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By Susan Chenery
Foodies and medicos are hoping a reality TV show can help change dangerously unhealthy eating habits across the south Pacific.
Great bruised clouds hang low over Suva Harbour, Fiji. Mist rises from the forest on the jagged mountain range in the distance. At first light, the water is silvery and still in the bay. Container ships float on the waterline outside the port. Battered cars bump down uneven roads past the faded grandeur of colonial buildings. Not far away, the municipal market is coming to life with all its colour and noise.
At Suva's Grand Pacific Hotel, a camera crew is setting up. Television people are sitting at a long table talking about food and what it means to the people of the south Pacific. There's nostalgic talk of a time when a wedding would be planned around the crops which would be planted for the feast a year ahead. A way of life that's vanishing – with dire consequences.
It might not look like it on this quiet cloudy morning, but a revolution is under way. A peaceful one with lots of delicious food involved, but a social movement that is deadly serious in its intent and urgency. Because away from the luxurious resorts, the picturesque tropical islands that rise out of the ocean, the swaying palm trees of the tourist idyll, in the unadorned villages and towns, the island nations of the south Pacific are engulfed in a health crisis.
Diseases that were almost unheard of 30 or 40 years ago – diabetes, cardiovascular trouble, anaemia, uncontrolled hypertension and obesity – are rife. Strokes are affecting people in their 20s and 30s, while every eight hours a Fijian loses a part of a lower limb to diabetes. Such diseases are responsible for 70 per cent of all deaths across the south Pacific, which, according to the World Health Organisation, accounts for all 10 of the world's most obese countries.
Cheap but convenient processed food – alongside excessive smoking, alcohol consumption and lack of exercise – is to blame. Fatty meats, cans of corned beef, turkey tails and soft drinks – high-salt, high-sugar, energy-dense food – has for many families replaced freshly grown produce. Tinned fruit has flooded in even as mangoes have been falling from the trees. Various regional governments and agencies have tried to address the problem, funding awareness campaigns, raising taxes on sugar and banning certain food items, but the statistics show the situation is not improving.
Now, a new reality TV cooking show, Pacific Island Food Revolution, aims to help reverse the trend. Filmed in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu and expected to air across the south Pacific region from this month, and later in Australia and New Zealand, it will carry the message of healthy eating into the home via the same medium as the advertisements for all those sweet and salty packaged goods: the telly.
Funded by the Australian and New Zealand governments, Pacific Island Food Revolution follows the same format as other reality TV cooking shows, with contestants from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu facing heats and finals before a winner is crowned. The cooking challenges are based on issues the region faces. Creating healthy baby food might not sound like a glamorous culinary art, but it is critical in countries like Vanuatu, where one in three babies are stunted by poor nutrition in the first five years of their lives.
The revolution is being led by Robert Oliver, a 58-year-old New Zealander who grew up in Fiji and Samoa, where his father was a social worker. “When you look at pictures from the 1970s and early '80s, they were just wonderfully fit, healthy people,” says Oliver, who is host and executive producer of the programme. “The diet was carb-heavy, fish-heavy, veg-heavy. But if you take out the greens and put in processed food and have a sweet drink, then you have a sugar bomb, because the carbs convert to sugar.”
Oliver worked as an executive chef in the US for more than 20 years, opening Pacific island-themed restaurants, working with Mary Cleaver, a pioneer of New York's sustainable cuisine movement, then opening “farm to table” restaurants in the Caribbean. But after losing money during the 2008-09 global financial crisis, he returned to the south Pacific, where he set about researching his 2010 book, Me'a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific.
He discovered how – thanks to a deluge of marketing hyping imported foodstuffs – traditional, nutrient-rich fresh produce was being replaced by processed, packaged junk. People began to feel ashamed of their own food, regarding it as backward. “To be told your food is not good enough is very destructive,” says Oliver. “Food is our cultural sense of self. The story of the food is the story of the people. It is a collection of flavours and memories.”
