2 Oct 2017

The Pasifika food revolution

From Nine To Noon, 10:11 am on 2 October 2017

With Auckland's first downtown Pacific restaurant Kai Pasifika now up and running, chef Robert Oliver is planning his next move – a Pacific Islands food campaign which will include a reality TV cooking competition.

The way to combat the region's devastating levels of diet-related illness is to celebrate traditional Pacific Island food in popular culture and at the same time offer new convenient ways to cook it, says Oliver, who was raised in Fiji and Samoa.

Chefs from the Pacific email Oliver three or four times a week asking for jobs at Kai Pasifika, he says.

Currently, there is no institution where Pacific Island people can train in their own food culture.

"Imagine if you were French or Thai and you were told you can cook every food but your own. If you have great pride in your own food culture how gutting that would be."

For Oliver, kai is not just food on the plate, but a cultural system and a pathway to social development, he says.

"I look at the links to identity and the links to agriculture and the links to even climate change… Organic farming is now seen a climate change mitigation measure because it puts carbon back into the soil, which creates stronger soil."

Pacific Island countries have the world's highest rates of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension – all conditions related to diet.

In terms of food and health, the impact of colonisation has only been negative, Oliver says.

"The single, most obvious truth is that convenience and processed food has replaced the traditional diet. And that's the traditional diet … the cultural diet, the indigenous diet."

Oliver says he probably won't use the word 'health' in his campaign – "there's so much baggage around it" – but will instead focus on new convenient ways to cook traditional Pacific Island food.

"It's not saying 'you can't have this, you can't have that, don't have sugar, don't have salt', it's saying 'Look at this incredible heritage of food and cuisine you have. It is who you are … but it also provides a solution for your own wellness.' There's a real joy to that."

Pacific Island marketplaces not only offer incredible food, they're places of colour and vibrancy and laughter where people come together, he says.

At the heart of the health issues in the Pacific is a lack of this traditional culture reflected in popular culture.

Until Oliver went on the cooking show My Kitchen Rules, he was "a bit of a snob" about reality TV,  but seeing the level of public engagement and excitement around it, he now believes television is the 'hero communicator'. 

TV's air of authority and glamour make it a powerful motivator and a great platform for entertainment with a message, he says.

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