Are you serious?
I had to ask again.
It happened two weeks ago when the Samoa Culinary Association contacted me to be a Judge for this year’s Oka Festival, which was held at Home Café on Saturday.
Now I’ve done a few things in this life – including judging different competitions in Samoa and abroad - but being asked to be a Judge of a competitive Food Festival involving all those highly decorated chefs from all the hotels, fancy restaurants and resorts in Samoa, that’s something else.
It doesn’t help that from time to time, I do catch an episode or two of My Kitchen Rules and regardless of whether it’s the UK, Australia or New Zealand version of the show; we’ve seen how serious those chefs take their business.
When it comes to food, they don’t muck around. It’s serious business.
With that in mind, to say I was nervous about being asked to be a Judge is an understatement. Thankfully, it was only after they told me there would be five other Judges that I finally said yes.
Besides, it’s only a oka competition, right? Fish, coconut oil, a bit of lime, what could possibly be so hard about picking the best oka, I thought as I tried to psyche myself up.
On Saturday, let me tell you I was wrong. The competition was something else and judging was extremely hard. I am grateful there were other judges who obviously all agreed that Roko’s oka continues to be the best in Samoa, for three consecutive years. I’ll tell you a little bit more about that later.
But let me say something about what a fantastic atmosphere there was – and yes thank God for the great weather - which allowed so many people to come out and enjoy themselves.
While the oka competition obviously took centre stage, there was something for everyone. There were other food stalls, handicrafts stalls and so much more. It was a family day out kind of atmosphere and the kids – including the grown up ones - had a ball. There was live music and believe it or not, Danny Malala the barber and his toko from Tonga were there and the place was pumping.
There was so much more.
The organisers – the Samoa Culinary Association - and all the sponsors deserve a pat on the back for persevering with the Festival. The vibes were so positive, the atmosphere was festive and there is absolutely no doubt that Samoa should look to host these kinds of events every so often to bring together the community and encourage local creativity, originality and competition.
Which is perhaps the best thing about the Oka Festival. The dish is a simple local favourite and everyone can make it. As Samoans, we are all self-confessed oka experts – especially when it comes to tasting it. Which was my only qualification by the way and it served me well on the day. I needed to because the competition was that tough it blew me away.
The details and the length some of the competitors went through to prepare and present their oka was extraordinary. The awareness about hygiene standards, presentation, colour, balance and texture was amazing. It was beautiful to watch the teamwork from the crews that took part. As for new ideas, well there were many and I hope we will see many more variations in the future.
I thought the Taumeasina Island Resort dish was quite unique with the addition of the palolo. Keep in mind that it wasn’t just the oka being judged, the teams came up with different variations of accompaniments like fried talo, banana chips and so many different bits and pieces - inluding live corals.
The Scallini team even had a shot of Malibu (I think) to go with their oka. The competition between the two Sheratons was intense and I thought the final presentation from the Sheraton Samoa Resort was fabulous.
But food and winning entries come down to taste and texture.
And it is why I’m so glad I did not chicken out and turn down the invitation to be a Judge. When the judging was done – and without knowing how things would turn out - I quietly whispered to a fellow judge that I think Roko’s would win again.
Why, he asked.
“As a Samoan, we like our oka quite simple,” I said. “We want fresh fish, we want to taste the lime, a little bit of salt and to make sure there is enough kick in that coconut cream to help you snooze in the faleo’o.”
In the end, Roko’s won, which means the majority of the Judges, agreed with me.
Today, well at least I can say I know what a good oka tastes like.
Congratulations to the Samoa Culinary Association, Joe Lam, Horace Evans, all the participating teams and every one who made the Festival possible. Now when can we have the fa’ausi, koko alaisa and sua fa’i festivals?
Have a wonderful week Samoa, God bless!