• Valerie Ferdinands both love the idea of helping others help themselves through Opportunity Internantional's programs. (Supplied by Valerie Ferdinands)
Curry is an Australian staple - but it wasn't always. Valerie Ferdinands talks then and now ahead of a cook-off this week against Olympian Stephanie Rice and a cook-a-curry fundraising event in October.
By
Stephen A Russell

12 Sep 2017 - 2:47 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2017 - 2:51 PM

When Valerie Ferdinands’ family migrated to Brisbane from India in 1965, the sweet smell of her father Joe’s diligently homemade curries would bring a steady procession of neighbours to their door.

“We grew up with our culture of inviting people over, the more the merrier, and it always has to be around some food,” the My Kitchen Rules runner-up says. “If you happened to pop round at dinner time, you could sit down and eat with the rest of the family. Money was scarce, sure, but we always had plenty of freshly cooked food for everyone.”

Back then, curry didn’t make regular appearances on Australian dinner tables. “When we first arrived, basically multicultural food wasn’t very common place,” Ferdinands tells SBS Food. “But as the years have gone by, my goodness, this country has completely opened up to beautiful cuisine from all over the world and curry is just such a common staple now in people’s households, it really is.”

Ferdinands reveals that one of the most treasured aspects of her time on MKR was that it brought lots of old neighbours out of the woodwork who recalled her late father’s cooking and abundant generosity, with lack of funds no impediment to cooking a fantastic curry, she insists. “The cheaper cuts of meat, all the better. That’s how my dad used to cook. He’d use ox tail or gravy beef and that make a delicious curry, that’s for sure.”

When she and her daughter (and co-contestant) Courtney were approached by charity organisation Opportunity International Australia - who provide small loans to help people kick start businesses in India, Indonesia and the Philippines – it was an instant yes, supporting the Great Australian Curry fundraising campaign. The annual event, held through October and November, encourages people to make and share a curry, and raise funds for Opportunity's work with people living in poverty in countries such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“Because I’m in business myself, I just love what they are doing, empowering people, particularly women, to start their own business,” Ferdinands says. “My daughter is an educator, and she just loves that that aspect comes into the equation, and food too. My goodness, perfect.”

The mother-daughter duo love cooking together, which brings back memories of Joe Ferdinands' favourite curry a spicy pork vindaloo.

“Courtney was pretty interested in cooking at a very early age, a bit like myself, stuck to my father’s hip,” she says. “Now she has her own style, having grown up in Australia.”

They will face down former Olympic swimmer Stephanie Rice and former Australian test cricketer Michael Kasprowicz in a curry cook-off at Brisbane’s INDRIYA restaurant this Thursday, ahead of the Great Australian Curry campaign’s start in October.

Both sporting heroes took part in the Great Australian Curry cook-off last year and Rice still demonstrates the competitive spirit that secured her three gold Olympic medals. “Somehow Michael won last year and I don’t know how that was possible, so this year I’ve been practising to make sure that does not happen again,” she laughs.

Mostly vegan, Rice favours a creamy pumpkin curry or a protein-rich dahl. “Curry is so amazing because it’s so diverse.”

Growing up, her family were regular visitors to the local Indian restaurant down the street that they still frequent to this day. Her time as a professional swimmer also accrued a loyal social media following in India, a country she has subsequently visited several times. “They make probably the world’s best curries,” she insists. “We don’t come close.”

Rice was glad to throw her weight behind such a rewarding campaign. “I really love that it’s positive reinforcement, giving a hand up rather than a hand out. You donate one round of $70, which is like a couple of coffees a day for two weeks, and that money could help support, over your lifetime, ten to twelve different families.”

Ferdinands agrees Opportunity International’s Great Australian Curry campaign is a fun way to help people living in poverty change their lives. “Food brings people together, it really does. We’re celebrating this very vibrant culture and cuisine of communities that are a little bit under-privileged and need a bit of help. Let’s get people together, cook a curry or go out to a restaurant and give a donation. It’s all about the fun.”

Catch Opportunity International Australia’s Great Australian Curry Cook-Off at Brisbane’s INDRIYA restaurant on September 14, or join the fundraising in October-November. 

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