Hot Spring cookery made easy

Food Editor Leslie Savage
Food Editor Leslie Savage

Bula! Greetings from Fiji, the land of coconuts, papaya, mango, avocado, bananas, breadfruit and papaya.

And hot springs. All local.Fiji consists of 322 islands scattered over a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, 5,100 km   southwest of Hawaii and 3150 km northeast of Sydney, Australia. Most of the islands are volcanic; just over 100 are inhabited. All Fiji’s volcanoes are extinct or dormant, but evidence suggests that eruptions have occurred within the last 2000 years. Today, bubbling up from the magma deep below the surface of Fiji’s islands are 50 or so hot springs. Unlike the balmy waters of Halcyon or Canyon Springs in BC, many of Fiji’s springs are so hot you can cook in them.

Savusavu Hot Spring is a boiling hot stream that emerges from the depths of the earth right in the village of Savusavu, in a park behind the medical clinic.

DAvid Savage, Roger Savage and Jill Bilcock at the Savusavu village hot spring.
David Savage, Roger Savage and Jill Bilcock at the Savusavu village hot spring.

Local Fijians still use it to cook dinner —a s they have done for millennia. Local cuisine included, up to the 1870s, a rather alarming ease with feasting on one’s enemies, but Methodist and Catholic missionaries persuaded the Fijians that it was best to love the neighbours in ways other than culinary. Even in the past, 19th c. visitors claimed that apart from the habit of bashing and eating one another, the Fijians were among the most sensitive they had ever met to affectionate family and neighbourly feelings; certainly the Fijian people of Vanua Levu today are among the most friendly in the world—greeting us with a wave and a cheery Bula! as we drive past them in a car or walk past roadside village houses. There is little crime, few security issues, and a prevailing sense of safety and harmony. The hot spring cook site is an open communal resource, shared by locals and visitors—another one of Fiji’s many gifts.

Sunset view from our deck. Truly.
Sunset view from our deck. Truly.

Savusavu — a variation of sevusevu, which itself means means gift, is a town of about 5,000. The town consists of a main drag, a ferry dock and some houses on roads winding up the hills. Sitting on the protected harbour of Savusavu Bay, it’s also a stopping off point for sailboats crossing the Pacific, and the major commercial centre for the south side of Vanua Levu, the 2nd largest island in Fiji. Ferry landings are a sight—almost everything that comes and goes arrives by boat, from truckloads of cassava to Fijians going to visit home on smaller islands, carrying plastic plaid bags crammed with local produce. It’s a goggle feast that you too can catch sight of if you google .

Friday is fishing day, so Saturday we went to Savusavu community market for a fresh red snapper—2.2 kilos for the equivalent of $5 Canadian and rushed home with the fish on ice. Scaled it outdoors (snapper scales are tough and the spiky fin spines are treacherous) and washed it well under running water.  Seasoned it with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and lime juice, wrapped it in foil then in banana leaves then in a beach towel, and drove back to town to steam it in the hot spring. Two other families were there, patiently waiting as their towel-wrapped dinner pots steamed. “Pudding,” said one Fijian woman when we asked what she was cooking.


Red Snapper in foil--an image worthy of Mary Pratt?
Red Snapper in foil–an image worthy of Mary Pratt?


Natural cooktop in Savusavu village--here is our snapper on the stones.
Natural cooktop in Savusavu village–here is our snapper on the stones.

Use any whole fish two inches or more thick in the middle.
What you need
1 fresh whole fish, 2 kilos or so
1 lemon or large ripe lime and more for garnish
tin foil
6 banana leaves
1 beach towel or several old tea towels

2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
½ cup white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
2 tsp sugar

¼ cup freshly chopped cilantro, parsley, chopped spring onions, garlic chives or all of these

Gut and scale the fish, leaving fins, head and tail intact.
Wash fish thoroughly under running water. Run your fingers over the whole fish to ensure no scales remain. Be careful—snapper fins are spiky.
Pat the fish dry with paper towels.
Squeeze half the lemon or lime, and spoon the juice inside and over the fish, covering all. Wrap in foil and refrigerate while you make the sauce and gather the banana leaves.

