Tarla Dalal’s Dal-Bhat-Roti-Sabzi

Cooking has never been more ostentatious. Today’s chefs aspire to be seductive, multi-faceted renegades. As for Tarla Dalal? She was simply pragmatic. Practicality might not make for riveting television. In theory. Yet, Twitter has been abuzz with the news of her passing away on Wednesday. Just the day before, social networking sites were filled with news of the death of Chef Charlie Trotter from Chicago, whose eponymous trail-blazing restaurant introduced America to the idea of organic, seasonal and vegetarian food in the late 1980s.

Given this is the age of experimental cooking, with complex equipment, exotic ingredients and convoluted techniques, it’s interesting that these self-taught, no-nonsense, old-style chefs have made such an impact on the Twitter generation. But then Dalal’s strength was her realistic approach to everyday cooking. Despite her unassuming manner and unpretentious recipes she made such a powerful impact that home cooking in India can be divided into pre and post-Dalal. After all, this was a country where women did the everyday cooking, learning traditional recipes from their mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers. Which meant home-cooked food was always the food of your own region, community and culture. Dalal’s books changed that by bringing together popular recipes from the North, South, East and West in a seductively simple format, encouraging readers to experiment with new spices, flavours and ideas. Her first book, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, published in 1974, was instantly successful with Indian housewives who went on to become her biggest market over the next four decades. It sold a record 1,50,000 copies in total.

I met her for the first time in 2007, soon after she got a Padma Shri. Faintly bewildered by all the attention, (our conversation was interrupted every few minutes by excited women brandishing their old, yellowing, spice-stained copies of her books, asking for autographs) she said the award astonished her. “When someone told me on the phone, I said ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ I was surprised,” she said, shaking her head incredulously, “But it gave me great happiness. Nobody has been given a Padma Shri for cooking before!”

Despite having written over 100 books, which have been translated into various languages from Marathi to Russian, selling more than 3 million copies around the world, she insisted that she never intended to build an empire. “After the first book I told myself… that’s more than enough. I can’t write more than one book. Never in my life did I think I would end up writing so many.”

Staunchly old fashioned, she maintained that girls should learn to cook to please the men in her lives. Coming from her, it sounded more endearing than anti-feminist because she so earnestly believed in food as an expression of love. When she was engaged her husband, who was then studying Chemical Engineering at Michigan University in the U.S. would write to her about food. She said, “He used to write saying he wanted to eat this and that; all complicated things I had never heard of… I was 20 years old and could cook only DBRS.” (This, by the way, is where I first learnt that old-fashioned acronym for ‘Dal Bhat Roti Sabzi’.)

When they got married in 1960, she moved to Mumbai. By 1966, she was teaching cooking from home. Once the first book launched, her career began snowballing. She went on to host a cooking show, publish a bi-monthly magazine and run one of India’s largest food websites.

Astutely choosing to cater to a mass market, she standardised and simplified recipes, using local ingredients and simple techniques. I once watched her teach a crowd of women how to make a cheesecake, which started out as a mousse. “Add more cocoa and that’s one variation,” she said. Then, she told the audience to add flour and baking powder to turn it into a hot chocolate pudding. Finally, she mixed in a couple of spoons of supermarket cheese spread then poured it over a base of crushed digestive biscuits. For the cream, she suggested soya cream, telling people, “buy two litres and keep it in the freezer. It stays for a year.”

Are the food snobs horrified? Well, yes, her recipes are not high-brow, astonishing or even particularly challenging. But they are always economical, flexible and forgiving. Dalal was smart enough to figure one unchanging fact of life: even flamboyant cooks sometimes just want to make kichadi for dinner. In the end, it’s the DBRS that keeps us going.


Soju bombs and veggie epiphanies: Slow Food Korea

We begin with soju bombs. A Korean friend shows us how to line up two metal chopsticks on a mug of beer, and balance a shotglass of soju on top. Then, she bangs her fist against the wobbly table dislocating the chopsticks so the shotglass falls into the beer mug. “Now drink,” she grins. We obediently lift our soju-spiked beer.

I’m in Namyangju, a lush-green town about an hour away from Seoul, in South Korea to attend Slow Food’s first AsiO Gusto, which brings together small-scale sustainable producers, chefs and opinion-makers from 40 Asian and Oceanic countries. While most of the days are devoted to conferences dedicated to finding ways to protect food traditions and their custodians, mealtimes are reserved for exploring local food. Barbeque and soju bombs, just like Psy and Gangnam may be Korea’s best known exports, but they’re just one facet of an ancient, traditional and sturdy food culture.

Of course we try the barbeque, though. Popular culture is popular for a reason — it’s fun. At night we walk to an open air restaurant close to our hotel, drawn by their dramatically crackling fire. It’s cold and the owner — noticing us shivering — runs into the kitchen and emerges with bright fluffy blankets for each of us. The little round metal table has a cavity in the centre, into which a waiter places a tray of hot coals, covered with a grill. While the kitchen prepares the meat, we go into a side room, dominated by a loud television, and fill bowls with the traditional line up of starters: kimchi, sprouts, mushrooms, spring onions to take to our tables. When the pork belly and chops arrive, they’re spread on the table grill to finish cooking, after which we pull out the blistering pieces with long tongs and eat them wrapped in lettuce, along with fat green chillies, sharp fresh garlic and a dipping sauce made with sesame oil.

