Recipe – Fijian Roro and corn balls with tamarind sauce

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Roro balls served with braised bele and cucumber, and fresh corn in our back yard

Fijian food is delicious!

If you come to Fiji, whether your hosts are iTaukei (indigenous) or Indo-Fijian, make sure that you ask them if it is ok if they serve you the normal food that they eat, as so many Fijians really do believe that you won’t like the food at all, and are really not sure what you will eat at all, as they believe that there is nothing in the cuisine that you will like.

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dinner at our place on a school night – mashed dalo, braised beans, and other goodies

Here is a little recipe which can be easily adapted if you want to try it.  These balls are really light and delicious and are the perfect quick fix if you are having friends over for drinks at the last minute, or have to take something to a party.  It is my husband’s only concession to Kava (yaqona – pronounce yangona) drinking and our mix of cultures.  Traditionally, food is not eaten at all until all of the Kava is finished and the guests are gone.  In fact, it is traditional that the male guests do not eat no matter what kind of feast is prepared, but you must pack a meal for them to take home.  It is a real panic if you have inadvertently run out of yoghurt containers for the purpose!  Anyway, I digress: if my husband invites people home, he asks if I can cook this quick snack, and serve it while the kava ceremony is in progress, which is normally several hours.

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Dom with his dinner

This snack is served at roadside food vendors all over Fiji (here, they are called Bean Carts).  Roro is actually the name for the green dalo leaf which looks like an elephant ear, but the balls are not made with roro.  If you do try and use roro, you will find that the balls make your throat itch, as roro needs to be cooked for a long time to take away that side effect.  Indo-Fijians use mothe which is kind of like English Spinach, but I use bele as a substitute.  Bele has a bigger leaf, and is related to the hibiscus plant, and for me at least is much easier to grow.

The only thing you have to do is make sure that you have some pea flour (besan flour), normal flour or plain flour, and oil in the cupboard just in case.  The rest you can wing it.

This recipe is courtesy of Mrs Kumar of Shane Cafe in Nausori, Fiji, but I have adapted it slightly as I like to use the coconut scrapes (or fresh grated coconut) as many families simply throw it out.

All of the fresh ingredients normally come from our garden, and you can use your common sense and substitute for other stuff you have lying around.

Ingredients

  • 1 cob fresh corn – cut kernels off the cob (or a small tin of corn)

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    Roni with some corn from our yard

  • 1 cup very finely chopped bele, mothe, or spinach/silverbeet (bele and mothe are soft leafy vegetables freely available in Fiji)
  • 1/2 cup pea or besan flour
  • 1 and 1/2 cups plain or normal flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • juice of one lime OR half a lemon, OR teaspoon of any type of vinegar just to get the baking powder going
  • 2 small hot chilies or to taste
  • 1 small onion, very finely diced (or chopped to within an inch of its life without blood loss if you are in a hurry)
  • a couple of cloves of garlic chopped as above
  • salt, pepper
  • a pinch of any type of curry or masala powder if you like
  • corriander (dhania/cilentro) if you like
  • cooking oil
  • newspaper or paper towel to drain
  • 1/2 cup fresh coconut scrapes, or 1/4 cup dessicated coconut
  • 2 cups water

How to do it: Don’t labour over it, as it is really very quick

  • take the skin of the onion and garlic, and chop roughly on a big board
  • chop the spinach, chili, mothe, or bele roughly (and corriander if you like)
  • then with them all on the same board, chop them up some more until they are a fine dice but not mushy
  • put into medium mixing bowl

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    Dom and Save Jnr as little chiefs at the Palm Sunday lunch, which included the roro balls

