FIJI IS many beautiful things. It is an electric, flamboyant flash of hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani that lights the islands by day, and it is millions of coconut palms too thin to be so tall, and much too delicate to lean as far into the wind as they do. Fiji is rolling Gauguin landscapes, jungle waterfalls, cool mountain streams and ocean sunsets that redefine the color spectrum. It is, with no exaggeration, the marrow from which the most romantic notions of the South Seas come.
Fiji is a group of 300 sub-equatorial islands slightly more than 3,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. Its capital, Suva, is located on Viti Levu, the largest and most physically diverse of all the islands. Viti Levu is ringed by a spectacular coral reef and the whitest beaches in the world.
In terms of food, Fiji is the Garden of Eden, and no islander ever concerned himself with the next meal; food is everywhere. A couple dozen varieties of fruit and vegetables thrive in the wild and are cultivated on farms. Seafood is plentiful and as easily harvested as people used to be.
East Indians, who began arriving as indentured laborers in the late 19th century, and who now comprise more than 50 percent of the Fijian populaton, introduced curry. Chinese seafarers brought strangely wonderful recipes that make the best use of pork. These events influenced native cuisine, which makes extensive use of the coconut, and especially of one of its derivations, lolo. What is most remarkable about Fijian cuisine, however, is that it is fresh in an hours-old sense that is nearly impossible for all but Fijians to comprehend.
A restaurant whose food embodies the Fijian ethic is Tiko's Lifeboat in Suva. It is on the second story of a rustic, blue and white wooden building at the foot of Thompson Street, and is impossible to miss; a large, gleaming white replica of a sea-going lifeboat hangs from the ceiling of the cantilevered, open-air dining balcony.
Tiko is a former soccer star who runs his restaurant with the same finesse that made him a national athletic standout.
Subhas Chandre is his chef. Chandre began his career as a "kitchen hen" when he was just a boy; he was responsible for all the messy jobs that even a dishwasher with fierce, upwardly mobile intentions would disdain. He worked his way up, through the years; and, two years ago, at age 34, he became the chef at Tiko's.
Chandre brought with him a a good deal of experience and a subtle touch: "Food should be as beautiful to look at as it is to eat," he says. "I do magic things with it that only Fijians know how to do." That is no idle boast.
The following recipe is Subhas Chandre's.
PAN FRIED FISH IN LOLO (4 servings) 1 coconut, or 1 1/2 cups milk and 1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut meat, grated 6 fillets of any white fish (grouper, mackerel, snapper, etc.) 2 tablespoons butter 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger 1 large clove garlic, finely minced 4 to 6 tablespoons finely diced tomato 1 small head lettuce, chopped 2 sweet potatoes, baked (optional)
Lolo results from pressing freshly grated coconut meat with water. It pervades Fijian cuisine and is made by hand, but I've streamlined the process.
Heat the coconut for 20 minutes at 325 degrees. Poke out (with a Phillips screwdriver) the three "eyes." Drain and reserve the liquid. Break the coconut in pieces and grate the meat (a food processor will do the job). Place the meat and a little boiling water in a food processor or blender and blend on high speed for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Strain and reserve the liquid, which is lolo.
For a less troublesome lolo, bring 1 1/2 cups of milk to a boil. Pour it into a blender and add 1 1/2 cups of grated, unsweetened coconut. Blend and reserve as above.
Saute' the ginger and garlic in butter. Add the fish and pan fry until the flesh is just cooked and the surface is golden. Add the lolo -- and bring to a boil for 2 minutes or so.
Serve the fish on a bed of fresh lettuce and diced tomato and, if you want to be really Fijian, place a few slices of baked sweet potato atop the fillets.