When Me'a Kai was voted Gourmand's Best Cookbook in the World in 2010, it was an international gastronomic upset and a stunning reversal of fortune for Oliver. He continued his exploration of south Pacific food culture with his TV series Real Pasifik, which screened in 40 countries, and became a UN Development Programme Pacific advocate for food, sustainable development and wellbeing. In 2014, while a judge on New Zealand's My Kitchen Rules, he decided to adapt the popular format for the good of the islands, spending the next four years working to get the program up and running.
Tantalising fragrance is drifting across the Suva hotel lawn, as nervous contestants load baskets with fruit and vegetables. At the show's kitchens, set up in the ballroom, there is a blur of steam and chopping, as knives fly through chilli, coriander, pawpaw. The juice of mango and pineapple runs through fingers; there's mashing and pounding, huge banana leaves are wrestled with, coconuts are sliced with machetes.
“Look into the past,” Oliver tells the contestants. “Look into that knowledge. Freshen it up and bring it us.” He turns to me: “We are taking something that is so dire, scary and daunting and replacing it with laughter and joy. It is a complete flip.”
I ask Fijian contestant Mohammed Shamin Ali how he made the incredible herb-crusted smoked fish he has plated up. “You start by heating the volcanic rocks until they are white,” he advises. I tell him I don't think I'll be able to get volcanic rocks in Australia. “That's all right,” he says enthusiastically,” you can use ordinary river rocks.” He and his cooking partner, Manasa Bolawaotabu, had to drop out of culinary school because their families couldn't afford it, so they started washing dishes in restaurants. Now they work in resorts on the islands of Vita Levu and Malolo, cooking French, Italian – anything but Fijian food. “Our main goal is to open a restaurant that is totally Fijian with all local produce,” Ali tells me.
Tongan contestants Sela Latailakepa and Taufa Halateu sing hymns to each other as they cook. Ample ladies exuding kindness and calm, they comfort the other contestants. They are the wives of church ministers, grandmothers who are used to cooking monumental feasts for ecclesiastical events and making do.
“Church ministers don't get the best wages in Tonga, so we can't go and get all the hams and all those expensive meats,” says Latailakepa. “We just work with what our husbands grow in the garden. We experiment with traditional recipes; we do get adventurous in our kitchens. Some of our recipes work well and some have been a flop." Halateu's husband was a tad non-plussed when she disappeared for a week to go on television, but "once we explained everything to him he cried tears of joy”.
Oliver knows getting this TV competition to change attitudes towards food will be a long game, one in which everything from social media to soap operas and song will be co-opted to the cause. “We recognise that it is going to take about five to eight years, and it might change shape,” he says. “To incite the will and the passion, it has to be total immersion. You will have to be under a rock not to hear about it. Television only goes so far.”
Dr Jone Hawea, 42, is a Fijian surgeon who deals every day with diabetes, and a judge on the show. His wards at Lautoka Hospital, the nation's biggest, are full of the stench of the rotting flesh that he will have to amputate. “Rotten feet, rotten legs.”
The day before our interview, he amputated a 47-year-old man's leg at the hip. “There are only two options: you either save your rotten limb and lose a life, or save your life and lose a limb,” he says. “My people are getting amputated at the ages of 30 to 40, when they are supposed to be the most productive. Diabetes was almost an unknown issue in Fiji before 1970, so if you follow the footprints it is processed food entering our kitchens, the emergence of food as a commodity, that changed everything for us.”
Referred to as Dr Beautiful by the other judges, he has a godlike presence on the set. “The fortunate and unfortunate thing about us is we are non-readers,” he says. “We don't make decisions based on what we read. Because of our communal way of life, we are more affected by what other people think. We change our behaviour based on what the coconut wireless tells us, the gossip.”
All the more reason, he adds, to take the same strategies used to sell fast food to promote healthier lifestyles. Television, he believes, will be an effective tool in what is literally a fight to the death.
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