  • throw in the pea flour, normal flour, salt and pepper, and the baking powder, and curry powder if you like
  • throw in the coconut and corn
  • pour in the water
  • mix quickly and not too much
  • it should be a bit sloppy, so that you can pick some up with a spoon, and use another spoon to drop it into the oil.  If it is not sloppy enough, they won’t cook through
  • put enough oil in a saucepan to deep fry (but you don’t need a huge amount, as you can turn the balls over)
  • heat the oil on medium high heat until it is hot enough that when you drop in a tiny bit of the mix it starts to bubble, turn golden and float
  • then start spooning in about
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    mixture should be sloppy but not too sloppy – just so that you can put some on a spoon, and use another spoon to drop into the oil

    half a desert spoon of the mixture at a time into the hot oil

  • depending on the size of your pot, you can take up about half the surface area.  I normally put in about 6 at a time.
  • they cook quite quickly so make sure you are organised with a tray and some paper towel or newspaper to drain them
  • once they float and turn golden, you can turn them over a bit in the oil to make sure that they are cooked
  • test one to see if it is cooked inside.  If not quite, then add a tiny bit more water, and a bit more baking powder to the mix
  • cook all and drain on the newspaper, paper towel
  • serve hot or cold and they last even outside the fridge for a good day or two, however, they are so yummy that it is hard toIMGP1689
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    the oil will bubble briskly and they cook in about 30 seconds each side

    test that theory as they normally disappear by the handful!!!!

  • serve with tamarind sauce (recipe next time), or tomato sauce, or barbeque sauce.  You can add some chopped chili to the tomato or barbeque sauce if it is for lovers of hot food young or old
  • here, we serve on a banana leaf, and it looks and tastes great

Weaving Fijian Mats and Baskets

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Coconut frond basket which I made for our house

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My first voivoi mat with a shell Dominic collected at Levuka sea wall

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My friend Vuli weaving

Learn how to make a Fijian Mat – classes

 

 

One way to keep yourself amused in Fiji is to learn how to make mats and baskets.  First, you need to find yourself a friend!  I found Vuli – a wonderful woman from Lau who was my neighbour at Koronivia.  The Lauans are very clever at mat weaving.

If you want to ask someone to teach you to weave a mat, you can ask around the neighbourhood where you stay, and find out which ladies know how to weave.  Offer to teach them something in return, like how to cook something, or if you are a gardener, you can offer to do some weeding in return.  You should also buy all the materials (the voivoi, which is the dried leaves of a relative of the pandanus plant), plus some extra for them as a gift.

You should also know that it will take many sessions of several hours each to learn, and that you should bring food for morning or afternoon tea (crackers, bread and butter is always a good choice).  You should also make sure that it fits in with their schedule.  For example, many Fijians (including us) do not have hot water or a washing machine, so washing needs to be done by hand every morning for the family.  This is  big job, and normally not finished until about 9.45 am after the kids and husband have gone to work, or if the man is retired, after he has done his “farming” which is what they call planting and weeding in the yard or “compound”.

Also, it is very important to realise that most iTaukei (indigenous Fijians) people are Christian, and there is strictly no “work” at all on Sunday – this means no playing in the yard, no gardening, no cleaning, and definitely NO WEAVING, even though it may suit you, as to Westerners, no work on Sunday means simply that you do not go to your normal workplace, but pottering about at home is fine.  Here, Sunday takes on a whole different meaning.

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Rolls of voivoi ready for weaving, sitting on a completed mat

You can buy voivoi from any market – Suva, Nausori, or the smaller towns.  It is usually $20 to $25 Fijian dollars per roll.  Each roll has between 80 to 120 pieces.  If you happen to travel to a smaller town like Rakiraki, you can buy a roll for about $15. Make sure you ask them for a roll which has all long pieces, or take your mat weaving friend with you (make sure you also pay their bus fare).  There are also smaller rolls of the black voivoi which you need for the accent stripes, and they cost around $6 Fijian dollars.  The black colour is made by boiling the voivoi in a special leaf (which to me looks like a mid sized shrub with little yellow flowers and very small leaves, but we think it is a weed and would normally pull it out), or failing the availability of the leaf, chucking in a pot with  couple of batteries and water and boiling for a few hours.

