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Wine & Dine

Tour de force

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Viewers of the hugely popular series Masterchef Australia might recall Christine Manfield. A well-known Australian chef, Manfield made an appearance on the show. She's back in the Indian field of vision with her new book, Tasting India. "A lot of people have recognised me here, " she says. "Must say I was pretty surprised to learn how popular the show is in India. " The show itself, she admits, was fun till participants began to bicker. "In isolation, the show seems fine, " she says. "After all, anything to do with food is popular. But take a look at some of the other such shows and you'll notice a similar pattern. That's when its credibility gets lost, I think and it becomes purely a commercial exercise. "

Manfield has been a regular visitor to India ever since her first trip 15 years ago. With her "natural affinity for food" she found herself helplessly drawn to India's "amazingly vast gastronomic experiences" and its ancient, flavourful kitchens.
Five years of extensive travel through the "famous heat and dust, sometimes even in 42 degrees", has resulted in this 469-page tome, which is not a regular recipe book. It's something of a travelogue by way of food.

"Over the years, I saw that simple, regular vegetables could be prepared in so many diverse ways, " Manfield says. "Each home had its own distinct way of preparing food. I felt that this needed to be documented. " India's vegetarian food and the balanced use of spices are what make the cuisine special, she believes. This harmony, she says, "got lost somewhere down the line but now people are beginning to realise its importance. Many have begun to appreciate the 'farm to plate' concept to make people feel connected with food. This is happening in Australia too. People have come to understand that balance and harmony is good not just for man, but the planet too. "

The recipes that find place in her book are those she has "collected simply by getting into the psyche of the people I met, and being very observant". Those shared by chefs are very exact but the ones collected from kitchens in people's homes had to be worked upon in her own kitchen. "That was the hardest part about transcribing - because my pinch can be very different from yours, " she says. Over the years, she explains, she has come to understand the rules of the Indian kitchen. For instance, "that food shouldn't be tasted till it reaches the table (of course many don't necessarily follow that rule now), or, using the 'clean' hand to serve food - not the jhootha one. All this can be a bit infuriating to an outsider, but I've come to understand that this is something that has come down centuries. "

While the beautifully illustrated (photographs by Anson Smart) book has over 250 recipes ranging from simple fare such as Sweet and Sour Tomato from Rajasthan and Crispy Okra and Pomegranate Salad to more elaborate preparations, there are several regions such as Punjab, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, that have not been represented. "They will figure in my next book, " she says.

Perhaps her next book will record the changes she notices in culinary tastes every time she visits. "When I asked a friend to introduce me to something new, she told me, 'Everyone here wants European food now', " Manfield says. "Now, why would I want to eat European food in India? Actually, this is something that's happening to all big cities. But, fortunately, there's a strong indigenous food culture too, on the street. "

Speaking of street food, how does she tackle matters like Delhi belly? "I never had it, " she says. "I think, I'm lucky - someone's watching over me. "

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