Christine Manfield
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 17 November

Christine Manfield: Tasting India

Christine Manfield has created the definitive book on Indian cooking. She tells Peter Moore about her amazing journey through the food of India

With its luxurious silk cover, National Geographic-quality photos and authentic heirloom recipes from various regions of India, Christine Manfield's Tasting India is arguably the only book you need about India and its food. Indeed, India Today was so impressed that they called for it to replace Camellia Panjabi's venerable 50 Great Curries as the gift to give newly-wed couples heading off to live overseas.

Peter Moore talks to Christine about her love for India and its food, and the incredible journey that led to the creation of this stunning book.

What was it that drew you to India? And what is it that keeps drawing you back?

One word: Spice.

My first trip to India was in the mid 90s. I was invited to be a guest chef at a restaurant there, to put on a menu and do my thing. That was starting point of a life-long love affair. It’s a country I just got. It got under my skin. Every time I go back it’s a totally different experience. There’s always something new. Something exciting. Something different to explore.

Do you seek out new spices each time?

Not spices. I'm pretty much all over what’s available. But there are always these interesting little nuances in the way that people use spices and that changes right across the country. Person-to-person, almost. Everyone’s got their own interpretation on how they might do a dish.

Where did you get the recipes from?

A lot were from home cooks. And they are all authentic. It's not me as a westerner or an outsider coming in and putting on an overlay of how I perceive Indian food should be or how I would change things. Each recipe is documented exactly as they were given to me.

My working title was ‘Mother India’ because it was the mothers of India who were the inspiration, the starting point for this. I set out with the goal of collecting heirloom recipes across modern India, and also look at how practices and other things have changed over time. How people cook today.

There’s one story in the book about a lady you visited who picked up little tips from watching cookery shows.

The village girl in Calcutta. She told me that in her downtime, between the preparation for lunch and the preparation for dinner, she'd sit there and watch TV cooking shows and would just totally absorb everything she saw. When I spent the day cooking with her she showed me how she cut out little vegetable shapes, which she’d seen on some Thai cooking show.

Did going to India with a purpose, to find these heirloom recipes, show you a side of India you may not have otherwise seen?

Absolutely. You’re digging deep there. You’re really getting to the heart and soul of the people and the place. People were only too happy to share that. Even with the book, people look at the recipes and say, ‘That’s how my mum used to cook it.’

I’m sure it led to a different experience in the markets too, when you went in search of particular ingredients.

True. I love going through markets anyway for stuff for the kitchen. You can engage, you can haggle, you can choose what you actually want to cook. Whose beans are better? This one or that one? Engage in that kind of process. It’s not just a quick run through.

I guess you get the little human stories about why that person’s beans are better.

Yes. Every Indian loves talking about two things: cricket and food. So it wasn’t hard to unearth these stories. Plus there was this respect straight away. They thought, ‘Wow, your doing all this research for us and for our culture.’

How long did it take for you to research this book?

Research really started from the first time I started going to India, so 20 years or so. But for this particular book, writing it, took about five years, going backwards and forwards. I did 11 trips in that time. It wasn’t just a ‘Go in there once and that’s it’ scenario. I went to places many times. Even now, even though the book has only just come out, I can add things. Particularly in the travel directory at the back of the book.

How has the book been received in India?

What was really encouraging and enormously satisfying for me was that I just spent a week promoting the book in India and every single person commented on how authentic the recipes are, how true they are to the character of the country and how everyone can relate to the area that they come from. If I was in Calcutta, they really loved the section on Bengali cooking, for example.

It certainly went down well with India Today. They said it should replace Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries as the wedding gift of choice for newly married couples heading overseas.

I read that and thought ‘Hello darling!’ I’d be set for life! It was incredibly flattering and such a brilliant endorsement. I’ve hit the right chord there.

What is it that defines Indian food? What makes it different from other cuisines?

We have to start looking at it as an incredibly diverse and versatile food repertoire. It’s not a monoculture. We might have a very narrow perception of what Indian food is, but there is enormous regional variation. It would be great to see those variations translate into a separate restaurant cultures in places like the UK and Australia.

You definitely get that impression from the book that Indian food is very regional. Is that clearly delineated? Or is there some cross-over?

You will get little South Indian places in the cities, in Delhi or Jaipur. Generally speaking though, if you’re out in the villages, if you’re out in the rural areas, it is very much a food of that place. If you’re in the south, they’re not going to cook you some big elaborate Mogul feast.

I’m guessing that is largely determined by what they have available. The rural areas aren’t affluent enough to use anything other than what they have to hand.

It’s what’s there. It’s what’s available. It’s what they eat everyday. And then it’s how that is interpreted. You can still be within the one State, the ingredients will be similar. But there will be variation on how things are prepared. Often that can come down to religion.

From the outside, Indian food can look like a bit of a free-for-all but the reality is that it’s quite regimented in that influenced by religious beliefs and particular rites and rules.

Exactly, there’s all kinds of etiquette around it and how it’s prepared. And the balancing of flavour and texture as well. Just as the Chinese have the Yin and the Yang, the Indians have a similar concept.

In the book you talk about primary tastes – bitter, salty, pungent, sour, sweet, astringent – and how in Bengali food they are eaten in a strict order.

Yes. The food does come down on the table pretty much at the same time. It’s not always served sequentially like we’re used to in the west. But if five or six dishes come down on the table at the same time, with the rice of course, you usually start with one dish that is more cleansing, and then move on. The flavours and the textures build on your palate.

