If you are only half the dessert lover that I am, you will most likely start to hyperventilate when I mention the name Christine Manfield. The acclaimed Australian chef has published numerous books and yet her Desserts cookbook was the one that introduced me to more elaborate sweet compositions way before the sweet craze started.
So when I was offered the opportunity to take a peek at a press copy of her latest cookbook Tasting India and conduct an interview with Christine herself, I didn’t hesitate a second. Her latest tome – we’re talking 468 pages! - focuses on a country very dear to her heart, with a cuisine so diverse she probably could have filled twice as many pages as the huge & heavy book already has – it is literally bursting with vibrant photography, stories and recipes (think cookbook meets coffee-table book). Here’s my interview with Christine on her latest book and Indian cooking:
Looking back at six impressive cookbooks and with Tasting India just having been released in October, has the process of writing a cookbook changed for you over the years? Which one is your favorite, which one was the most time-consuming (and why)?
Each of my books has been a special journey in their own way and although I don’t really have any favourite, I have to say I am enormously proud of Tasting India and the rewards it has given me as a writer. I am always conscious to do something entirely different with each book and writing about food through travel adventures has been a very nourishing and meaningful experience. Tasting India has certainly been my most time-consuming book to date – as I had to give myself the time to revisit India often to research, respect and reflect, to give authenticity to my experiences.
Your new book Tasting India is a cross between a comprehensive Indian cookbook and a breathtakingly photographed coffee table book, that clearly shows how much this country means to you. What made you fall in love with India and more specifically Indian cuisine (more than 20 years ago)?
It is a country unlike anywhere else on earth where anything happens and everything is possible. It makes me feel alive. I have always had a deep affinity with spices so my natural curiosity led me to India where I have an enduring emotional connection to its beguiling, seductive and addictive flavours. The people are equally inspiring and engaging.
Your book showcases many different culinary regions of India. Which region surprised you the most and why?
Each region is quite unique and different, which has made for many surprises and intriguing discoveries along the way. If I were to pick a couple of places that did surprise, it would be the purity of the Ayurvedic flavours and practices in Kerala and the sense of well being it fosters. In Hyderabad – the contrast between the fiery Andhra food (some of the hottest in India) of the Hindus to the rich and elegant Muslim food – the legacy of the royal courts of the Nizams.
What cooking advice would you give to people who are just discovering Indian cuisine – any techniques, ingredients they should focus on as beginners?
Start with some of the simpler recipes that are easily achievable. Develop an understanding and appreciation for how to use spices in your cooking and the different flavour profiles they can produce. Discover the art of tempering whole spices to give an added flavour dimension to your food. Start with any of the vegetable recipes – easy and quick to prepare, and affordable – and can be introduced gradually into your everyday routine or repertoire.
Name three recipes from Tasting India that you consider a must-try.
The Rajasthani crispy okra and pomegranate salad, perfect on its own or as an accompaniment to grilled fish or lamb; Akoori, a Parsi egg dish from Mumbai – scrambled eggs never tasted so good; and Aloo Dhaniya − tiny potatoes with spices and coriander – just one of the thousands of potato preparations in India’s expansive repertoire.
You seem to switch effortlessly between your routine as a chef, writing cookbooks and hosting spice tours throughout India or Morocco. Do your days have more than 24 hours or what is your secret?
Multi tasking and learning to juggle different aspects of my work at the same time and give appropriate attention to each. Clever delegation is equally important and a sign of effective, trusted management; having a very loyal and committed restaurant team who indulge me the time to engage in all aspects of my work portfolio – and balancing precious personal down time into the mix. Sometimes 24 hours just doesn’t feel enough, so I mentally compartmentalize and prioritize what needs to be done and try not to get overcome by the enormity of what is sometimes on my plate.
Some quick questions:
Which Indian dish have you cooked the most at home?
Eggplant Masala from the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu (or anything with eggplant for that matter).
Which are your favorite, most used Indian spices?
Turmeric, fennel, mustard seed and chilli
What was your most memorable meal in India?
Melt in the mouth kebabs and roomali bread at Badimeya – a street vendor in Mumbai
What’s next on your travel agenda and what has been on your wish-list for much too long?
Bhutan and Brazil
When you travel, do you typically rely on meticulous research or wing-it spontaneously?
A bit of both. – I always do some background homework, get some advice from friends or colleagues and then rely on really good ground support, local knowledge is vital, then leave enough space and time for spontaneity and surprise.
Any advice you would share with food lovers who love to travel on how to discover great food?
Trust local advice, look for queues or busy places full of locals (not tourists), eat food that is local/regional rather than familiar and be adventurous with your choices.
When I first opened Tasting India, I had a hard time choosing the very first recipe I would cook from it – so many tempting choices! But as soon as I spotted Onion Bhajias I was sold, a snack I had wanted to recreate since we had eaten them numerous times in Singapore. They are really quick to prepare and best eaten hot, straight from the Wok! They may even become my new go-to appetizers for quick Indian dinners…
Marina’s Onion Bhajias from Tasting India
Combine the onion, coriander seeds, chilli and salt in a bowl. Using your fingers, knead to extract the liquid from the onion. Sprinkle over the flour and add 2 tablespoons of water. Continue to knead. If the mixture is too dry, add a little more water, 1 tablespoon at a time. (Marina says it should not look like a batter – more like mayonnaise sticking to shredded cabbage.)
Heat the oil in a kadhai or wok to 180°C. To test the temperature of the oil, sprinkle in some flour – if the flour sizzles, it is ready. Loosely drop tablespoons of batter into the oil. Fry the onion bhadjias a few at a time (to maintain the oil temperature and prevent the bhajias from going soggy) for 2 minutes until crisp and golden. Drain on papertowel and serve immediately with mint yogurt chutney.
Marina's Onion Bhajias
Recipe source: Tasting India, Christine Manfield, page 39
Prep. time ~20 min, frying ~10 min.
3 red onions, sliced into rings
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds, cracked using a mortar and pestle
2 small green chillies, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
200 g chickpea (gram) flour
1 litre vegetable oil, for deep-frying