Contrary to the Korean food stereotype, it’s not all meat. Lunch is often bibimbap, a bowl of rice artfully topped with bright vegetables, julienned cucumber, dark spongy mushrooms, long crunchy sprouts, emerald spinach and intensely orange-red bigochujang (chili pepper paste.) Salt is minimal and nothing is fried, but the vegetables are fresh, local and organic so flavours are intense. Slow Food’s focus is re-introducing people — especially children — to the joys of unprocessed food. Epiphanies from home-grown vegetables sound ridiculous, till you actually taste one. I become a convert at a silent lunch, served by cooks who walk into a conference on ‘Food and Spirituality’ bearing flowers and candles. They hand each of us a clay tray. My heart sinks as I survey the meal: raw vegetables and barely-salted sticky rice with beans wrapped in a lotus leaf. Then I bite into the pumpkin, and my eyes widen at its sweet, intense, powerful flavour. The lotus stem is crisp, yet moisty. The mushroom, firm and juicy. For the first time in years, I cheerfully finish all my vegetables. And I don’t even need a soju bomb to end the meal.

Tteokbokki, snail cream & curly fries: Exploring Seoul

I’m going all Zero Dark Thirty on the egg-bread man. I narrow my eyes and take a step forward. “So is it baked?” He’s unfazed. “Try one,” he says in Korean, smiling widely. They look delicious. But I need answers, and it’s too early in the interrogation to snack. So I shake my head firmly. He hands me one anyway. As I pay, I turn to Narae Yun, my friend-guide-interpreter in Seoul. “Ask him how he makes egg-bread.” She translates. He shrugs, pulls another tray out of the oven and chuckles mysteriously. “Fine. I’ll figure it out myself,” I say sulkily, taking a bite and expecting it to taste like breakfast. However Gaeran Bbang is a world away from conventional eggs and bread. It’s light, fluffy and sweet, with an unexpected streak of salt and hit of fragrant spices. Reminiscent of donuts, nursery rhymes and Sunday mornings. I’m foxed. And more determined than ever to extract the recipe.

“Try again,” I ask Narae, holding up my notebook in an attempt to look intimidating. “He says there are 10 ingredients,” she translates. “Nutmeg?” I ask. He smiles. “Cinnamon?” Smile. “Mace?” Smile. I lean forward and glare, “Then what is in the batter.” As Narae listens to his answer, nodding her head thoughtfully, I smile victoriously. She turns to me seriously, “He says to tell you Indian women are very pretty.” Foiled. And now I’m too flattered to pick a fight.

Like Mr. Egg-Bread, Seoul is unexpectedly charming. I’m warned about insurmountable language barriers, live octopus dinners and dog soup before I go. A few days in the multi-faceted city prove that the stereotype, like most stereotypes, is a caricature of the truth. While admittedly all three features exist, they’re certainly not the norm. The pulsating city is a blend of the familiar and exotic, especially when it comes to food. From my hotel in Hongdae, the hip university quarter, I explore coffee chains offering frappes, espressos and waffles, as well as quirky cafes. (Over breakfast a guest even tells me about a café where guests can pet lambs as they drink their cappuccinoes.) After shopping for quirky cocktail rings, ‘Gangnam’ style ankle socks and trying on South Korea’s famed ‘snail cream’ at a bright cosmetics store, Narae and I wander into a chic restaurant designed to look like a nursery school. The short menu offers interpretations of street food. We order tteokbokki: chewy glutinous rice tubes (called tteok) and fish cakes soaked in Korea’s signature fiery gochujang sauce. “All of us ate this after school,” says Narae, adding, “The idea is to remind people of their childhood.”

Nostalgia seems to be a popular theme here. The food is closely linked to history, and locals are as sentimental about the past as they are enthusiastic about the inevitable wave of Westernised food. It’s an interesting balance: traditional tea houses, retro restaurants and multinational donut chains, all packed on any given night. Since we’re dabbling in history, we decide to eat Budae Jjigae for dinner. “It’s Soldier Stew,” says Narae, as the waiters hand us bibs to tie around our necks. I’m eyeing the bib suspiciously, as the table grill — a standard feature in most traditional Korean restaurant — is fired up, and the dish set on it is filled with spam, sausage, ham, rice cakes, kimchi inexplicable slices of American cheese and a broth. “We were very poor after the Korean War, so we made soup with whatever we could buy from the American soldiers,” says Narae, breaking a pack of instant noodles into the mix. The incongruous mixture of U.S. army rations spits and sizzles (hence the bib) as the ingredients merge and the broth cooks down, transforming the dish into a hearty stew.

The next day, I head to Gangnam to meet my hipster friend Joy Miryeo, who’s still recovering from last night’s party. Holding her head, she gingerly suggests we begin with lunch — a spicy seafood stew ideal for hangovers. The restaurant is stylishly dim, and reportedly a favourite with K-Pop stars. A heavy tray filled with squiggly octopus, juicy prawns and knobbly crab is set on the table grill, along with the ubiquitous tteok, sprouts and minari (Korean greens). As the broth thickens, it becomes increasingly rich, powerful and moreish.

We wander through Isadong’s warren of art galleries and souvenir shops after lunch, admiring the fish-shaped Bungeoppang (sweet cakes filled cinnamon-laced red bean paste). There are peculiar spiral cut potatoes, dipped in cheese and chilli powder. And dramatic but fairly tasteless ice cream hooks: foot long curly cones filled with vanilla ice cream. I sneakily eat a steaming Hotteok pancake, stuffed with molten brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped nuts as a pre-dinner snack.

Dinner is Samgyeopsal at a noisy restaurant, where we swap stories and do soju (the local rice wine) shots. Equipped with dangerous-looking scissors and tongs, Joy expertly cuts luscious strips of pork, and cooks them along with kimchi on the table grill. Following custom, we wrap the meat in lettuce and sesame leaves along with sliced onions, sprouts and kimchi, before dipping it into a trio of powerful sauces.