It is a big time commitment, so be prepared to go on the first day thinking you are going to make a mat, but realising about two weeks later when you finally finish, that you have made a life long friend.

Weaving is done in rows (or roads as Vuli calls them).  Voivoi is made by cutting the leaves off the voivoi plant, stripping off the thorns, then hanging in the sun to dry.  Once dried, a mussel shell is used to scrape over and over and make each leaf smooth.  Then they are rolled and boiled, and dried again.  A very long process takes place before you buy it at the market.  Once you get it home, it has to be unrolled, and sorted by size.  You want to start the mat using the long pieces first.  Then the spine in the centre of each leaf is cut out carefully using a small kitchen knife, and each half is cut into either two, three or four long strips, still joined at one end, depending on the fineness of your mat.  The left side pieces are separated from the ride side.

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Vuli and Metui (grandfather) relaxing at the beginning of the second row

Weaving is always done sitting down, so make sure that you are wearing something comfortable (and that will cover up your privates while you sit for hours with your legs spread eagled!) and be prepared for an almighty backache.  Take a sulu (sarong) and wrap it around your lower half, and it works quite well.

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The black accent is woven in as you go

Also be prepared that the ladies will be very surprised that you want to learn, and will want to do most of it for you, as at first they think that you just want a free mat, and don’t really want to learn.  You have to persist in your own way and be really willing.  It is not as easy as it looks!

The mat is started by placing two cut pieces crossed over, and starting to weave the cut strips, then another is added and so on until you have the length of your intended mat.  At the beginning, for the first 10 weaves you also weave a piece back on itself to lock it in place.  Once you get to the end of each row, you fold the second last piece over itself, and that makes the edge, and you weave backwards to start the new row.

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Making the edge of the mat (which is at the width ends)

As each piece is running short, you splice a new piece into the weave.  Each piece of voivoi has a back and front with one side being smoother with less imperfections, but it is very difficult to tell, but you must learn as a few times during the weaving the mat has to be turned over and woven upside down.  If you don’t do this, your mat will be crooked.

When you finally, finally get to the last row (the intended width of the mat), then you have to cut each small piece into half and weave it backwards on itself to create the side edge.  This is very complicated, but my favourite part.  The black accents are put in as you go, and only appear on one side of the mat.  The process of weaving them through is something I tried but did not fully master, so Vuli did most of that for me.  At the very end of all that a very fine plait is done to finish it all off.

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Left to right: Save Jnr, Dominic and Kutu – firm friends at the end of the mat!

After that, you have tea and crackers to celebrate, and you get to fold up your mat and take it home.  Mats are the traditional floor covering here, and are used every day.  It is a very poor home that does not have any mats, and a home of pity.  Many iTaukei women do not know how to weave mats, so they buy them in the market for around $80 FJD.  Considering a large mat uses about $75 FJD of voivoi, the ladies making them are really doing it for almost nothing.  Mats are folded up and taken everywhere, picnics, church, family gatherings etc.  They are also a traditional gift for weddings, funerals and important family occasions.  Chiefly and important families have many many mats.

But for me, it started as a way to make our house a home, and learn something new.  It ended after several weeks of spending hours a day with Vuli and her loving family (Metui, Koto, Vulisere and Tadu, Sukulu and Iliesa, Bula, Tua, Little Metui and Vili) as a loving friendship and being truly part of the family.  Guests to our home are very surprised that I know how to weave, and I feel immense pride.

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Sitting on my first small mat at home

Here I am sitting on my first mat.  I have since made a much larger one which covers the whole room, and we have been gifted many mats by friends.  Now we have mats in every room, and we use them for sleeping, sitting and relaxing with each other and our friends and family.  The smell of the mat when you sleep is very comforting.  If you keep the mats nicely and take good care of them, they can last for generations, hopefully as long as the friendship formed between our two families – Vuli and me!