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Meatless in Fiji

by on May 16, 2014

One of the more common questions from vegan and vegetarian friends in the States since moving to the South Pacific is “how difficult is it to be veg in Fiji?”

The short answer is “not that tough at all,” but an accurate answer is probably a bit more nuanced than that.

 

Eating in?

Part of the reason I first visited Fiji in 2009 was because of the assumed ready availability of veg options due to the country’s large Indo-Fijian population. I wasn’t too far off in that assessment, as Indian food options are in almost every commerce center (on Viti Levu at least), and often even the smallest curry shack I’ve found has at least a few veg items on the menu beyond the requisite veggie samosas.

For the indigenous portions of the Fijian population, it’s more of a mixed bag. While there are some dishes like palusami that can frequently be entirely vegan, it seems like seafood, pork, or chicken find their way into most Fijian foods that I’ve seen and it’s rarely a surprise to learn that “safe” options like palusami often have some meat snuck into them somehow. Even in villages where fresh meat or seafood may be less common, tins of corned beef and tuna are as readily consumed as microwaved meals are in the US. A personal note on the taste front, probably 80+% of indigenous Fijian food somehow involves cooking in coconut milk so if you have a problem with that flavor–veg or not–you’re gonna have a bad time.

Being from the Northwest, the whole notion of “eating local” has kind of been drilled into my head for years. As has been mentioned on this blog more than a few times, there are probably at least 25 or more common locally-grown produce items at most markets that are usually quite cheap. Naturally there are local fruits and veggies that are seasonal (duruka season just wound down for example), but Dalo (taro) and its leaves (rourou), kumala (sweet potatoes), and local greens are pretty much year-round staples, and a similarly the almost year-round abundance of fresh ginger, citrus (moli), and very delicious fiery habanero peppers known locally as “bongo chillis” (that’s $3FJD from the market’s worth below) all provide some great compliments to these.

Bongo Bongo Bongo

But as cool as that is, it’s also important to remember that Fiji is an island and if it isn’t grown or produced here, it needs to be imported at an added expense that’ll often punch you right in the wallet. While there are a few often non-locally produced staples like potatoes and onions that are price-controlled or nearly so, and some others that are consumed frequently enough to sometimes not be entirely unaffordable (often apples and oranges), capsicum, grapes,  and other produce that is usually shipped in for smaller markets will normally be pricey and not found everywhere.

That same logic applies to “western” veg alternative options that are far less commonly sought here and often priced like rare commodities as a result. You will be able to find shelf-stable soya milk on the shelves of many mid-sized and larger supermarkets at roughly 50% more than the price of UHT milk, and as in the States there will be a few coincidentally vegan margarines at reasonable prices too. Rice/almond/oat milk is typically found at the Cost-U-Less in Suva, which also sometimes stocks a soya cheese or two and even a way-expensive vegan sour cream occasionally. While Fiji seems to consume more ice cream bars per capita than anywhere I’ve ever been, I’ve  never spotted any sort of frozen soy, coconut milk, or similar non-dairy freezer item.

Cost-U-More is also the only source I’m aware of in Fiji for something approximating a “Boca”-style burger (which at four patties for  $11US is not cheap), veggie sausages (about $8US for six), and my personal favorite (honestly) Sanitarium Nut Meat. The later tastes far better than its name implies, and if you don’t have wheat or nut allergies and can get over the tinned dogfood appearance it works really well for burritos, shepherd’s pie, or other veggie “mince” items. You can also spot the occasional imported tetra-pack of tofu, most commonly at the handful of Chinese grocers around. For a while I was able to find vital wheat gluten and even nutritional yeast at a local Adventist shop, but I haven’t seen either around in more than six months and my days of making my own seitan in Fiji are long over as a result. I’d rather not talk about my attempt to make tempeh.

Thankfully for there are more than just the expensive options available when looking for meat alternatives locally. There’s a decent fresh firm tofu produced in the Samabula neighborhood sold commonly in sealed tubs at a number of Suva supermarkets. It’s delicious, but not without problems of its own. The thin plastic on top of the tubs is sometimes poorly sealed or suffers from a tiny puncture or two in transit, tainting the tofu inside. For that reason I usually pick up the package and shake it to look for drips before buying. It’s also a good idea to look at the sell-by dates whenever you pick it up, as the limited demand for it in many local supermarkets can make some reluctant to pitch past-due stock and from my experience the tubs bought closest to expiration are far less palatable (do NOT smell the water) than the freshest batches. You’ll find block tofu for sale from some of the Chinese stalls at the market too, but I can’t speak to the quality of that stuff personally.

The large Indian community also means that Nutrella–or soya chunks/TVP–is readily available at most mid-sized and up supermarkets, though I’ve yet to see it served in any restaurant I’ve been to. It’s usually very cheap (like $2.50FJD or so) and is a completely unflavored dry TVP. It does require a bit of doctoring to make it more palatable before being chopped up for use in tacos or a vegan bolognese, and I’m a fan of using Australian-produced Massel stocks (which often aren’t too hard to find and are all vegan) to help do so.

As to vegan baked goods, they’re extremely rare finds. Though many of the packaged cookies in all of the big stores are vegan, usually that’s something to make at home as well. Other than margarine and nutrella, I’ve spotted soya mayonnaise in stores other than Cost-U as well (though I’m not a fan of the one brand I’ve seen most often).