Emboldened by the soju, we continue to party at Prost, a rollicking bar in Itaewon, popular with backpackers, tourists and American soldiers. More proof that Seoul has a flair for bringing diverse elements together — whether they’re ingredients, cultures or nationalities — to create an alluring brew.

Treasure Island: Koh Phangan

This is the island time forgot.

More significantly, this is the island McDonald’s forgot. No regimented French fries, conformist fried chicken and skinny lattes here. Instead we roll out of bed and slouch across to Rambutan café next door, for strong local iced coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, served in a tall glass clinking with chipped ice. Two fat puppies tussle under the table, coming up every five minutes or so to rub their cold, wet noses on our knees.

The lady that runs the restaurant takes our order with a shy smile. As we start on our coffee, her husband bows and disappears, like a zippy little magician. We watch him zooming towards the local market on his scooter to buy ingredients for our breakfast. Brown, airy omelettes served with crusty garlic bread fluffy, brushed with a generous amount of golden butter. Pad Thai, bright with flavour. Fresh, local, regional. It doesn’t get better than this.

We’re in Koh Phangan island, Thailand, famous for its notorious Full Moon parties. It’s a ‘girl gang holiday’ (five of us in all) and we decide we’re too grown up for Full Moon’s drunken shenanigans, involving buckets of vodka, fluorescent body paint and overly-rambunctious 18 year olds. So we fly into Surat Thani and take a three-hour ferry ride to the island as the moon begins to wane. The party crowd is heading home, resplendent in striking tattoos, golden tans and Ray Bans. As they leave, massage parlours empty, restaurant lights dim and beach bars grow quiet.

Thailand’s a conveyor belt for tourists. Everything geared towards quick and profitable service. Whether you’re in a gaudy Bangkok bar or waiting in line for a pancake from a vendor in Pattaya, you’ll be served with impersonal efficiency. Eventually you get so used to the practical commerce of tourism, you stop expecting to make connections or have conversations. In Phangan, we rediscover the joys of travel. And food.

After cautioning us against hurling his TV through the window, Canadian Scott Williamson, who runs Baan Tai Backpackers, where we are staying, draws us a map, pointing out the best places to eat. Fresh cheap sushi at the night market. Mexican tacos with frozen margaritas down the road. And an honest to goodness French restaurant right opposite the hotel. Our reaction: ‘But… But why would we throw your TV out of the window?” Well, this is Koh Phangan. Party island. You never know.

As it turns out, we’re probably his best-behaved guests, despite our penchant for frightfully pink Bacardi Breezers with breakfast. Fortunately, the island is so laid back, no one seems to mind. At chic Nira’s Café by the pier, as we eat fluffy pancakes sprinkled with tart, sweet lemon sugar, the waiter asks my Breezer-addicted friend if she’d like a cup of coffee. It’s 8 a.m. after all. Then he notices her drink, and laughs, “Ah. Alcohol. That’s better!” Nira’s was started by a couple who took the wrong boat, landed in Phangan by accident in the 1980s, and fell in love with the island.

We hear stories like that all the time. And wonder if we’ll be able to get on our planes home when the time comes.

Every restaurant charms us in different ways. The French restaurateur at Franck’s introduces us to Calvados, an Apple brandy from Normandy, served with hot water and honey to deal with bad throats caused by too many beers at the neighbouring pool bar. In crazy Haad Rin, site of the full moon party, we find a shack on the beach, where they serve a pancake bigger than our faces.

Later in the week, we shake ourselves out of our island stupor, and head to Koh Samui, an hour away by ferry. Our cab drops us at Chaweng beach, right opposite McDonald’s. That’s when we realise this is the first food chain we’re seeing all week. Breakfast is at a fancy hotel buffet — featuring food as disappointing as the hotel is pretty. We relocate to trendy Arc Bar for lunch throbbing with funky house music and Louis Vuitton tourists. The food’s tasty and stylish, designed for jet setters who want to nibble on demure canapés as they work on their tans. Frou-frou ham and black olive sandwiches with icy Caipirinhas.

Rambutan welcomes us back to Phangan with open arms and spicy pork fried rice. When we finally leave the island, they give each of us a hug and a postcard. The message scrawled carefully across the back: “Thank you very much. May you succeed in life. We hope to see you again. Love you so much.”

How can we not go back?


Thai Safari

Pad Thai

We break down mid-safari. Since this isn’t Masai Mara, we’re ridiculously laid back. Besides, it’s stifling in the bus. So we saunter out, watched by astonished deer. And Japanese tourists. They drive past in meticulously sealed vans. We wave cockily. Till a pair of stocky wildebeest charge at us. Unfortunately our response is more Britney Spears than David Attenborough. Though to be fair, Spears probably wouldn’t have squealed like a little girl.

A passing ranger shoos them away like they’re goats, and the wildebeest obediently take their high jinks elsewhere. Hopefully not too close to the lions. Oh, yes. Did I mention there were lions? And tigers. Lying side by side in a detached stupor barely 200 metres away. (Bangkok’s Safari World is a strange and troubling place.) Apparently it’s a ‘picturesque African wilderness setting’. I’ve seen more realistic African vistas on Dora the Explorer.

It begins to thunder in the distance. Just as the scene gets a little too “Jurassic Park” for our liking, a replacement bus arrives. And a good thing too. Otherwise this column would not have been about having lunch. It would have been about being lunch.

Lunch by the way is as mystifying as our safari. We’re proudly told it’s an ‘International buffet’ set in a tropical forest. We end up eating fried rice under plastic trees. Why is tourism always so bad for a country’s cuisine? Logically, it should be a great impetus to showcase the best you have to offer. However, it’s a universally accepted fact that ‘touristy’ places generally have bad food, sullen service and ludicrously high prices.

