Farm to table – the Tao of Kai

Having raised the profile of Samoan cuisine to dizzying heights, chef Robert Oliver is transforming traditional foods at the grassroots.

Dev Nadkarni

Award winning chef and author Robert Oliver is not one to rest on his laurels. The two-time winner of the world’s most prestigious cookbook awards for his Pacific-themed cookbooks (see box), the celebrity chef who grew up in Samoa and Fiji is passionate about leveraging this success for Samoa and other islands of the Pacific.

Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to
Robert Oliver with volunteers sorting organically grown veggies to be delivered to participating hotels of the farm to table programme in Samoa. Pic: Dev Nadkarni

“The awards have sparked a genuine global interest in Pacific cuisines,” says Mr Oliver, who will be showcasing some of these at a major event on the margins of the SIDS conference. “Cultures around the world take pride in their cuisines. Take French cuisine, for instance. People travel all the way there to try it out. That’s what we need to do in the Pacific – make cuisine a sought after part of our tourist offering.”

Oliver is not just a chef and author. He is also a thinker and philosopher. While talking of the importance of packaging Pacific cuisines as a part of the general allure of Pacific destinations, he also values the role of local produce, smallholding growers and their traditional methods of farming, which are inherently natural and organic. He is also deeply concerned with the alarming incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Samoa and the Pacific.

“Cuisine is about people, identity, health, nutrition, livelihoods, the economy and of course the well being of the community,” he says passionately. “Many foods have deep traditional significance, which is also related to specific stages in the life of men and women. There is a whole of list of foods that facilitate lactation, rejuvenation and so on. We are in danger of losing that knowledge.”

The chef is working intensely on a project that touches all these aspects of food and cuisine. Along with the well-known Samoan NGO Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), he is working with a range of organic farmers to grow and supply produce to popular hotels and restaurants around Samoa. He is also working with chefs of five of these establishments to develop unique recipes inspired by traditional Pacific cuisines. “The idea is to get tourists to taste local, organic produce prepared traditionally with a twist that appeals to international palates,” he says.

The ‘Farm to Table’ project is gathering steam. More establishments are joining in the run up to the SIDS events. “It’s about building enduring relationships through the value chain,” he says. “From communities, to farmers, to chefs, right through to the consumer. Ultimately it is the whole country that benefits – not just in terms of realising tourism potential but also healthy eating and cultural pride.”

‘Samoa arrives on world cuisine stage’

“I didn’t win the award. Samoa won the award,” Oliver said when his second book based on the cuisines of the Pacific islands, ‘Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes from the Heart of Polynesia’, won one of the world’s most prestigious awards earlier this year.

The book, along with its associated television cooking show, Real Pasifik won the Gourmand Award for Best TV Chef Cookbook In The World 2013 at an award ceremony in Beijing. The globally sought after accolade is considered the Oscars of cookbooks, coming from the well-regarded house of Cointreau, the family that brought to the world the famous Cointreau liqueur, as well us the Cognacs Frapin and Rémy Martin. “It signals Samoa’s arrival on the world cuisine stage,” he says.

For Oliver and the Pacific, winning this award was a bit of de ja vu. For in 2010 his earlier tome titled Me’a Kai, the Pacific Island Cookbook was named the Best Cookbook of the Year at the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris. The European media called it the gastronomic upset of the year. “We’d won the big one before so this year’s award was wholly unexpected,” says the passionate chef.

The book beat 187 participating countries. Of a shortlist of 94, 61 made it to the top three. Finalists were from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Winning the award a second time in such a short period of time only means there is something special about Pacific Island cuisine.

Natural ingredients, simplicity of preparation and cooking processes and a range of clean, subtle flavours directly reminiscent of the origins of the ingredients – the ocean and the pristine land – have proved a winning combination for the chef and Pacific cuisine.

– DN

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014

Spare a Tala for grassroots wisdom

Apia Diary

Dev Nadkarni

The longish drive from Faleolo Airport to downtown Apia is always a great opportunity for a grassroots view of the goings on in Samoa – especially when your driver, even if loquacious, is eloquently so. Views from the street are more often than not strongly biased toward the hoi polloi but they’re straight from the heart and valid opinions nonetheless. The cabbie barometer is one of the best tipping tools a scribe can ever have anywhere in the world. It’s always perceptive, even philosophical.

“From New Zealand?” asks chatty cabbie. Before I even utter ‘yes’, he continues: “Lived there a few years ago. Very nice place, nice people, nice roads, nice houses, but I came back in a year.” “Too cold?” I ask. “No. Cold is okay. Too expensive – you pay for everything, for eating, drinking, you need money for everything. Not like here. In New Zealand, no money, no life, no good.”

No need for money in Samoa? Not so much, he says. He lives in a nice ancestral home. There’s plenty of family, extended family and friends for support. There’s a patch to cultivate vegetables and fruit. There’s lots of fish. And it’s free. No money needed for day-to-day living. “Then how do you pay your bills?” I persist. “Sell the extra veggies and fruit by the side of the road, work a few hours, don’t work when you don’t need to, no pressure. See? Not like New Zealand.”

