This past week I’ve been nagging my family and Fijian friends about making a lovo (earth oven) and also Fijian dessert recipes. My mom’s family were all very helpful with regards to the dessert recipe which I’m forever grateful for because I have so many beautiful memories of sitting beside my mom in our back garden, it’s evening time and she’s making the traditional dessert from the part of Fiji she’s from. My mother who was a bank officer by day, would remind us daily of where she was from with how she would prepare dishes she grew up with from scratch. She would make a makeshift open fire cooking stove in the back garden of the house and everything was made on this open fire stove. I also have memories of my Momo’s (uncles) who would make these desserts at family functions and inbetween the familial Nayauan banter they would impart gold nuggets of family recipe heirlooms as to how to get that perfect coconut caramel sauce to go with the malimali dumplings. As a young child you don’t realise how important this piece of information they’re giving you is, my mom did the same. My uncles and my mom would tell me how important it was, not to overwork the malimali after it had been steam cooked. That the secret to making the malimali so soft like pillows of soft nougat that melted instantly into your mouth, was in the gentleness of your hands as you kneaded it into a soft dough BUT most importantly was the willingness to turn it into a labour of love for your family to enjoy.
So going on this vibe I’ve been feeling all week after a friend of mine interrogated me as to why I haven’t ever made her Fijian food in the almost three years we have known each other, I decided to take her up on the challenge and invite them over for a Fijian style dinner. My first thought was to make a lovo, which a lot might think is ambitious for a Fijian woman to take on but to my siblings and I, isn’t so much because my maternal grandfather and my mom ensured each of us knew how to make a lovo from scratch - whether you were female or male. They were also borderline OCD and by this I mean they were very particular about how clean you kept the area you were working in and how you had to work to a strict time schedule. I'm going to digress a little here but I think this is important to share, I was about 8 years old at that time and we had my paternal grandfather recuperating at our home in the city, the bedroom he was in overlooked the back garden where we had our lovo pit. It was a Sunday morning which meant, lovo prep was on the task list. My mom took ownership of this in our house not because my Dad was incapable of making a lovo but because ... OCD and also my mother used to imply that the Lauan lovo was/is superior to the Tailevu lovo, my thoughts on this are zilch as I love both sides of my family dearly and would like to keep them both! Anyway, so it’s the usual Sunday lovo making morning and I’m helping my mother gather the coconut shells, banana leaves, burlap sacks and neatly stacking them by the side of the pit as she prepared the firewood. Unbeknownst to us whilst happily chatting away as we prepared the lovo, my grandfather was watching us from the window and listening to my mom instructing me on what to do, listening to me being the usual inquisitive 8 year old asking questions as we worked and my mother patiently taking the time to answer and explain why certain things had to be done in such a way. We worked this way until the stones were ready and began to put the food we had prepped earlier into the lovo before covering it. All this done in time for me to get ready to go to Sunday school and my mom to get other dishes ready before joining us later for the main church service. We never knew about my grandfather watching us and taking note of the handing down of family secrets by my mother but in recent conversations with cousins from my fathers side I’ve heard this day described with such detail that even I had forgotten. It made me realise how much love was poured into the relaying of an important moment between my mother and I by my grandfather to other members of our family. I wish they were both still around to know that a lot of what I am passionate about today is because of life lessons they imparted upon me, it’s also made me realise why I hang on so tightly to my relationship with my Dad because he is in essence the only direct link I still have to ask questions about my mother’s and my paternal grandfather's lives.
I started this post out intending to make it about my making kokoda and malimali for my friends but it’s changed into my celebrating my Nayauan links, it's also turned into a confronting stage of overcoming grief at the loss of my mother more than 6 years ago and its also turned into my remembering both my grandfathers who were such pioneers in all that they did. I joked to my friend about crying as I prepped the tuna steaks for the kokoda dish. I cried because it was the first time I was making it since I moved the UK. I cried because I came to the realisation that the reason I’ve always shied away from making it for my family or friends was not because of the excuse that my family are not particularly partial to Fijian food but rather, making these traditional dishes made me confront suppressed grief that I thought I no longer felt with regards to no longer having my mom around. It brought up too many memories of making it with her, memories that made me feel the raw, intense feeling of loss & grief, it made me feel like she was right there beside me chastising me for the way I was cutting into the fish and reminding me over & over again that it had to be a labour of love and anything otherwise was a reflection of my not listening to her when she used to make it. I cried again as I was making the lolo to have with the malimali. I stood there like an idiot crying as I stirred this pot of coconut caramel sauce, as my family and friends were sitting in our dining room chatting. I cried not only because I think I burnt the sugar for the caramel and that made me feel like I had failed my mom and my Momo who so lovingly shared our family recipe but also because I was reminded of how my mom made this so effortlessly over the fire. I was taken back to evenings sitting in the back garden of our house having warm malimali, asking her about her childhood and sometimes having a cry with her when she would relate some of the hardships they went through as children. I stopped crying when my eldest came into the kitchen and we stood there in silence just staring into the pot as I stirred it.
What started out as a Canadian and Fijian feast-off turned into such a beautiful evening of sharing food, knowledge, stories and also a rekindling and reawakening of my mother’s mana and spirit within me.
I went to bed last night thinking if I had to write a letter to my mother it would simply state -
Dear Na, today I made your famous kokoda and malimali. It was as fulfilling and soul restoring as you would have made it. Thank you for imparting this knowledge and thank you for entrusting me to share it with my children, which I will now do.
Grief man, it comes at you in the most unexpected ways and the most unexpected times. But when you let that grief wash through you and allow yourself the moment to just feel it but not sink into its dark abyss, you’re left with less pain and a healing calm.
As always - Love & Light,