Fortunately, it’s just as easy to avoid a tourist trap as it is to trip into one. Google makes planning a foodie-holiday really easy. Read articles, food blogs and follow local websites to decide where to eat. If there’s a restaurant you want to try, you can find the website, check the menu and even make a booking before you travel.

When you’re travelling, keep away from the tourists. Tourists tend to have a herd mentality, and very few of them move beyond the areas they are bussed to. They do all their shopping, eating and drinking around the key ‘sights’ of the city. Walk for ten minutes away from the discounted souvenirs and ticket counters, and you’ll find yourself amid the locals. Then just stop someone and ask for a recommendation.

We take a train into the heart of the city looking for dinner. Walking down Sukhumvit, we’re channelling Mike Tyson’s version of ‘One Night in Bangkok’. That’s how we find Nancy, a wise-cracking, Panama-wearing, cocktail-juggling roadside bartender, who fixes us icy margaritas. We sip them regally, seated besides a main road watching traffic whiz past. It’s unexpectedly relaxing.

Following her directions, we end on a bustling neon street, where vendors sell sizzling satay under bright pink lights. I’m a little wary of satay. I’ve learnt to make detailed enquiries about innocuous deep-fried objects served on sticks in South East Asia. Especially when they’re served beside deep-fried bugs.

Yet, I slip up in Pattaya. We are at a night market, torn between candy coloured sunglasses and oversized hats, when we see the satay seller. It looks delicious, and she assures us its chicken. “Fair enough,” we shrug, ordering two. The first is chewy and tube like. “Intestines,” I squeal, going green. “Yum, Yum,” says my friend, chewing her way happily through them, and simultaneously trying a hat so big it looks like it’s swallowing her head. I try the second stick. Deep fried chicken skin.

We ramble on, and make friends with the sweet corn lady. She shaves it off the cob and tosses it with pepper, salt and slices of coconut, ending with a generous squirt of lemon juice. There’s a street band playing, and crafty entrepreneurs fill buckets with ice and cold beers to sell them to passers-by. It’s 2 a.m., and we’re in oversized hats accessorised with ridiculously pink bows. It seems like the perfect time to eat pancakes. The pancake lady doesn’t bat an eyelash as we approach, looking like a pair of batty escapees from the sets of Pride and Prejudice. She swiftly pours out batter in a pool of golden butter, slices in ripe mangoes and tops it with a generous dollop of condensed milk.

We’ve lost the tourists. To be honest, we’ve also lost ourselves. “Ah well,” my friend The Hat shrugs. “Let’s just get some more intestines.”

Seriously Slow Food

Terence working his way through a plate of Hokkien mee


I kissed a snail. And not in that metaphorical ‘someday my Prince will come’ sense. I mean an honest-to-goodness crustacean (or would that be mollusk?) from a plate of stir fried spicy sea snails.

I blame Terence entirely. He made it look so easy. “Just scoop up a shell with sauce, and suck,” he says, languidly working his way through the first few. “We call them chut, chuts,” because that’s the noise you make when you eat them,” he laughs. Later, I’m told “chut chutting” also means ‘kissing a snail’ in Cantonese. They taste musky, of dark water and deep fish tanks. The sauce is thin and fiery, a clever foil to their chewy heaviness.

This adventure begins at the Taman Paramount railway station, in Petaling Jaya, a Malaysian city adjoining Kuala Lumpur. We’re meeting Terence, who is the co-founder of ‘Food Tour Malaysia’, (http://www.foodtourmalaysia.com/) which focuses on guiding tourists through the country’s intimidatingly diverse cuisine. And I’m keen on exploring a world beyond gleaming food courts set in shopping malls, where I’ve been eating little besides Char Kway teow, sweet Kaya toast and steaming teh tarik, ever since I landed in Kuala Lumpur.

As we walk to Terence’s car, he explains why we’re in the more prosaic Petaling Jaya instead of glitzy Kuala Lumpur. “Most people work in Kuala Lumpur, and live here. So it has a much more local flavour… The restaurants are home grown and passed down from generation to generation. Recipes are guarded.” He adds thoughtfully, “Chinese cooks are like Kung Fu masters. If there are 10 secrets they will only tell you eight.”

We begin at his favourite Malaysian hawker centre. It’s dinnertime, and customers relax over sentimental soap operas on television while chatting with the cooks over dinner. As I watch a bowl of cockles breathe heavily, Terence gestures to a stall owner and he brings us a handful of warm banana leaf packets, held together with toothpicks.

“Otak Otak,” says Terence, explaining how the stingray is marinated, wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. It’s spicy, with sharp definite flavours: kaffir lime, red chillies and smoky charcoal. We’re given small blue bowls of aromatic lamb stew next, tasting of coriander, pepper and golden fried onions. Of course no Malaysian meal is complete without nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and served with crisp anchovies, peanuts, a boiled egg and generous dollop of spicy sambal that stains the rice red.

The next stop is the rambunctiously energetic Chinese Restaurant Ahwa, known for using coal fires to give their food an unmistakable edge.

There are cheerful yellow-orange paper lamps dancing between ceiling fans like pineapples on parade. We begin with tall glasses of cool barley water, and refreshingly tangy lemonade spiked with dried sour plums.

Terence orders vegetarian Popiah rolls, rice crepes stuffed with shredded jicama, a Mexican Turnip, stir fried so its unusual nutty flavour and juiciness is a contrast to the crisp cucumber and bean sprouts, all topped with a thick sweet bean sauce. There’s also a plate of boiled squid, curling at the edges, tossed with spinach and covered with big handful of crushed peanuts. We also eat Kwao Teo in a glistening glutinous sauce, embedded with coral prawns. And chicken satay served with an addictively sweet-salty peanut sauce, spiked with galangal. The snails make their appearance at this stage. They’re followed by another challenging dish-fried Hokkien mee, thick noodles blackened with rich soy sauce, and cooked in pork lard. It’s a cult dish is Kuala Lumpur, and Terence’s infectious enthusiasm — the same reason I’m a crustacean’s kissing cousin — inspires me to try a few bites. Let’s just say I expanded my horizons, and then went back to eating satay.

