The Pacific is known for its lush surroundings, white sandy beaches, deep blue ocean, acres and acres of land, friendly people, and mouth-watering delicacies. Fiji is no exception to this.
Located at the center of the South Pacific, Fiji comprises of over 300 islands, most of which are volcanic. Like any other developing country, Fiji is vulnerable to change and modernization especially with aspects of the indigenous culture. Fiji’s indigenous traditional culture can be seen in modern adaptations of traditional artefacts, fashion, fishing methods, and even cooking.
One culinary tradition that has endured over centuries is fermentation for food preservation. While there still exists other food preparation traditions such as smoke-drying, sun-drying, and salt water preservation, these occur during indigenous vanua or state occasions, which are becoming a rarity. Fermentation especially of grated starch is iconic in the indigenous culinary landscape simply because starch in the form of dalo, kumala, breadfruit, yams, plantains, etc. are indigenous staple foods. Long before the introduction of food preservation techniques, the indigenous iTaukei forebears perfected various food fermentation techniques, which complemented their lifestyle that involved long hauls of fishing, agriculture, and the occasional tribal warfare.
With the arrival of Christianity, and later colonialism, a lot changed and evolved, for better and for worse as far as food traditions and lifestyles are concerned.
This article looks at a traditional bread made from fermentation, a delicacy called bila toni, which is part of the culinary traditions of the people of Nailā, a village in the province of Tailevu on the eastern mainland, Vitilevu.
Bila toni reels you in through its alluring aroma, delicate appearance, and distinct wrap. It is a sought after snack in Fiji, sold on the streets, in the market, and even in hotels. It is similar to French cheese.
Bila toni is now made from cassava, which is peeled and soaked in a bucket of water for seven days. This process of soaking in a bucket was adapted around the 1950s due to health risks. The traditional method involved the cassava being packed and bound in a sack and then immersed in a river near Nailā for seven days. The inner stringy core of the fermented cassava is tugged out and molded into pates. Then the molded cassava is mashed in a traditional bowl called takona, which is hewn and made from local vesi hardwood. The cassava is kneaded until it forms a consistent pulp.
After the pulp is ready, freshly and finely scraped coconut is mixed in along with sugar to taste. (In the days before the introduction of sugar, the sugar-rich root of the cordyline plant was grated and squeezed into the pulp.) Once all the ingredients are added and mixed to make dough, the dough is molded into sticks and wrapped in cordyline leaves, known locally as vasili. The wrapped dough is then boiled for about an hour. Bila toni is ready when it can be bent without breaking.
Culture is not static but has to evolve to adapt, and bila toni is an example of this. Nowadays, bila toni is sold to generate income, a purpose that differs from its original purpose, which was to be enjoyed by family and friends. In addition to this, new materials and ingredients, such as sugar, sacks, and plastics, are used. While other parts of Fiji may have their own variety of fermented bread, bila toni of Nailā has been adapted into entrepreneurial methods generating income while it has remained distinct, popular, and synonymous with the people of Nailā.