Christine Manfield is one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs. As an award-winning author, her books – A Personal Guide to India & Bhutan, Dessert Divas, Tasting India, Fire, Spice, Stir, Paramount Cooking and Paramount Desserts have piqued the interest of cooks and tickled palates world over.
Her website describes her as a ‘curious cook and a perfectionist, inspired by the culinary melting pot of global flavours’ Her professional culinary life as restaurateur culminated in three ground breaking, highly acclaimed restaurants: Paramount in Sydney 1993 to 2000, East@West in London 2003 to 2005 and Universal 2007 to 2013.
A love of spices and an understanding of the home cook’s need for authentically-flavoured, simple, sustaining food led Christine to develop the Christine Manfield Spice Collection range of spice pastes and condiments – widely available at retail stores throughout Australia (since 1999).
In this interview with CSP Christine speaks about her gastronomic tours to India which allow travellers to savour indigenous flavours in their natural settings.
How did you first get interested in India and Indian food?
My travel adventures are inextricably linked to food, I am led by a curious palate and a love of spice so travelling to India for the first time 25 years ago, invited as guest chef in residence at Taj Coromandel in Chennai, felt like a homecoming. I was immediately captivated by its tantalising flavours, the time honoured traditions, generous hospitality and warmth of its people. India is a visual feast, a sensory overload and a gastronomic paradise, a place different to anywhere else on earth, which is what attracts me to it. Its culinary tapestry is complex, varied and ancient, underpinned by a masterful and enviable use of spice, creating magic on the palate and it is the very reason I cook the way I do today. I cannot underestimate the enriching influence that India has had on my cooking and my life.
Christine in Darjeeling
You have set up restaurants, written popular cookery books, conducted food tours, and much more. How has your experience of Indian food in India helped do all of this?
India has informed my work and has played a significant role in how I think about cooking and combining flavours. There is nothing more satisfying than watching guests who travel with me marvelling as they taste something for the first time or be welcomed into someone’s home or community, watching the appreciation and respect evolve from first-hand experience is extremely rewarding, sharing the love. Food and hospitality are inextricably connected and fosters a deep sense of tolerance.
Breakfast: Fafda and green papaya at Shree Govind in Ahmedabad
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Indian food? Have you tried to address them?
Most people don’t realise or appreciate the distinctive food traditions that reflect India’s rich regional and cultural heritage. Food is bound up with spirituality and religion underpins the dietary laws of each sect - it’s about respecting the traditions of each other, a country that always boasted Unity in Diversity. Food has been a mirror to the broad tolerance and acceptance between religions. It has been a personal mission to get westerners to look beyond the common misconception that everything tastes the same, that the repertoire or menu is one dimensional and defined by popular dishes like butter chicken, vindaloo, rogan josh or tandoori, when the scope is infinitely broader. Another comment that irritates centres around food safety and the fear of getting sick. An ill-conceived prejudice that is easily overcome when you stick with the same rules of consumption you would anywhere when travelling the world (like drinking bottled water etc).
Street food: Samosas in Hyderabad
Have you seen a shift in the food industry with chefs taking centre stage, and the rest, including the guest being subordinated to the brilliance of the chef? In your work, one sees a sensitivity to the consumer. How important is this for success in the food industry?
As a chef, my work is determined by the flavours I like to cook and taste - and hopefully take people on that journey of discovery with me, whether it’s directly with me cooking for them or sharing knowledge through the written word or teaching. It’s vital for cooks to nurture and seduce our taste buds without it being dictatorial - good cooking is not about ego, it’s about creating a bond and expanding our world view through food. It’s equally important to have confidence in your own vision and way of cooking, to adopt and adapt long held traditions, to challenge taste buds and to feed curiosity, to raise the bar and expectations. For me, it’s always been about finding that point of difference.
Butter dosa in Hyderabad
Do you like to experiment with cooking, combining cuisines from different parts of the world since you are an avid traveller and have experienced many kinds of food?
