Fiji. Four simple letters that combine to immediately transport your mind to Paradise. Clear waters, warm beaches, epic sunsets.....Fiji. So you book your flight, enjoy your 11 hour nap, and arrive at Nadi International Airport. At this point, unless you stayed where we did (post to come) you will likely end up at Denarau Island. Either you will stay on Denarau Island for one of its eight large resorts or, if you are the more adventurous type, you will be boarding a boat for one of the many smaller island resorts. Either way you will quickly see that the Marina (and island at large) is one large tourist trap ready to separate you from your money as fast as possible. But if you walk quickly past the souvenir shops and Hard Rock Cafe to the back corner of the shopping center, you will find a warm and authentic welcome at Nadina Authentic Fijian Restaurant.
In our week on the Fijian main island of Veti Levu we dined at Nadina 3 times. This entailed a 45 minute drive each way through the rural expanse of the West coast, and was so worth it every time. Our first trip was to visit Denarau's shops, our second and third trips were in spite of them. Nadina's food, and people, kept calling us back.
Now before I dive into the food, I need to talk about the family at Nadina. I don't mean blood relations, I mean the amazingly warm and loving employees who immediately make you feel at home. While the entire staff was amazing, you will remember Aggie, in particular, for the rest of your life. A striking woman with a larger than life personality, who puts you at ease with her warm demeanor and makes you feel at home with her teasing manner. At our last meal before heading to the airport, we exchanged contact info, hugs, and tears with this woman who we thought was just here to feed our bellies, not our hearts.
Local rum, with more local rum, and a third local rum. And some juice.
Ok, on to the food! Nadina focuses on locally grown and foraged ingredients and techniques. The signature Kovu ($38-65 Fijian dollars) is probably the dish you think of when you think of South Pacific cooking. Fresh meat, seasoned with coconut and spices, wrapped in banana leaves....don't be put off by the 40 minute cooking time. It is worth it for these delicious packets of fresh and bright flavors. There are multiple proteins to choose from, but my favorite was the walu (fish). The slaw side dish was also incredible with cabbage, local pumpkin, other veg, and a squeeze of bush lemon juice. It was one of my favorite things I ate the entire trip.
The Fijian curries ($30-37 FJD) are also exemplary and a favorite of the Girl. The prawn and coconut curry in particular is a stand out, with its mild-in-heat but heavy-in-spicing flavor. Another standout on the menu is the Kokoda. Best understood as the Fijian equivalent of ceviche, and available in appetizer and entree sizes ($19-40 FJD), Kokoda is deep water walu fish cured in bush lemon juice and miti (Fiji's coconut based condiment that makes kokoda creamy as opposed to the vinegar bite of ceviche). The Kokoda at Nadina is so good that I stopped eating the version at the resort for fear of ruining the flavor for me.
The final dish I want to talk about are not only the single best tasting dish of the entire trip, but one of the top 10 best dishes of my entire life: RouRou Balls ($30 FJD). RouRou balls are actually a vegetarian dish that starts with taro leaves torn into small pieces and cooked down for more than an hour before being combined with onion and garlic. The balls are lightly breaded and shallow fried before then being simmered in coconut cream. Earthy, fragrant, garlicky, and sweet from the coconut, the rourou balls are almost a tropical play on a Swedish meatball and so singularly delicious.
Walking out of Nadina for the last time was far more difficult than leaving the lush resort. The incredible food and real comforting warmth of everyone made each visit uniquely special, and the memories of each meal will linger far longer than even the best Fijian sunset. I just hope one day soon I will hear Aggie say "Bula" before welcoming me home again.