Come to think of it, all island societies – just like indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world – have not just survived but thrived without a monetary economy for millennia. And they’ve done so sustainably, without polluting, without taking more than what they need. They’ve grown food naturally and organically, without making a fuss of it or clamouring for some sort of expensive certification. They’ve treated ailments with traditional remedies and dealt with day-to-day problems with collective wisdom.

We first world slickers call that ‘subsistence living’ as though it were some lower form of existence. We desperately want to bring ‘up’ those living standards with ‘development’. Paid for by aid and cheap loans so that they may better participate in the modern global economy. So that they can pay for cheap, unhealthy high fat-salt-sugar-laden processed food and drink, which their digestive systems are scarcely attuned to. All of it produced in factories that belch carbon into the air, pollute the water and use questionable chemicals to prolong shelf life.

So, maybe the measurement and yardsticks of development ought to account for the harm it does to the traditional, natural lives that indigenous people have lived so well for a thousand years and more. Maybe Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, whom I meet and chat with later, is right about development yardsticks being seriously flawed, though his reasons might be somewhat different.

The worryingly high incidence of non-communicable diseases like type-II diabetes, a range of coronary ailments and runaway obesity rates are all consequences of development and of aligning with a modern, globalised economy. And then you find fault with ill equipped countries like Samoa, which also have inadequate human capacities to deal with these problems, of not achieving goals according to a one-size-fits-all standard that’s set by some ‘expert’ in some faraway ivory tower.

As we trundle along newly resurfaced roads to welcome some 3000 visitors from every corner of the world for the region’s biggest jamboree, I ask what he thinks of the event. “Very good for Samoa. Everyone will know Samoa. We learn from them and they learn from us.” What does he think ‘they can learn from us’? With a reflective glance over the endless ocean and with an ever so slight smirk he rather haltingly says, “If everyone lives like how we have always lived, everything will be all right.”

So earthy, so practical, so straight from the heart: but is the world listening? As it squabbles about how to prevent half-a-degree’s rise in temperature while fiercely arguing who will spew out less carbon, the still, small voice from the grassroots stays unheard.

Apt sobriquet

I quite like Samoa’s ‘model state’ sobriquet. It’s stable socially and politically, has reformed its economy slowly but in sure, small steps and has performed reasonably well in the development indices, though some might have a different view on this last bit. I often wonder what might be behind Samoa’s stolid social stability, unlike, say, that of Fiji’s, where things always seem to simmer beneath the surface.

As I meander through one of Apia’s bustling markets on a crowded Saturday morning I can’t help but notice the sheer diversity in facial features. Some are decidedly oriental. Some are completely Pacific island. Some are a bit of this and a bit of that. But unlike in other multiethnic melting pots anywhere in the world, everyone is called Samoan. There is no hyphenated, double-barrel description. Like Fijian-Indian or Indo-Fijian or Italian-American. There are no labels like Chinese-Samoan or German-Samoan in common parlance. Everyone is Samoan. Period.

One reason might well be that unlike Fiji Samoa doesn’t have to bear the cross of British colonialist legacies. Three powers fought over its territories in history – Germany, America and Britain. Fiji was ruled solely by the British, who left behind their toxic divide-and-rule legacy in many parts of the world: Fijian versus Indian just as in India it was Hindus versus Muslims. Which these divisions to this day continue to threaten havoc, both in Fiji and in India and in other former British colonies. Samoa was spared of that.

It’s a true melting pot. Chinese and European legacies are valued and celebrated but in the Samoan way. Absorption, accommodation and assimilation are the unique attributes of the Samoan way. But there is a new wave of immigrants that seems to be hitting Samoa’s shores and I notice them in bigger numbers during every subsequent visit. There are more Chinese coming in as businesspeople, traders, workers. Some Samoans are worried. They are unsure how this escalating influx will affect the Samoan way in the decades to come.

Meanwhile, everyone is excited about hosting the biggest show the country has ever seen. No one clearly knows what it all means and what benefits it will bring Samoans in the long run. When I ask the vendor selling fresh albacore and yellow-fin tuna in the Apia market, she does not quite know what SIDS is. Or how it will benefit her and her family.

But she thinks it will be good for her country that so many people are coming – she hopes they’ll take back good memories of Samoa with them. And pointing to the bright new twin cab van that roars into the parking lot says, “Maybe we’ll have some good sleep now on.” It’s the dog control van fresh from New Zealand that’s been in the headlines all morning.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014

Reaping the whirlwind of terror

Views from Auckland

Dev Nadkarni

An ambitious king in ancient India, so the story goes, prayed fervently to the almighty to give him a soldier so powerful that no weapon could destroy him and whenever he raised his right hand over the head of an adversary or enemy, that enemy would instantly turn to a pile of ash and dust.

