When Christine Manfield goes to India, one of her favourite dining rituals involves an unlikely ingredient: butter. Each time the legendary chef and author finds herself in Hyderabad, the southern capital famous for its faded grandeur and its collision of Muslim and Hindu influences, she visits Govind Dosa. The street cart, or bandi, which sets up in a historic precinct called Ghansi Bazaar, is a microcosm of India’s culinary culture — soulful, democratic and completely bound up in daily life.
“[The owner] does what’s called a butter dosa and arrives with his big bucket of dough, chilli, herbs, spices and a tonne of butter,” laughs Manfield, who’s owned a string of iconic restaurants including East@West in London’s Covent Garden and Universal in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. A new edition of Manfield’s acclaimed cookbook Tasting India, originally published by Lantern Books in 2011, will be released in November.
“He cooks about six dosas at a time on a long, flat grill until they’re very crispy. Then, he adds potato, chilli powder and big chunks of butter before rolling them up in paper and handing them out. There’s a queue from about seven in the morning until about 1pm when another chaat cart moves into that spot. Around the corner, there’s a fantastic lassi shop made from the most beautiful fresh milk. It really sets you up.”
“He cooks about six dosas at a time on a long, flat grill until they’re very crispy. Then, he adds potato, chilli powder and big chunks of butter before rolling them up in paper and handing them out."
Manfield, who helped introduce spices to mainstream Australian cooking, has spent the last two decades making return visits to India. The country’s rich and complicated culinary history has often been exoticised, its regional diversity erased in favour of shallow stereotypes.
Manfield has no such intention and it shows. The new version of Tasting India is updated to include three new chapters on the Punjab, Gujarat and Hyderabad.
The book, part cookbook, part travelogue, takes readers everywhere from Sikkim, a Himalayan area bisected by hot springs and rivers, where locals enjoy dishes like Tibetan Chimney Soup, to the beaches of Goa, where Portuguese colonial influences give rise to dishes like chorico (chorizo) sausage with dhal and chicken xacuti, a fiery curry thick with fresh coconut and lime juice.
Cooks in the West are still wising up to the importance of regional, seasonal cooking. But Tasting India shows us how this idea has always been intrinsic to Indian food culture. For Manfield, there’s no better expression of the subcontinent’s regional complexity than biryani, the much-loved rice dish that has origins in Persia and was refined in the kitchens of the Mughal emperors.
“I love biryani and you can get these big, heavy meaty versions in Lucknow and Delhi but when you visit Hyderabad, the southernmost Muslim royal city, the preparation changes,” she explains “And then you can travel across the northern part of Kerala to Tellicherry, another important Muslim town that’s a big fishing port, the biryani is made with fish and mussels and prawns. In Hyderabad, a wonderful older woman taught me how to make white chicken biryani. It’s not colourful – it’s just chicken, rice and yoghurt, but my God, the flavour is so satisfying! She was a real fountain of knowledge about the history of royal cooking in that city, but sadly she passed away this year.”
Manfield says that she hoped to tell the story about how food is cooked in modern India. The book ducks and weaves between living rooms and street carts, lavish restaurants in Rajasthani palaces and the dhabas, humble restaurants frequented by office workers. In doing so, she captures the kaleidoscopic nature of the country’s food culture. But Tasting India, which exclusively features family recipes provided by the cast of people Manfield has met on her travels, also centres Indian voices. In some ways, the book is a tribute to the unsung heroes of Indian kitchens – the home cooks, vendors, guides and grandmothers that keep these cuisines alive.
“Usually people think about Indian cuisine in a really monosyllabic way, focusing on the few dishes that sum up Indian cuisine which does it a disservice — I wanted to paint a picture of the diversity that is really there,” she says. “We embraced the regional differences of regional differences of Italy and France and Spain a long time ago but we’ve been much slower to embrace the cuisines of India and China, two of the most populous cultures of the world. I wanted to show readers how Indians really cook. And by showing respect to the food culture, you are smothered with endless generosity. The fact that Indians have embraced the book is the loveliest thing.”
Cook the book
This can be served with other vegetable dishes and makes a great accompaniment to grilled fish or chicken, especially during summer when fresh, light flavours are in demand.
A Chettinad classic from southern India.
I sometimes serve this with roasted chicken that I have rubbed with similar spices to complement the chickpeas.
This recipe may feature in the India Himalaya section of Christine Manfield's cookbook, but you can enjoy this fiery-warm take on eggs at any altitude.
The recipes are from Tasting India (Simon and Schuster, $49.99) by Christine Manfield (photography by Anson Smart).