Udayavni Special

Impossible to define Indian cuisine: Australia-based Sri Lankan chef Peter Kuruvita


PTI, Mar 3, 2020, 3:57 PM IST

New Delhi: It took three decades and multiple visits across the length and breadth of India for celebrity chef Peter Kuruvita to conclude that it is impossible to define the “incredible and elaborate” Indian cuisine.

According to the Australia-based Sri Lankan chef, the food in India changes “every five steps around the country”, thanks to the distinct gastronomical cultures of different regions.

“There is just no definition for Indian cuisine. People would tell me that Sri Lankan food was just like Indian food, and I would ask what they thought Indian food was. They have no idea what Indian cuisine actually is. It is not just ‘butter chicken’ or ‘rogan josh’,” the chef says.

Kuruvita has been traveling to India since the 1980s, and during his most recent visit, he whipped up some native Sri Lankan delicacies, particularly seafood, as part of “Table Stories”, a dining concept by FoodInk Expeditions and Roseate Hotels and Resorts.

The elaborate spread featured some of the chef’s signature dishes including the snapper curry with tamarind chutney, “Ambulthial” (Sri Lankan sour dry fish curry), Pol Sambhal (a coconut-based dish with Maldive fish), accompanied by village bread, curd and treacle.

Having made several trips to India in the past, it is no surprise that Kuruvita has a list of favorite Indian treats. “Vada pav” and Frankie from the streets of Mumbai top the charts.

A big fan of street food, the chef not just relishes the myriad flavours that the lanes of India have to offer, but also enjoys watching the local vendors deftly whip up one item after another, which he says, is no less than a “spectacle”.

“The street food is so damn good. Like, up in the north getting to see ‘puris’ being stuffed and garnished with chat masala and tamarind chutney that is the stuff,” he said.

“You just have to tell the shopkeeper what you want and he will make it so well. And if you see them, they are actually carrying the whole kitchen on their shoulders. This whole thing is amazing and so real,” says the chef who owns two restaurants, one each in Australia and the Fiji Islands.

Between the two restaurants, he serves an array of sea-food delicacies like smoked ocean trout; prawns in black pepper and curry leaf sauce; seared tuna with sweet crackling pork; poached prawn with pineapple, coconut, and coriander; roast scallops with spiced pickled cabbage and more.

He also has several vegetarian specialties like cashew nut curry, crispy eggplant, that come with a range of salads inspired by Asian flavors like a vegetable salad prepared in Thai sauce ‘nam jim’, and Bengali salad.

Other treats that the chef specializes in include Sri Lankan style fish cakes, and cardamom ice-cream blocks.

Cooking professionally since the age of 15, Kuruvita owes his career to his grandmother, who first kindled his interest in the culinary arts, and whose recipes he still holds on to.

He says that to date when he cooks he feels that his grandmother is sitting next to him with a stick in her hand waiting to charge at him at the smallest of the mistakes.

“The egg curry that I made here (for Table Stories) is exactly how my grandmother used to make it. The sauce she made brimmed with spices and flavors and that is a recipe that I carry with me, no matter where I go in the world,” he says.

It is, perhaps, this fondness for tradition why he treads so cautiously on the path of experimentation, as far as recipes are concerned.

Notwithstanding his praise for the new crop of chefs who are “pushing the boundaries” in the gastronomical space, he says that it should be ensured that the innovation does not come at the cost of “tradition, roots, tastes, and flavor”.

Table Stories, a gourmet pop-up experience, aims to bring world-renowned chefs together to tell their stories in food.

Other chefs expected to be featured in Table Stories include prominent names like former Master Chef India judge Kunal Kapoor, Michelin star chef Atul Kochhar, and star of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” and owner of London-based ‘Darjeeling Express’ Asma Khan.

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