I am in a constant state of experimentation, never remaining static, always evolving - and I cook from a very broad platform of global flavours and techniques, while respecting and understanding traditions finding new and different ways to interpret food and flavours.
Could you share two of your favourite Indian recipes?
Only two? That’s so hard to narrow it down when there is so much choice. Among my favourites to cook are Prawns Koliwada from Bombay, an Andhra style aromatic yoghurt chicken curry smothered with fried curry leaves, a fragrant biryani when I’m wanting to cook a one pot number, and masala eggplant pickle is something I always have on hand to serve as a condiment or to form the base for a raita.
Who was your target audience for your book Tasting India? What were the regional cuisines you covered?
Both editions of Tasting India (2011 and the expanded version published in 2018) is my love letter to India, it’s my story of India, told through food and collecting treasured heirloom recipes from families, street vendors, cooks and chefs from one end of the country to the other, showcasing the extraordinary regional diversity that India has to offer. It’s a gastronomic odyssey through home kitchens, crowded alleyways, fine restaurants, dhabas and street vendors exploring India’s food, its landscapes, culture and traditions in all the major cities, rural villages, to the desert culture of Rajasthan, the Ayurvedic practices of Kerala, the extraordinary beauty and cultural variety of the Himalayan regions and the far reaching culinary legacies left by the Mughal and British empires.
How important was it for you to know the culinary history of India, to be able to get a complete picture of not just the various dishes, but also the whole process of cooking, the sequence of dishes, the presentation, etc.
For me, India is a never ending journey - there is always something new to learn and discover, it’s a magnet to which I am eternally drawn. Having the mind-set that India is not a destination, it’s an experience, gives me unlimited scope in what’s possible and I look to it for providing the inspiration I won’t find anywhere else. The colour palette is vivid and the tastes and ways of bringing dishes together is thrilling and intoxicating - finding that sense of perfect balance and harmony. India’s food is anything but homogenous.
In your tours of India, what are the experiences you offer which are related to food. How do you accommodate the different spice levels, the vegetarian and vegan options, the richness preferred by the participants?
People who choose to travel with me can feel pampered, nurtured and challenged all at once - that’s what brings travel experiences alive - to find those points of difference, to step outside your comfort zone. Travelling through India means eating the local food of that region for breakfast, lunch and dinner - a total immersion. I don’t see the point in travelling somewhere and expecting things to be the same as they are at home. I work hard in the lead up to craft the menus in collaboration with my trusted ground support team to make sure there is no tourist food (where flavours are purposely dumbed down to a western palate) and having as many options as possible available, and a plant based diet in India is as easy as anything. I expect people to pack their curiosity when they travel and to leave prejudice behind.
What do you cook for your family when they want to eat Indian food?
We love spicy food - so curries, rice dishes, vegetable salads and an assortment of condiments to embellish the simplest of foods are part of the everyday routine. I have a couple of curry leaf shrubs in my garden and use them prolifically for their taste and fragrance, along with chilli and ginger, they bring everything alive. I see no point in wasting calories with bland food that lacks astute seasoning.
At a school in Kumaon
The restaurant and hospitality industry is one of the most hit by the current situation. Where do you see things going from here?
This is a serious time with the possibility for new beginnings, finding a new way in a post pandemic world, recalibrating and reassessing, it’s our chance to break with bad practices of the past, to be more mindful and in tune with our planet and treating its resources with respect. Connecting with community, living by the mantra of using what’s local and immediately at hand and stepping back from the homogeny of mass produced cheap industrial food that is harmful to our health, productivity, creativity and economy. There will be a huge attrition but we were gluttons for mass consumerism and greed - nature has forced our hand, we need to sit up and pay attention if we are to succeed in moving forward and learning the lessons dealt to us.
(Photographs courtesy Christine Manfield. Website: https://christinemanfield.com)