Dessert is at a bustling night market, alive with chatter and randomly placed tube lights. We head to a Chinese sweet soup stall, featuring massive bowls from which you serve yourself. We try sweet red bean, mung bean and peanut soup, sitting on unstable plastic chairs and soaking up the sense of community.

“Indian?” asks Terence. It seems like the ideal way to end the night.

The Indian hawker centre’s reassuringly familiar, alive with Tamil music and girls in raucously coloured skirts. We’re served hot masala tea and sweet appams, with a jiggly core of coconut milk and jaggery.

I chat with the store-owner in Tamil. “What’s he saying?” asks Terence, curiously. I plot my revenge. The joys of turning tables on a local when you’re abroad!

Kuala Lumpur: Going Underground

With Jennifer (centre) after a spectacular dinner.

For how long can you admire the Petronas Towers? Following tourist trap tradition in Kuala Lumpur, we have a drink at the chic Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel, dutifully gasping at the startlingly pretty towers while sipping on over-priced cocktails.

Then, we rebel. Hop into a cab and head to Jennifer’s Underground Supper Club. We’re determined to make the most of our ‘city break’ by exploring layers of Kuala Lumpur independently. There has to be more to Malaysia than the staid KL-Cameron Highlands-Batu Caves-package advertised mindlessly by hordes of over-enthusiastic travel agents.

We drive away from the city’s sparkling skyscrapers into quiet residential areas filled with sprawling bungalows. Jennifer Palencia aka ‘Jen’ is part of the first wave of cooks in Asia opening its homes to guests. Underground restaurants such as this allow people to experience unconventional settings and unexpected food. I found Jen on Facebook, and booked the dinner online. Even as we draw up to the house, I’m not quite sure about what to expect.

Natasha, Jennifer’s eldest daughter, is standing at the door in a stripy apron welcoming guests with smiles and hugs. Featuring three fat tabby cats, who stalk around like stern food inspectors, the setting manages to be both formal and welcoming. We walk into a living room draped in golden light from chandeliers twisted with flowers. Every surface is covered with quirky knick knacks ranging from polka-dotted porcelain gumboots to a big pot flashing with tiny golden fish. As we’re assigned our places on a long tables set with professional precision, featuring gleaming wine glasses and a regiment of cutlery, the room fills with soft jazz music. The artist is Mia Palencia, Jen’s second daughter and a popular jazz singer.

Everyone’s dressed up in pretty dresses and stiff shirts. Jen’s youngest daughter is sitting on my right, along with a group of her friends discussing the best places to grab a snack after a night of clubbing. They open a bottle of wine for everyone. The generosity is as unexpected as it is endearing. It quickly feels like we’re having dinner with friends and family. An astonishing feeling in a city where we know nobody.

On my left is a charismatic young man who works for Facebook. “And don’t even think of telling me you hate the new timeline,” he groans, mock rolling his eyes, before enthusiastically helping me plot my next few meals in Kuala Lumpur. His charming housemate pulls out her iPhone to give directions.

In the meantime, Natasha arrives holding up and explaining the first course: mushroom tartlets, with buttery pastry. The evening unfolds like theatre. There are risotto balls, savoury madeleines topped with plump caviar and moreish truffles of chevre and cream cheese rolled in crunchy crushed almonds then wrapped around juicy grapes. And these are just the highlights.

By the time we hit the entrée, luscious Portobello mushrooms filled with a blend of ricotta cheese and sundried tomatoes, we’re on a food high. While we eat the main course, roast beef served with billowy Yorkshire pudding, Natasha introduces her teenage brother Christian Palencia (So that’s four children in all) who strums on his guitar, and performs a couple of original songs. He’s cutting his first record this month (I’ve been listening to him on SoundCloud ever since I got back).

Despite protests on being stuffed, we manage dessert (And some of us manage two). Apple pecan buttercrisp pie scented with cinnamon and served with ice cream. And flaky French pastry topped with vanilla bean flecked Chantilly cream and berries.

I’ve been plotting another first on this holiday — signing up for a cooking class. Jen’s tourist cooking classes are fairly recent, but have enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor. I’m back at her house bright and early the next morning. My classmate today is Chris, a hunky young Californian backpacker who’s travelling the world. Over cups of strong coffee in Jen’s living room, he tells me about his adventures in Beijing involving encounters with fried scorpions (Backpackers always have the best conversation openers). We’re learning how to make Malaysia’s staple dish: Nasi Lemak. The kitchen is bright and airy, mercifully air-conditioned and we cook in time to a peppy playlist courtesy a laptop in the corner.

Natasha showing Chris how to make a killer turmeric chicken

The class is deceptively laidback, with lots of banter and laughing, between cooking tips and history lessons. Later, I realise I inadvertently learnt a lot about Malaysia in the process. Jen’s husband Brabon opens by showing us how to make his ‘Fast and furious salad’, a crafty mix of tinned pineapples and cucumbers spiked with chillies, shallots, vinegar and lime. By mid-morning, there’s turmeric chicken roasting in the oven, coconut rice bubbling quietly on a stove, and we’re knee deep in colourful family history. Like much of Malaysia, Jen’s family is a mix of various influences. Her grandfather was Australian, sent to Sabah to manage a plantation. He married a local girl. Her Eurasian father fell in love with a woman of Filipino and Spanish decent.