What was the most surprising meal you came across in India?

Earlier in the year I was in a place, up in the mountains on the Kerala side, up where the spices grow, there was a restaurant that had opened in a smallish village. It was attached to a hotel, but it was a hotel where predominantly Indians stay.

They had set up a restaurant called The Fifty Mile Diet. Everything prepared there was from a 50 mile radius. In fact, they had established their own farm on the outskirts of the village and were raising different kinds of animals for cooking. They could tell you that the rice came from this village over there, this vegetable came from here.

I found that fascinating. That concept is very much ‘of the minute. It’s very much a trend that restaurants in the West are moving towards. And to see that in a place that was fairly remote was fascinating. We ate a terrific dish. It was quail, that they’d raised on this farm. They were split down the centre and stir fried with fresh green peppercorns, that are just growing everywhere, and nice, light sauce. It was quite a modern take on the dish but it was just using all the local stuff. With a nod towards the future.

Was there anywhere you found particularly good street food?

The snack culture in India is amazing. And you get the best expression of that in the cities. I think the street food of Mumbai is unsurpassed. It’s just terrific. You’ve got all the different kinds of purris, the little pan purris, that they put in these little cups made from dried leaves. So the whole thing is environmentally friendly. When you’ve finished you just throw it away. There’s no plastic. It’s totally biodegradable.

And also in Delhi. Street food like the kebabs. There’s one place where they sell rubber tyres during the day, but at night they get pushed into the background and out come the portable barbeques and they cook the best kebabs. You could go to a fabulous restaurant in Delhi and have great kebabs, but you could go on the streets and feed your whole village for the price of one plate in a posh restaurant.

It’s all cooked in front of you. I think you follow that simple rule you follow anywhere. You eat with the locals, you eat what the locals eat. If a place is really busy you know there’s great turnover, you can’t go wrong.

How is Indian food changing? Is it changing?

A lot of Indian food is timeless because it’s got such a strong, ingrained tradition. But like anywhere else in the world, Indian food is evolving. There are also things now they can buy to make their lives easier – mixes of spices, pastes, that sort of thing.

What is it about Indian food in India that makes it different from Indian food in the UK?

In Indian, it is what it is. Here, you get the Indian chefs cooking for largely a western audience, who may not like dishes that are too spicy. Even in India, the food that you get for tourists is very different to the authentic experience. The suggestions I’ve given about where to eat in India are places that don’t pander to western tastes. There's no dumbing down.

I read somewhere that 75% of Indian restaurants in the UK use Patak sauces!

That’s why everything tastes the same. Having said that, you’ve got a much greater chance of getting real authentic Indian flavours in the UK, purely because of the population, the Indian diaspora here. It’s just finding it. Finding the chefs that have remained true to their ‘faith’ so to speak. Ones who go, ‘I’m cooking the food I know and I love. Stuff the audience.’ It’s easier said than done. And you can understand why they adopt their dishes accordingly.

A lot of people are tempted to take the easy option of grabbing a sauce off the shelf. What are the rewards of putting in the effort and doing it yourself?

Often it’s not that hard to do. If you have a very basic supply of a few different spices, a bit of yoghurt, a bit of coconut milk, bingo! You can taste that freshness.

There are over 250 recipes in this book, but it’s largely a travelogue as well.

Very much so.

Why is that?

I didn’t want it to be just a recipe book. I wanted to look at food in the context of its culture. I think that background is going to give you a much greater insight and understanding and appreciation of how food fits in India and why it’s different across the country.

Travel was the reason I went to India. But food was the focus. Having a focus made it a much richer experience. People go to India for all kinds of reasons. Some go for Yoga. And their impressions and interpretation of India will be coloured by that. Same with sport. For me food and travel are the two prongs of my work and my life. I’ve always spent every last cent on travel. And now food has woven its way into it.

The book is illustrated by absolutely stunning photos taken by Anson Smart. Did he travel with you?

Yes.

There’s a real connection between the recipes, the stories and the photos. It didn’t feel like it had been done by someone sent to India after the fact.

Yeah, we travelled around together. My publisher actually came on a couple of the trips too. Just to get a feeling of what I was trying to do. I think at the start, when it was being planned, she didn’t really comprehend what it was about.

I said ‘Darling, I think you should just come along and see for yourself.’ It was her first time in India. She’s now a total and utter Indian devotee. Even after the first couple of days of the first trip, it was like, ‘OK, I get where you’re coming from.’

There’s a quote in the book, from Chitrita Banrji: “One lifetime, one memory is not enough to eat, to know and to absorb India.” Are there any corners of India that you haven’t visited yet that you want to get to?

Next January, February, I’m heading up to Amritsar. I haven’t explored the Punjab at all. I think the whole Sikh culture is quite fascinating. I’m going to spend some time cooking at the Golden Temple.

I’ve been up to Ladakh. I’ve done several parts of the Himalaya. But I haven’t gone into the heartland of Kashmir. That’s one place that has long fascinated me. I’ve got quite a few Kasmiri recipes from a boy who has become a friend, a chef down in Rajastan.  He cooks Kashmiri food down there. I look forward to him introducing me to his culture.

So we can look forward to reading Tasting India Too?

Yes (laughs).

Tasting IndiaChristine Manfield is one of Australia's most celebrated chefs. Her opus Tasting India is published by Conran Octopus and is available to order on Amazon now.

 

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