavy in outpour, brief in stay. I love that Lady Nature decided to add her own little bit of Fijian authenticity to the cooking day.

Storm clouds over Pacific Harbour, Fiji

Like the islands themselves, this Baked Cod recipe is colorful, comforting and a breeze to make (rain or shine!). It’s really three recipes in one, each broken down into segments  – cream sauce, coconut milk, and cod, but since we’ve already made fresh coconut milk in Week 8’s trip to Ceylon, I substituted canned coconut milk for fresh, which shaves 45 minutes off the prep time. The cheddar cheese in the cream sauce can be yellow or white, depending on your own preference as it doesn’t affect the pearly color of the sauce either way. I also chopped up an extra  1/4 cup of the onions and green pepper for garnish at the end. That step added a nice fresh crunch to the finished dish. Had we not had the rain storm to contend with, this dish would have taken about 20 minutes to prepare. True to its island culture and the bula spirit,  it’s a joy to make.

We’ll start with the cream sauce, since you’ll want to make that first and just keep it warm on the stove while you assemble the cod in the baking dish. Again, please excuse the photos in this post, they don’t really capture beauty of the dish nor the process as I would have liked but you’ll get the idea. I loved this recipe so much I’ll happily make it again (on a sunny day!) so that I can take some new photos and enjoy a taste of the islands once again.

Fiji Cream Cream Sauce

1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion (plus 2 more tablespoons more for garnish)

3 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper (plus two more tablespoons for garnish)

1 1/2 cups coconut milk

salt to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Cook the onion and green pepper, stirring, until the onion is wilted (about 4-5 minutes). Add 1 1/4 cups of the coconut milk and bring to a boil.

Blend the remaining 1/4 cup coconut milk with the cornstarch  and stir it into the simmering sauce . Simmer for three minutes, stirring constantly.

Baked Cod in Cream Sauce

Serves 4

2 cups boneless cod filet, cut into 1″ inch cubes

1 1/2 cups Fiji Cream Sauce

1/2 cup freshly grated cheddar cheese

Arrange the cod pieces in one layer in a baking dish and pour the sauce overall.

Sprinkle the cheddar cheese over the top…

and bake 30-40 minutes or until the cheese is melted and lightly browned. Once ready, remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Because of Fiji’s geographic location, its local cuisine has been influenced by India, the Polynesian Islands, Asia and most importantly by what grows naturally well on the islands. Coconut, sweet potatoes, root vegetables and seafood are common staples. Since there were no serving suggestions when it came to this recipe, I paired this creamy fish  with black rice for both its dynamic color and its fragrant, slightly nutty taste. This turned out to be an ideal companion as the flavors blended together really well and the rice soaked up some of the sauce. A little sprinkle of freshly chopped purple onion and green pepper on top of the fish added a splash of color for garnish.

Even though the preparation for this dish was a little haphazard, by the time we were ready to try it, the bula spirit had fully presented itself.  Once the first bite was taken, it really did feel and taste like a rejuvenating dinner that had the power to soothe a number of situations. Placing a colorful flower on the plate lent an exotic island aesthetic, ideal for the wanderlust travelers feeling stuck at home. The creamy coconut milk, an alternative to a more common, basic white sauce or cheese sauce, added an out of the ordinary flavor component, offering fun inspiration for all the bored cooks out there.  And the green, purple and black hues of this dish added a delightful dose of color therapy (read more about the power of this in Week 10: Columbia) which couldn’t help but brighten up even the most lackluster soul. I found the comfort level of this meal to be a 10 (out of 10!) so for all you eaters feeling grumpy or out of sorts, this dish will hopefully raise your spirits in an equally comforting way as well. That’s the magic of food in Fiji for you! That’s the magic of the bula spirit inside you!

Cheers to Fiji for showing us how to embrace our inner bula by embracing and radiating warm affection and positivity, despite the challenges that face us. Next week, we’ll be heading off to the gourmand capital of the world, via the kitchen, as we celebrate Week 17 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour in France. See you soon!

Fiji Photo Credits: Timothy Ah Koy, Vijeshwar Datt, Ishan, Roberto Nickson, Prem Kurumpanai