When he was captured as a prisoner of war, Jen tells us, her mother would swim underwater to set up fishing nets so she could feed her children. Brabon’s grandfather was a Belgian soldier who married a girl from Sabah. Their daughter in turn married a Filipino man and had nine children, the youngest of whom was Brabon.

As we settle for lunch, Christian comes downstairs and teaches us how to tie a batik sarong, while Natasha mixes us rose milk, made with ruby-coloured syrup, thick evaporated milk and lots of ice. They tell us, with unconcealed pride, how Jen was Sabah’s first woman DJ. “We lived so dangerously,” sighs Jen. “We would leave the club at 3 a.m., then take a boat to an island to swim in pitch darkness.” The children grew up running on the beaches and swimming in the sea. “We’re a real Malaysian family,” smiles Jennifer. “We’re American, European, Asian. And we cannot live without our Indian roti-dosais !”

(Find Jen’s Supper Club on Facebook or call them on +60 377287909)

Melbourne: More than just Kangaroo Burgers

Hippy gourmet meets hipster-chic. Sustainable, recyclable, biodynamic. And always – unabashedly provocative.

Greenhouse by Joost could be a metaphor for the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival as well as contemporary Victorian cuisine. A living ‘pop up’ restaurant, the Greenhouse is as flamboyant as it is conscientious. As rooted at it is rebellious. As avant-garde as it is traditional. Sounds as pretentious as it is ephemeral? You’re in for a surprise. Starting with our waiter (who in that uniquely Melbournian way, looks like he spends every lunch break at the gym), flaunting a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Greenhouse takes the piss.’ Quite literally.

Created by Joost Bakker, Dutch florist turned artist turned eco-warrior, this restaurant set beside the muddy Yarra river has a life span of just 20 days, which is how long the festival runs. One of the focal points of the festival, it’s famously self reliant. To the extent of creating its own energy by harvesting urine from the men’s toilets. It will be used to fertilize 20 hectares of mustard crop, the oil from which will power next year’s Greenhouse.

Entering the restaurant’s Lego-like arrangement of three shipping containers, I weave through vats of basil and stop to admire Joost’s signature ‘plant walls’ filled with pots of strawberries. This building is the culmination of years of research by designers, builders, engineers, scientists, farmers and chefs. Inside, it’s fragrant with the scent of fresh wood shavings. In the flickering yellow light of beeswax candles, muscled chefs flex their tattoos under meticulously ripped t-shirts. The beer is artisan. The food local. The structure cozy. “Our walls are filled with straw bales to keep interiors warm. The floor’s made of old conveyor belts from a factory,” smiles Joost, who pops by to say hello. “And all our wine, beer and milk come in returnable kegs.”

Drinking water from a clunky jam jar and eating baba ganoush off a wine bottle that’s been reheated and reformed into a serving dish, I can almost hear the restaurant breathe. Graffiti above the bar reads “Imagine buildings that grow food.” This is a model building for urban agriculture. Mushrooms spurt from logs along the wall. Above us, the roof garden is lush with lemon grass, basil and rocket. And then of course, there are those strawberry walls. Rene Redezpi, commonly acknowledged to be one of the world’s best chefs and inspiration for the current food foraging trend, cooked a meal here for the festival. It’s a good place as any to start unraveling Melbourne’s unique food style.

Australia’s multicultural immigration program enables it to absorb authentic food cultures from around the world. Being ‘Down Under’ seems to have worked to its advantage. With a wide array of lush seasonal ingredients and a crop of young talented Chefs, instead of being buffeted by transient trends of world cuisine, Australia’s absorbed various ethnic influences, melding them together to create its own distinctive style. It’s not all Crocodile steaks, Kangaroo burgers and Vegemite sandwiches, as the Food and Wine Festival proved.

The event began with the ‘World’s Longest Lunch’ set on a sun dappled long table, along the river. The setting’s earthy, rural, sophisticated. Hats and pearls, sunglasses and summer dresses, a canopy of trees and a carpet of damps twigs and crisp yellow leaves. About 1200 people sit along a 500 metre long table to enjoy the bounty of a very Victorian autumn, cool and sunny.

The meal begins with a delicate tangle of leafy vegetables and herbs, served with smoked trout the colour of coral. It’s followed by Chef George Biron’s Turkey with tomatillos. Over dessert, a vacherin featuring rich cream stained pink with rhubarb, Biron tries to explain the essence of contemporary Victorian food. “This is a cerebral city,” he says, talking of how it’s embraced visitors. “The gold rush brought us Chinese food. The Italian immigrants came next. Now the Africans are here… We’re so lucky. In Melbourne we can travel the world in one evening. One street is Hanoi, the next is Ethiopia.” His Turkey and Tomatillos, inspired by Mexican cooking, are an attempt to showcase new world food. “They were all picked yesterday from my gardens. That’s the ethos here: everyone bringing their best to the table.”

CEO of the festival, Natalie O’Brien, talks of how they’ve hosted over 70 Michelin starred Chefs over the 20 years of the festival. “This is best of Victoria, but it’s also the best of the world. We want to show the spectrum we have: East African, Afghan, Middle Eastern and Asian food.” It’s more than just a database of traditional recipes and venues. “It’s the sum of the small things. The experiences people share.”

