“Drums of the islands you’re beating in my heart, you’re with me no matter where I roam.
If ever I wander if ever we should part, I know that you will lead me home…”
I grew up listening this song (and am actually listening to it now). Not only because I am an Elvis fan (“Devil in Disguise,” come on!?), but also because my parents are proud expatriates of the island nation of Fiji. To them, and many other Pacific Islanders, this 1966 Elvis tune sort of became an unofficial anthem for island born travelers yearning for the comforts of home.
One of those comforts are the abundance of Polynesian foods, often hard to find here in the states. For example, dalo ke bhaji (taro leaves) in Hindi, or roro in native Fijian, are always hard to find and are even harder to grow here. That’s why growing up, my mother would prepare this traditional Fijian dish with a little cheat: frozen chopped spinach.
Yes, Roro actually just means taro leaves; but the traditional way of cooking it with coconut milk, onions, and salt, is what Indians (who were brought to the islands almost 150 years ago) have adopted in our staple diet. So technically the title of this post should be “Fijian Spinach,” but this post is more about the method than the ingredient.
Of course, there are myriad ways of cooking this simple 6 ingredient dish, such as making a tadka (tampering in oil) of the onions, garlic, and chili – but I find this method adopted from Indian cooking too harsh, making the dish slightly bitter; traditional Fijian cooking, before the arrival of the British or the Indians, consisted mostly of roasting in an earthern oven (aka a lovo, or underground oven) or boiling and steaming. This boiled method is the most authentic and flavorful way to make Roro, in my opinion.
And then there are the sides. Roro is delicious all on its own (and keto/paleo friendly too!), but Indian households treat this dish as we would a curry, and we often serve it with chapatis or rice. Traditional Fijian households will almost always serve it with boiled/steamed dalo (taro root), and sometimes will serve it with cassera (cassava, tapioca root, or yuca). I prefer a nicely boiled cassava, myself
Now that I am married, and running a household of my own, I make this dish when I’m craving something warm, filling, and comforting. Not to mention, this is an amazing one pot meal with only 6 ingredients, so we nosh on the Roro more often than my wife would like.
So weather or not you can hear the drums of the island in your heart, there’s no reason not to give this rich and flavorful dish a try. So what are you waiting for? Go go, make Roro – be on island time tonight!.
- 10 oz (280 g) frozen chopped spinach
- 14 oz can of coconut milk
- 2 cups water
- ½ cup (30 g) onions, chopped
- 1 tsp garlic paste, or 4 small cloves chopped
- ½ lime, to taste
- 2-3 thai chilis, or to taste
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
- *optional frozen cassava or taro for serving
- Remove the frozen chopped spinach out of the wrapper, and place on a microwave safe plate and heat for 1½ minutes on high in your microwave oven, until it has mostly thawed.
- In a medium sauce pan, bring one cup of water to a boil; add in the chopped onion, garlic paste, chilis, and salt and simmer with the lid closed until tender (about 4 minutes).
- Add the spinach to the pot, adding more water if needed (it should be just covering the spinach). Let the spinach cook for an additional 4-5 minutes, until everything is tender.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the entire can of coconut milk and stir. Let this boil for an additional 4-5 minutes, until the milk thickens and absorbs all of the flavor.
- Add an additional cup of water at this stage, to prevent the coconut milk from burning; boil until you reach a desired consistency (similar to a Thai curry).
- Season with the juice of half a lime, adding more lime and salt per your taste.
- If serving with cassava or taro, thaw the frozen rootcrop properly before boiling (countertop or microwave), otherwise find fresh rootcrop at your local ethnic grocer. Bring a quart of water to a boil and cook the cassava or taro the same way you would a potato, by boiling until tender in the center when poked with a fork or a knife; strain and let rest before serving.
The flavors will continue to marinate and develop overnight, and this stew can keep for a week if refrigerated.
This dish can be eaten on its own, but can also be served with rice or flatbread.