Dining out?

Resorts will usually be quite accommodating to vegetarian guests, and even vegan guests can often do OK at all but the backpacker places … though both can expect a lot of pasta primavera/pizza/salads/fries/etc. After a couple of years here I’ve yet to see any resort or hotel that had a decent veg menu much beyond an Indian dish or two or an often overcooked “vegan lasagne” (usually mushy layers of pumpkin and sweet potato in a too sweet red sauce), though the high-end resorts that we could never afford to go to may be better.

v4

In Suva, Nadi, and other towns you’ll probably spot a veg item or two on most menus at sit-down restaurants, but with the exception of Indian and Chinese places few will be vegan and even fewer still will probably be something you’ll want to eat again and again. You can expect your veg options to often be comparable to visiting a small town in the rural American midwest, so fries/salad/pasta will be staples along with the occasional Asian dish or the once-in-a-blue-moon “veggie burger” that is always not too much more than a pile of vegetables smashed together and fried.

Probably the go-to for most veg folks here is Indian. Of course for vegans, that doesn’t ensure that menu items won’t have yoghurt or ghee, the clarified butter that’s in a bunch of Indian food. Since both ghee and yoghurt are pricey though, they are not very common at all in smaller shops/food stalls and probably only in sweets or really rich non-veg foods most frequently from what I’ve seen.

Asking “does this have ghee” doesn’t always yield the best results, and the old vegan trick of “I’m allergic to…” very rarely works either. From my experience in asking these, staff may assume that either you want it to have yoghurt/ghee (to make it more decadent since you’re a picky ex-pat), so they’ll say it does to save face or simply tell you it does just to err on the side of caution and again save face. My workaround for this problem is usually to stick to Indian menu choices that pretty rarely have dairy–such as bhindi masala (okra) or a jackfruit curry–though sometimes even items that you’d expect to be dairy-free such as channa masala (chick peas) may have a splash of yoghurt hidden in there that your dairy-sensitive stomach may notice about a half-hour after eating. There is a Krishna run chain of Indian shops throughout Viti Levu that are largely vegan, but frankly I’m not much of a fan of their food beyond having a few kick-ass bread pakoras from them.

So is it difficult?

No, but if you’re for some reason expecting daily life to contain the wealth of vegan goods in a Whole Foods or something, you may want to stock up on supplies before you get over here as it’s just not going to happen.

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From → Fiji

8 Comments
  1. I’ve only been in Suva for a couple of months so far, but can attest that the tofu from the Chinese stalls at the market is quite good. They sell two different kinds – soft for 3 FJD and extra firm for 6 FJD. I’ve found the extra firm to have a somewhat strange texture so I’ve taken to buying a few containers of the soft and freezing it (full of water), then thawing and pressing myself before I use it. This also lets me keep a few in the house so I don’t have to think about buying it the day or two before I want it. Just make sure they drain all of the water out of the tub at the market before you take it home because the tubs definitely leak.

    Also, thanks for all of your tips in general. They were really useful as I was getting ready to move to Suva.

    • Hermes permalink

      Cool, I’ve been meaning to try it but often only get to the market during the Saturday rush and so end up buying the tubs at MH or someplace like that in a pinch. I definitely should take to freezing it again though, esp. since it’ll have a better texture than Nutrella probably ever will.

      Most all of the tips beyond those above are from Hypathia rather than I (this is just my third post!), but I know she appreciates hearing it!

  2. ivanarama permalink

    How about the cost/availability of nuts (apart from coconut, that is)? I recently made some great veg burger patties that had a lot of cashews.

    • Hermes permalink

      The pre-made veggie burgers at cost-u-more are only in stock about 50% of the time, and because of that I’ve tried at least a half dozen different home-made veggie burgers over the last year or two–including at least a couple with cashews (which aren’t too expensive since they’re often part of Indian cuisine). Unfortunately I haven’t really nailed a recipe yet with readily available ingredients. Peanuts and cashews aren’t normally beyond the pale on cost or availability, but most other nuts can be. I’ve even managed to find and use almond flour a couple of times.

      Cooking wise, improvising while here has pushed me into lot of good kitchen habits since I probably cook 80+% of our meals. I’ve become handy at rolling out my own roti and tortillas, pickling on occasion, making pizza from scratch, and–until the ingredients disappeared–making seitan that worked really well in almost everything (even as a pretty tasty “facon). Hyp’s also managed to create a terrific zucchini crab cake with just locally available stuff that will definitely be in our meal rotation after we’re back!

      • Ramikin11 permalink

        Where did you find almond flour? And did you find corn flour for the tortillas? I’m gluten-free and just moved to Suva! Thanks.

      • Hypatia permalink

        Hermes says : Lazy Chef, though I suspect corn flour would be easy to spot at Cost u Less or New World Damodar.

  3. Hi, thanks for a wonderful blog. I am addicted to garlic. Any hope of finding some there? I imagine there must be due to the Chinese restaurants. Thanks

  4. Hi – There is lots of Garlic in Fiji – upstairs at Suva fruit and veg market is the cheapest place in Suva I think – all imported from China I believe.

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