Mix the sauce, then lay the fish down on two pieces of tin foil one and a half times the length of the fish. Spoon the marinade over and into the fish, coating both sides and the interior cavity. Put another two layers of foil on top of the fish and make an envelope by folding the sides of the foil together so that you have a sealed packet. Now wrap another two pieces of foil in the other direction—that is, across, the fish, rather than lengthwise, and seal these.

Roger and Jill cut the banana leaves in the garden.
Roger and Jill cut the banana leaves in the garden.

Lay one banana leaf on the counter, and place the fish on it so that the foil package aligns with the thick spine on the leaf. Fold over the other half of the leaf, and fold in the ends. This is tricky and may require two or more people to hold the leaf while you now wrap the second leaf around the package with the leaf spine on the other side. Do this with 4 banana leaves the length of the fish, and two the width of the package, tucking in the ends and cutting them if needs be to make a neat package. Tie the whole thing up with string, using at least two wraps along the length and two across the width of the package.

Now place the whole package in a beach towel so that the ends make a sort of hammock—you will use these ends to handle the boiling hot package and to remove it from the hot spring.

Hurry to the hot spring and put your fish over the water so that the bottom of the package is more or less touching the boiling water.After 10 minutes, get up your nerve and turn the package over in the beach towel, so that the other side will cook.
Leave another 10 minutes, then remove and place the whole thing, towel and all, on a large platter. Rush home, making sure you cover the package with the towel.

Unwrap, remove fins and skin, fillet the top half, remove the backbone and fillet the rest of the fish. It will serve nicely on a spatula. Garnish with papaya salsa and serve with coconut lime rice and slices of lemon or lime.

Alternative: In the event you lack access to a boiling hot river, use lettuce rather than banana leaves

Tying banana leaves to make a neat package is tricky. Almost all veg at the market come wrapped this way, with banana leave fibre for string--very eco-friendly.
Tying banana leaves to make a neat package is tricky. Almost all veg at the market come wrapped this way, with banana leave fibre for string–very eco-friendly.

and steam the fish in a covered steamer. No steamer? Wrap the fish twice in foil, sit the package on a bed of shredded lettuce and cover with more lettuce; wrap again twice in foil. Now wet thoroughly a handful of sheets of  plain newsprint type paper (I’ve done this over a campfire with real newspaper, but some people are squeamish about newsprint ink.)  and tie the bundle with string. Put into a moderate (350) oven on a cookie sheet, with a pan of water on the bottom shelf.  Test for doneness after 20 minutes. You will probably have to leave it another 10-15 minutes. (My campfire version took about half an hour, for salmon.)

Coconut lime rice

1 cup rice
1 tsp sesame oil
½ cup coconut cream
1½ cups water
1 lime—juiced and zested
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp garlic chives, chives, or finely chopped spring onion

Wash the rice thoroughly.
Heat the sesame oil in a saucepan and dry fry the rice until each grain is thoroughly coated with oil and beginning to be fragrant. Don’t burn the oil, however.
Add coconut cream, water and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to LOW, cover saucepan tightly and steam the rice for 15-20 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated. Remove cover and stir, making sure all liquid is absorbed, and until rice is done but not mushy.
Squeeze lime juice; add this and the lime zest (about 2 tsp) to the rice and stir well. Continue to warm over low heat until ready to serve. Sprinkle with the spring onions or garlic chives before serving.

Turning the fish over is the challenge--the water, stones and fish pack are all VERY hot.
Turning the fish over is the challenge–the water, stones and fish pack are all VERY hot.

Papaya or mango salsa
1 cup diced ripe papaya, or one ripe mango, skinned and seeded
1 cup diced sweet onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tomato (1/2 cup) chopped
½ cup diced avocado (can be omitted)
1 tbsp minced ginger
hot pepper flakes or sauce to taste
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar or honey
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp zest of lime

Mix the ingredients together and let sit in the fridge for 2-4 hours. If the onion is strong, sauté it first in 1 tbsp canola oil.
Add ½ cup of chopped fresh pineapple for added sweetness. Chopped apple will work, if you have no pineapple.

Here's our snapper ready to eat--the hot spring cooked it to perfection--moist, tender, but done.
Here’s our snapper ready to eat–the hot spring cooked it to perfection–moist, tender, but done.