Pleased with the king’s sincere prayer, the almighty supplied him with a soldier called Bhasmasura, which means ‘the demon of ash’. He was a big and strong brute of a man donning impenetrable armour that would blunt any weapon and let him penetrate enemy ranks like a hot knife through butter. He would then head straight for the enemy king with his right hand raised and upon placing it above the defeated king’s head would reduce him to a pile of ash instantaneously.

And so it went on. The soldier helped the king annex kingdom after vanquished kingdom. The king could not believe his good fortune, now lording over every region he could set his eyes upon. He truly was lord of all he surveyed. Then one day the soldier realised that the king really drew all this power, glory and riches from his own magical super powers. Why should he be subservient to the king, he thought. He wanted to be the king instead of the king.

He tried to reason with the king, asking for a part of the kingdom for himself to rule over. The king of course refused. Needless to say, the negotiations broke down and soon the soldier approached menacingly toward the king, right hand raised. The king reached for his weapons and hurled them at the soldier with all the force and fury he could summon but to no avail. Then fearing the worst, he took to his heels with his soldier of great magical powers in hot pursuit.

The chase went on for several years, as the story goes, and took the duo to the very corners of the world, where in one such corner the king got a brief respite to hide, reflect and contemplate his next move. Having exhausted all options and at the end of his wits and ebbing physical strength and full of regret for asking such a dangerous weapon in the first place, he began to pray to the almighty again….

Modern day demons of ash

Unfortunately for the world today, versions of this parable are still being played out with tragic results. Only the characters have changed. The principles that are at play in the story are very much the same. Change the names and the tale is about us, about our times.

Last month former United States Secretary of State and future presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton quite candidly admitted a fact that the world has long come to believe: that the United States had created the global terror organisation al Qaeda. The US financed and armed the militant organisation in its early days to counter Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan. The militants fought soviet troops with American weaponry until the soviets left – though not least because of them.

In the process the US ended up creating a monster that ultimately turned its guns on American interests not only in the Middle East but even on American soil, culminating in the gruesome 9/11 tragedy when hijacked commercial airplanes took out the twin towers in New York and a section of the Pentagon. Symbolically, the attacks were on America’s financial and military power. Both targets were turned to ash. Well, almost.

The US is continuing on the same tack again, now in Syria. It is financing and arming factions against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which is really an upgraded version of al Qaeda. As we all know now, ISIS troops now hold sway over large swathes of both Iraq and Syria, having run over the western Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Mosul, and is now proving the toughest adversary to Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad.

It’s not just America

Creating and financing monsters is not America’s monopoly, though. Powers and leaders big and small have indulged in such power games with disastrous consequences personally or for their nations all over their world. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi financed militants in the northwestern state of Punjab to embarrass the government in power.

When she was swept back to power in the next election, this militant faction became a headache for her, ultimately having to order a raid on a holy shrine where the militants’ command was holed up, for which she ended up being killed. Her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi did the same in Sri Lanka dallying with, financing and arming the deadly Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and, like his mother, also paid with his life just a few years later.

The common thread between al Qaeda and the Punjab and Sri Lankan separatists is that powerful leaders and governments financed, armed and propped them up for their own ulterior motives. The unintended consequence was identical in all these cases, the protégés turned upon their godfathers causing them and their people incalculable harm, spiraling multiple problems out of control with no one having a clue about how to order the menacing genie back into the bottle.

MH 17

Last month’s shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing triple seven over eastern Ukraine’s border with Russia is the latest episode in this theme. The Donetsk rebels are clearly funded, financed, armed and morally supported from across the border by Russia. Russia’s motive is clearly to weaken the administration in Ukraine after its widely criticised move over Crimea and the referendum, regarded by most of the world as a sham.

The rebels in Eastern Ukraine clearly are being encouraged to carve out a separate state to further dismember Ukraine with Russia’s not-so-covert help. The Buk missiles allegedly that brought the Malaysian jet down with nearly 300 innocent lives are not a plaything and need sophisticated operations for their deployment, which the rebels clearly do not have the competence and experience for. Russia’s fingerprints are all over the episode though it is trying to blame it all on a western conspiracy plot to discredit it.

The monster that Russia has created in Eastern Ukraine is the latest demon of ash that has claimed its first innocent victim in the form of 298 innocent people from several countries that had nothing whatsoever to do with the conflict.

How will it all end?

The king in our original story prayed once again to the almighty. Full of compassion, the almighty decided to help once again. Disguised as a beautiful woman, the almighty enticed the demon. Smitten by her charms, the demon fell on his knees and implored her to wish anything she wanted in turn for her affections. The woman asked him to pledge that he loved her by placing his right on his own head. Blinded by his infatuation he did likewise and was instantaneously turned to dust.

Unfortunately in the modern world, there is no such silver bullet available to us. But certainly what the world’s powers can do is rein in their overweening ambitions, wind down their power games and stop creating monsters, all for the greater good of the world. Else, they will keep reaping the ill whirlwind of terror.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, August 2014