Acclaimed Australian restaurateur, traveller, chef and writer Christine Manfield says unlike in the West, people in India live and breathe food and points out how different types of cuisines happily coexist in this country, promoting a culture of tolerance. “People live and breathe food unlike in the West. And then you have the visuals and the sights, which make this land different from any other country,” Manfield, who was in India to promote her new book, Tastes of India (Penguin-India), said.
The author of six books about cuisines and cultures, she shot to fame with her restaurants – East @ West in London in 2003 and Universal in Sydney in 2004. She is known for her creative cuisine, which blends the flavours of the world to create signature dishes. Food is an important tool of cultural exchange, the connoisseur said.
“It unifies things and brings people on to a common ground. It teaches one to be tolerant of difference…and the spirit is at its best in India. In India, you have Muslim food sitting alongside Hindu food and Parsi food with Jain food. They all co-exist happily. You could travel the length and breadth of the country and find a different dal every day,” Manfield said.
Manfield associates the regional diversity of India by their outlooks to food. “Bengalis are doubly obsessed with their food. Once they eat breakfast; they begin discussing what you are having for lunch. The food of Punjab is very distinctive while the food of the Himalayas is very Buddhist…and almost Chinese,” she said.
Manfield, however, cannot forget her experience of the south fried chicken with curry leaves at a pub in Bangalore. She changes the menu at her restaurants every five days and matches every dish with a wine. But her scholarship of the cuisines and cultures of India sets Manfield a cut above her peers in the industry: India, its spices and vegetables are central to her menu at Universal.
“I have a natural affinity for spices as a theme in my food. The cuisine at Universal is very refined and it is one of the best restaurants in Australia. I use almost every spice that is available like cumin, pepper, turmeric, mustard, curry leaves, coriander and bishop’s weeds (ajwain),” Manfield said. The chef makes her own garam masala and various Indian masala pastes. “India is spicy. Even a blind man can smell the aromas in the air once he is off the plane,” she said.
“Dal’ or lentils find big favour on my menu, along with eggplant. I often make an eggplant dish with smoked egg plant puree and a salsa of raw beetroot, green mangoes, chaat masala, dil leaves, curry leaves tossed in a dressing of spiced vinaigrette. It is a textured dish of fried, smokes and pureed eggplant… and very Indian,” Manfield said. Manfield said “she tries to retain an element of surprise and mystery in all her dishes.”
The writer has dug up traditional dishes-some long lost-from the states of India in her new book, Tastes of India, a hefty volume listing traditional regional recipes with colourful photographs and accompanying texts chronicling her travels. “I fell in love with this country a long time ago in the 1990s when I came to India as a guest chef to cook in Chennai. I have been visiting India regularly every year since then,” Manfield said.
The writer hosts small luxury groups of 10 tourists to India for exclusive experiential travel. “I orchestrate the itinerary together with an Australian travel company,” she said. Manfield charges her tourists $1,000 per day per person and dishes out the money’s worth. Kebab sprees, spice market trips, street food picnics, thali meals and desert safaris cry for attention with sumptuous palace dinners, five-star stays and traditional home stays on her Indian itineraries, she said.
“I will accompany the next group of 10 tourists in February,” the writer said.