An inveterate traveller, acclaimed Australian chef Christine Manfield is known for her love of Indian spices. Tracing the country’s culinary traditions through her books, the celebrated travel and food writer lists the humble flat mortar and pestle (sil batta in Hindi) as one of her favourite kitchen hacks and swears by the use of instinct in cooking by Indian mothers.
"How to grind a masala spice paste properly using a flat stone mortar and pestle. Sadly I don’t have one at home as they are too heavy to be moved, let alone take in my luggage," Manfield said in an email interaction when quizzed on her favourite kitchen hack from India.
Dubbed as Sydney’s ‘Spice Queen’, the Tasting India author and restaurateur also mentioned what makes her a more confident cook.
"I love how Indian mothers cook instinctively, passing down heirloom family recipes by guiding and talking. Following this example has allowed me to cook confidently and trust my palate and instinct," Manfield said.
If the chef’s expansive portfolio (author of over 10 books, food manufacturer, owner of now-shut multi-hatted restaurants) doesn’t ring a bell, try recapping the MasterChef Australia 2012 finale when her signature dessert ‘Gaytime Goes Nuts’ hogged the limelight as the deciding dish.
"More than anyone, the Indian audience is the most obsessed with this TV show," noted Manfiled, pointing out there are probably more differences than similarities between Indian and Australian cuisine.
Explaining the contrasts, the 61-year old gay-restaurateur said: "Ours is in the choice we have available to us, with every country represented by its food in local restaurants (we are a land of immigrants since white settlement), so we are spoilt for choice. India’s diversity is the rich heritage of its regional cuisines and wonderful home cooking and its love of spice."
Busy with a range of interesting projects – from pop-up restaurants, guest chef appearances, writing, lots of travel for work and pleasure, hosting intimate group tours to India, Bhutan and Southeast Asia, mentoring young chefs – Manfield cautions against food fads.
"Fads can be dangerous, usually media driven, and lacking any real substance and predictions should be relative to the immediate local audience – to avoid homogeneity. A diet is simply a routine of daily food preparation and should not be based on negatives when there are so many fantastic foods that are available in every region of the world," she said.
In her latest book, A Personal Guide to India and Bhutan, which will be launched at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2016 here, Manfield provides "a comprehensive travel guide for both countries from my first hand experiences, listing my personal favourites for where and what to eat, where to sleep, travel tips and essential sights."
Her intention is to encourage readers to step outside their comfort zone, to engage and explore new frontiers and to make brave choices, to become aware of India and awaken the desire to visit both these incredible countries while fostering respect for its traditions and diverse food cultures.
On gender bias in the food industry, the veteran chef felt "there is a long way to go to shift mainstream attitudes and behaviour".
"It’s an industry that demands huge sacrifices, toughness of attitude and resilience, throws up daily challenges and gives immense rewards. We should be encouraging and nurturing our young people to step up to the mark, to be great team players, to reach for the stars, to achieve excellence regardless of gender and without bullying, harassment or macho behavior."
"The starting point is not to generalise about gender," Manfield concluded.