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How often do you travel?
I’m probably gone for about four to five months a year—and it’s all food specific. We’re actually celebrating my 40th year cooking! I’m then going to Russia for the Worldchefs Congress & Expo, plus Singapore for a pop up. You couldn’t pick a place in India because every 10 kilometres the food changes. And that’s a beautiful thing. I spent two long terms here—my 21st birthday by the banks of the Ganges, the same year Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and a return in ‘96 to travel for nine months. Recently, I took a group from Chennai to Kerala on a food adventure. I really don’t know where I’m heading next. People invite me and I go!
You’re a stickler for responsible sourcing. What could the average person do differently?
Anywhere in the world, try and buy stuff that comes from within 100 kilometres. Then you’re carbon neutral and supporting the people close to you. My restaurant, Noosa Beach House, is on the coast, but has a diverse hinterland for farming. We have chickens in caravans, they’re towed around, they run wild in large enclosures. When they’ve eaten all the insects from that area, the caravan moves on. Happy chickens, happy food. But in India, with so many people, it’s hard to be a purist.
And vegetables ? Is there any Sri Lankan produce Indians ought to try cooking with?
There’s breadfruit—it’s like a mini-jackfruit, with no spikes. You take the skin off, and you roast it or boil it. Then there’s 37 different varieties of bananas, three or four of them eaten green as a curry. Then ridge gourd, snake gourd, bitter gourd. It’s funny, when I asked here, ‘are there any dietary limits?’ They said no. Then I asked, ‘are there any vegetarians?’ and they go, ‘ah, no, that’s different’ (laughs). In Australia, if you’re a vegetarian, you might not eat cheese, or you might not eat butter. Here it’s easy— ‘veg or non-veg? Bang! Thanks for coming.’
What’s something unexpected you found while researching your books?
In Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, what they put their meat on is delicious. The accompaniment—whether it’s Persian-influenced potatoes or eggplant or whatever—could be the base for vegetarian food, even if you omit the meat.
Asian food has risen a lot. Many say it’s dethroned European fine dining. Thoughts?
I probably shouldn’t say it, but I just think Asian food comes from a deeper root. The world got flavour between Sri Lanka, India, China, and Mexico. Without those spots, we’d be eating boiled meat with no salt. Think about it. Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, maize. Chilli, chocolate, chewing gum and avocado from Mexico. Passion fruit. The flavours of the world have always been within that Silk Route. In Indonesia,they used to build massive boats called pinisi. At a certain time of the year, the winds would blow them north to Europe. Though civilised, it still had no toilets. And so vanilla and mace became highly prized to cover up the smells. It’s an interesting spin around how the world’s gone. Asia and Mexico held the most precious things, but somehow the north used better ships and guns to take it all. But it’s coming back now. For centuries, Asians have known the medicinal value of food, and supermarkets are now selling everything from gotu kola to cold-pressed coconut oil. It’s come full circle.
If you couldn’t be a chef, what was Plan B?
When we got to Australia, it was hard to see people racially vilifying my family. School was the first place I wanted to get away from. I spent a lot of time repairing things, so I can do electricals, plumbing, and repaint cars. I’m quite handy. Rebuilding vintage motorcycles is a hobby. In case it all went wrong, I also got a forklift driver’s licence! After all these years, restaurants up and down, I think I’m a pretty good businessman. I could still do a short catch-up course in college to become a lawyer. But I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in an office.
What’s something memorable from a recent trip?
I went to China, and the language barrier was so bad. I needed a kilo of salt, but couldn’t explain it. So I took one of those one-gram packets, pointed at it, and said, ‘I need this, but one kilo. One thousand of this.’ The bugger went away for hours while I sat in a room. When I went to check, he was tearing one thousand sachets and pouring them into a pile!
Finally—any culinary mantras you live by?
My father gave me lots. Just being organised. Thinking ahead. Working hard, not complaining. Having an end goal is a good one. There’s a saying: ‘I’ve been looking for the key all my life, but the door’s always been open.’ Nowadays, as a cook, they want to be famous. Just back off ! Enjoy it.
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