tukuni, where organic produce, local knowledge and sustainability meet
Tukuni is an indigenous Fijian word meaning story or storytelling, it is also the name of a museum-themed restaurant that has been on my radar since it first opened a few months ago. There is a nourishment that food brings that extends beyond nurturing the body and satiating our appetites. A considered meal nourishes not just our bodies but offers an emotional and intellectual fulfillment as well. I was most struck by the Tukuni menu, a homage to the two main ethnic groups in the country. The indigenous iTaukei and the Indo-Fijians. The menu offered, almost equally, dishes from each of the two groups. A gentle but obvious attempt to appease both sides? Perhaps it was simply more representative of the way both cultural groups treated and used local produce. A treatment that in many aspects respected the entire product leaving little to no waste. Using techniques that were time-bound but remain relevant, effective and in-use today.
with a fresh watermelon juice, in a handmade high chair
We lunched with others, but I remained distracted. There wasn’t a plastic straw in sight (we usually carry our stainless steel ones to avoid the plastic mess). No paper towels or serviettes, cloth napkins instead. There were no drinks that came in bottles or out of packets. Our watermelon juice was a freshly juiced watermelon from the garden. The tamarind ‘imli’ juice was made of, well, tamarind. The conversations flowed, I know I participated but I now question the value of what came out of my mouth. I was too distracted. The place mats were rectangles of recycled paper, made downstairs. My mind whirls, didn’t I just see a gentleman making paper as we walked up the stairs to the restaurant?
My son demands mum mum, which Fijians know isn’t a call for mum, but rather a call for food. Rafa has finished his watermelon juice and the slice of watermelon garnishing his glass. As well as those that garnished his mum and dads glasses. We have placed our orders. What’s on the menu is what is available. There is no room to order fries on the side, and that is refreshing. And still Rafa’s “mum mum” sounds louder. Moments later a platter of sliced watermelon appears at our table. The staff smile knowingly at me, I return the gesture. The owner, the restaurant manager (I’m not sure they even have one) – no one told the staff to do this. They saw a hungry child, knew the food was a little while away and they assisted. This wasn’t the first instance where the – I don’t want to call it customer service, because it just isn’t fitting for Tukuni – hospitality of the staff won me over. Later during the course of our lunch Patrick and I were taking turns carrying and entertaining Rafa while the other ate. As soon as the restaurant emptied (we were one of the first there and the last to leave), generous and helping hands whisked Rafa away so we could enjoy our meals.
I looked at Patrick, breathed a sigh of relief. Relaxed my shoulders and looked outside. A panoramic view of the ocean and rolling hills. I ordered the Eggplant Tavu – an eggplant grilled over an open wood fire. Patrick ordered the Ika Tavu – a fresh fish cooked over an open wood fire. Both meals were served with incredibly generous sides of rourou (Fijian spinach), mbamba (the stem of the taro plant in coconut milk), seasonal greens and a root crop. Lemon and chilies appeared on the table without us asking for them. I don’t think I spoke during my meal. This wood fired grilled eggplant was the best eggplant I have eaten. There was no denying that it was indeed cooked on an open fire. You didn’t get just a whiff of smokiness but you were engulfed by it. In the best possible way. Later, I asked Patrick what he would rate his meal out of 10. He looked at me blankly and said he couldn’t fault it. I felt the same, but then we remembered our niece Ema who would remind us that there is always room for improvement. But is there? I love my food spicy, but the chilies were added on the side and they sufficed. Sometimes you don’t know what could be better, sometimes perhaps it just can’t be?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience at Tukuni. The food was outstanding. The hospitality the best I have encountered in Fiji, the staff were empowered and confident enough to think on their feet and be true hosts without needing to check with a power higher up. There was no doubt in my mind that the produce used to prepare the meals made an undeniable impact. All the meat is free range, bought directly from the farmers. The roti is made from local maize flour. Fresh organic vegetables are bought from villages in the area, many that were severely affected by Tropical Cyclone Winston, followed by two severe floods. Vegetables from these villages now propel the Tukuni menu and the funds from the sale of the vegetables offer a stable form of income for the villagers. Seafood is sourced fresh from coastal villages. Other items for the menu such as turmeric, coconuts and local gluten-free flours come from Macuata and Dreketi. Two hundred farms on Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu, have been certified organic, and many of these farms now supply Tukuni.
The wooden tables and chairs, including four high chairs, and one baby change table have all been handmade by the men from the neighboring village. To have one high chair in a Fijian restaurant you are lucky, but to have four, that’s a rarity. Even more rare is to find a baby change table. We’ve been told that spaces for children to play are next on the agenda for Tukuni. The Tukuni team are from the local communities and receive hospitality training in-house. The meals are prepared traditionally, using methods and recipes passed down from generation to generation. I think all of this – where the produce comes from, how it is grown, raised or caught, the togetherness involved in building a restaurant, and the individuals that take a restaurant and turn it into a real dining room captures the essence of community, the soulfulness of food and a dedication to the philosophies of zero-waste, organic farming and sustainability.
Rafa telling his own tale
As my meal disappears off my plate I am left feeling like I could have another, but feeling satisfied and full at the same time. Isn’t that what a good meal does? A bit like love. It leaves you full, but wanting more and more. We excuse ourselves from our group and take Rafa for a wander around the Tukuni gardens. He touches and smells and points. He picks a few flowers for me. I try to show him the vibrant hue of a ripe eggplant, but he seems more interested in something else. He points up and says “pawpaw”, yes my sweetheart that is a pawpaw. But I should know my son better, he reaches for a large, green chili and plucks it off the tree. Our garden wanderings come to an end. There is so much to say to each other about the hours we’ve spent at Tukuni, but our ride back to the hotel is filled with silence, and gentle snores from Rafa who clearly had a marvelous time.
Tukuni is a collective and public extension of the private efforts that individuals, families and communities in Fiji invest in organic and free range farming and sustainability. The place and the food it offers, allows the diner a glimpse into the cultural, emotional, culinary and political heart of Fiji. The tale that Tukuni weaves extends beyond the culinary delights that it offers.
Tukuni is open for lunch from Monday to Thursday, and for dinner from Fridays to Sundays. For bookings call 777 3188. On Saturdays they also host a farmers market where you can purchase the produce that is used in the Tukuni menu. The menu changes often, so call ahead to see what’s on offer if you need to, they don’t mind.