Making Passata with Mangia Mangia is all about the experience. In Carlton, the Italian quarter of town, where families sit at pavement cafés eating gelato, we’re introduced to ‘Passata’ at the Museo Italiano courtyard. Despite the incessant drizzle, spirits are high as Angela explains why her family gathers together every year to make this rich sauce of poached tomatoes and basil. “It’s about preserving our tradition. Food is the very essence of who we are. It transcends culture and individuals,” she says, passing around jugs of coffee and a platter of biscotti. She adds, “In two generations there have been so many changes. We used to spend time cooking together. If we lose our tradition it would be a tragedy.” It’s slick marketing, no doubt. The process is embarrassingly simple for a cooking class. Poach, pulp, bottle. So much for “families’ secrets and techniques.” But there’s an all-pervading sense of goodwill in the air as people settle down for a simple, and hearty, lunch of pasta served with generous shavings of sharp Grada Padano cheese and home cured olives.

Food in Melbourne is about celebrating variety. The city’s most popular chefs blend traditional and contemporary influences. At the Carlton Wine room we sit in a private dining room in the style of an old-school Gentlemen’s club. Croatian Chef Matthew Silovic’s food is ‘Modern European,’ rife with Melbournian influences. More about meticulously sourced and intelligently combined ingredients than convoluted techniques. The star’s a mixed tomato salad with brittle toasted almonds, puffed brown rice, unctuous blobs of burrata cheese and a sticky olive oil jam. Later in the week we eat at Coda by Chef Adam De Silva, who’s heavily influenced by South East Asia, particularly Vietnam: Rice paper rolls with smoked duck, prawn and tapioca betel leaf and – his signature dish – sugar cane prawn.

Variety isn’t limited to what’s on your plate. The city’s rife with surprising venues. Mathew Bax, who runs the legendary bar, Der Raum, and well as the well-hidden Bar Americano, says Melbourne is a competitive market, but one that appreciates quality. “Anyone can create a short term buzz with a gimmick or nifty location but the real trick is to keep them coming back.… Bar Americano was designed to be fad proof, the interior is very classic. Many of the features are based on the great “old rattler’ wooden trams of Melbourne… Our carpenter restores the old trams and works to create furniture from them.”

Early in the week, we stumble upon another pop-up, the Broadsheet Bar, humming with activity despite, or perhaps because of, its exposed pipes, wobbly makeshift shelves and industrial vibe. Walking along the Yarra later that night, we’re chatted up by the cheery bouncer at Ponyfish Island, a floating pop-up turned permanent bar under a bridge offering crocodile skewers, kangaroo kebabs and Sichuan smoked quail.

There are other festival highlights. DJ’s playing at food truck jams and a lecture titled ‘“How Not to Drink Wine like a Wanker’’ by Dan Sims. Culinary rockstar, the 34 year old David Chang of Momofuku, a Michelin starred serial restaurateur and pioneer of cross-cultural cuisine, takes a Master class on the ‘Flavour of Fire’ and there are reports of journalists bumping into Antony Bourdain wandering about the hotel lobby. We drink champagne at a cocktail party with eight Michelin Chefs, including Tokyo’s Jun Yukimura and France’s Thierry Marx, at the Crown Casino. Stumble upon ‘rooftop honey,’ a project that aims to bring bees back to the city, thus addressing issues of sustainability. And attend a very soggy ‘Cellar Door and Farm Gate’ event, where with wet hair, slushy feet and frozen fingers we sip samples from boutique wineries, specialist brewers and artisan producers.

The taste of Melbourne – and in fact Victoria – is unique because it’s an expression of so many different factors. A multicultural populace. A bounty of fresh local ingredients. An active conscience. What we eat is who we are. What makes Australia so exciting is the fact that this is tantalisingly transient. And proudly so.

Butter Chicken In Berlin

I’m listening to the Gayatri mantra, being sung by a German in a laundromat in Berlin. Between showing me how to start the washing machine and work the clothes-dryer, he tells me about his fascination for India. It would be surreal, if it wasn’t so familiar. I have heard so many similar versions of the story over the course of the one month I’ve been in Berlin. At my neighbourhood bar, I bump into an aging pony-tailed hippy who tearily talks of falling in love with a Indian drifter in Mumbai, and then returning to India 14 times to find her. An edgy street artist tells me he plays Shah Rukh Khan’s bodyguard in the upcoming “Don 2”, set in Berlin. And every neighbourhood flaunts bustling Indian restaurants — all crammed with locals wallowing in butter chicken, vindaloo and palak paneer.

Berlin’s favourite fast food is the curry-wurst, a startling combination of sliced sausages and a dark, viscous tomato sauce, deepened with paprika and flavoured with curry powder. At the sun-filled Sgaminegg café, my Berliner friend regularly orders frothy cinnamon-dusted ‘Chai lattes’ with apple pie. I snootily dismiss them as inauthentic, but as time goes by I’m gradually captivated by their sweet, vanilla-scented lushness.

The Germans I meet ask about my opinion of the Indian restaurants in Berlin. They tell me the food’s unapologetically inauthentic. However, inauthentic is not always a bad thing. Look at what we’ve done to Chinese food in India, creating a fiery, oily but delicious new cuisine by blending the most obvious, populist elements of Chinese cooking, and reinterpreting them for a mass desi audience. A cuisine should be strong enough to be adapted in many ways and tailored to suit different tastes without losing its soul. This way it transcends borders.

Yet, I’m decidedly less forgiving when a friend takes me to Ashoka, a trendy Indian restaurant in chic Charlottenburg, West Berlin. It looks promising, crammed with German customers happily spooning up their ‘lentil dal’ and ‘saag aloo’.

The meal starts promisingly with steaming samosas, liberally dusted with chaat masala. Then comes a sugary raita, butter chicken that tastes like a cross between cranberry juice and tomato sauce and finally a black dal that’s chewy with husk. It’s all washed down with refreshing mango lassi, a German-Indian restaurant staple, made from canned mangos.

Is this Indian food? Across Berlin, Indian restaurants serve the same fare. They use paprika instead of chilli powder, parsley instead of coriander and pour prodigious amounts of cream into every curry. Sometimes you’ll find sugar in a dish, sometime cheese floating on top of a curry. Yet, in a city with very few Indians, it works. From ‘Yogi-Haus’ to ‘Maharadscha’ to ‘Namaskar’, on Saturday night, every Indian restaurant is full. So who decides what’s traditional?

Personally, I prefer the W-Imbiss approach. Instead of hankering for authenticity it calls itself Indian-Californian fusion. The steamy little kitchen specialises in naan pizzas.

We stagger in late at night, exhausted and starving, and are quickly served a Jewish naan, slathered with sour cream, capers, sliced onions and generous slices of salmon.

Despite being tempted by the Dirty Naan — ghee, garlic, fenugreek and chillies — we settle for a Indian red lentil soup, which tastes like sambar and is served with a salad. The vibe’s relaxed and friendly. So friendly we get into an intense political discussion with the guy eating a quesadilla at the next table, and end up polishing off his bowl of super-hot sauce.

However, since I’m on a mission to find at least one authentic Indian restaurant in Berlin for this story, the pressure is on.

Finally, through a network of Indian friends, I hear about a tiny place called Agni in Alt-Moabit, a quiet part of Berlin. As soon as we enter, the smell of tandoori and presence of Indian customers convinces me that we’ve finally hit gold. ‘Uncle Sanjay’ who runs the kitchen with his wife, is from Delhi where he studied catering with ITDC Ashok group. He moved to Germany as a cook 21 years ago, worked with a series of restaurants and finally decided to start his own.

In classic Indian style, he cooks us a massive meal of kebabs, stuffed parathas and dal, and then brings out a complimentary tray of rich, milk sweets as he pulls his chair up to our table and settles down for a gossip. He eats his own lunch as we chat — dal-roti.

“In the end,” he chuckles, “this is what I like best.” It seems appropriate. To cross continents and end up feeling the most at home with a plate of dal-roti in a small room shiny with plastic lights and alive with the sound of Kishore Kumar.”

This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at the cove, This little piggy got sunburnt…

We notice Joshua’s flaming red flower as he helps us out of the boat at Castaway Island. As we wade through the waves, wriggling our toes in the warm sand of yet another dazzling Fijian beach, he explains the significance. “In Fiji, we have no wedding rings. So wear a flower behind your left ear if you’re single, right if you’re married.”

We thoughtfully sip on chilled Chardonnay cocktails served in tender coconuts as Joshua sums up our first class on Fijian dating. “So, left ear if you’re looking and right if you’re cooking.”

The irony seems a bit unfortunate for the pig-on-a-spit at the Musket Cove Island resort, wearing a jaunty frangipani behind his right ear. Served with tapioca, bowls of bright salad and piles of juicy skewered prawns, this dinner’s an attempt to rediscover the food of traditional Fiji. Destination of choice for tourists from New Zealand and Australia for decades, the islands’ resorts — many owned by expatriates — have spent years focusing on International food with imported ingredients. They now realise it’s time to introduce more local recipes for food tourists and culture-vultures.

Fiji comprises 330 islands in all, of which less than one-third are inhabited. The islanders are so friendly, it’s difficult to believe that this was once a land of fierce cannibals. All that’s left of that lifestyle today are cute brain-picking forks sold in chic boutiques on Viti Levu (site of the nation’s capital city Suva). Apparently they’re great for salads.

Our cooking class is conducted by the beach at Musket Cove Island Resort just before Mr Piggy makes his debut. Under a spectacular island sunset, we learn how to make the much-loved Kokodo. Fresh Mahi Mahi fish is cubed and marinated in lemon, salt and vinegar overnight. Then it’s mixed with finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, and capsicum. Finally, the whole concoction is slathered in cool, rich, luxurious coconut cream.

At the local market in Nadi, Viti Levu, we weave between bundles of emerald spinach, chunky taro roots and piles of fat ginger. Though lots of produce comes from Australia and New Zealand, the government is now encouraging local farms, and requesting resorts to buy from them. Fish is plentiful, of course. A long, laden counter glistening with Red snappers and Barracuda. Sea bream and Coral trout. Blue fin trevally, Long-nosed emperors and knots of eels. The small fish are tied on a string, forming a necklace only Lady Gaga could wear, and sold in sets of 10.

Over here, families celebrate major occasions with a Lovo feast, also a staple at almost every resort. The work begins early in the day, as the Lovo pit is filled with wood, then set on fire. Rocks are placed on top of this, so they turn red hot. Then food — wrapped in plaited banana leaves — is placed inside, covered and left to cook for hours. The result is delicious: tender vegetables infused with the flavour of charcoal and spices. Meat so luscious it practically falls off the bone.

On our last day we dive off a boat, to swim in the warm Pacific waters clutching a fistful of soggy bread to feed the fish. They swim towards us indolently and nibble delicately, like socialites at brunch. In the evening, despite our sea-tangled hair and flaming sunburns, we make an effort to glam up for dinner. We’re headed to The Plantation, a fine-dining restaurant at the Sonaisali Island resort. After a flurry of dainty starters, we eat slow cooked pork set on a crab cabbage roll paired with a delicate apple and muscatel confit teamed with glasses of heady red wine. Dessert’s a delicate toffee basket filled with ripe tropical fruit topped with sorbet.

Our host suggests we end our evening with Angry Fijians — a wicked shooter comprising banana liqueur, Malibu rum and Bailey’s Irish cream. He kicks off his shoes and leads us to the Zero Bar at the other end of the property, insisting we walk to enjoy the balmy sea breeze. The perfect Fijian antidote to la-di-dah dining: star strewn skies, barefoot bars and giddy nightcaps.