Looking Southeast, talking India
MasterChef Australia 2017 winner Diana Chan and city-based Thai chef Seefah Ketchaiyo discuss the cultural bonhomie between our country and theirs, Mumbai's love for Asian cuisine and finding their feet as female expats
Borders are like the picket fence around an inviting garden. They can only keep you out until you decide to kick it down.
So, on one hand, you have the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar to which most neighbours are responding by closing their doors. But the growing exchange between Asian countries in tourism and culture tells a different story. The Indian enquiry into Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, is certainly far from fizzling out. It explains the mushrooming of countless niche Asian restaurants in the city today, and the flurry of chefs coming in from the region like, MasterChef Australia (2017) winner Diana Chan, who was on a fleeting trip to Mumbai recently. Many expats have found a home here, too, including chef and restaurateur Seefah Ketchaiyo, who is originally from Thailand.
Over a light lunch in Powai, we got Chan and Ketchaiyo to discuss what it means to put your country's cuisine on the global map, the overlaps in Thai and Malaysian food, challenges and beauty of finding a home away from home, and that oddly enough, two of the most popular dishes from their countries, are in fact, Indonesian! Edited excerpts.
Suman: Everyone I know is going to Bali or Bangkok. A decade ago that wasn't the case. What changed?
Diana: Many things. But predominantly because Indians today have the spending capacity that allows them to travel. It's the same with other Southeast Asian countries. Infrastructure is better, there are more flights, and then, there's curiosity — it's so close. Why go to Europe when you can fly for three or four hours? I mean, I don't know, how long is a flight to Thailand from here?
Seefah: It's four-and-a-half hours to Thailand, and then another hour to Malaysia. Basically, people are bored of places in Europe, and Asia is growing. In fact, Asian street food has become very popular all over the world. In Mumbai especially, you can see a lot of Thai and Japanese food.
Diana to Seefah: Yeah, I mean, look at Chinese food. You can find it in every single country, and perhaps even in distant Slovakia! But Thai food has actually done really well in terms of being on the global map. I can't say that for Malaysian food just yet.
Seefah: Old trends are making a comeback. Some people may still want to try molecular food but most are looking for something authentic that they can eat every day.
Suman: Is it difficult to cook Thai or Malaysian food for foreign palates?
Seefah: When I opened my first restaurant in Mumbai three years ago, people didn't know much about authentic Thai food. I remember when I was cooking for a five star here, people would say, 'This green curry is not green. I have lived in Thailand for 15 years. I know everything.' And I would think to myself, 'Okay,
maybe... but I was born in Thailand!' (Laughs)
To Seefah: Are you familiar with Malaysian food, though?
Seefah: Once, I had to cook food for the Malaysian consulate here in Mumbai. So, they gave me all the sauces and ingredients. It's quite similar [to Thai food], so I managed.
Diana: Yeah, it is. We have this dish called char kway teow. It's basically flat rice noodles cooked in a very hot wok. And in Thailand they have...
Seefah: ... pad see ew! You can say that it's almost the same thing, chef, but just a different name. You guys have the rendang curry though, right?
Diana: Actually, it's from Indonesia, which has been adapted in Malaysia. What is Thailand's national dish?
Seefah: Earlier it was green curry, and now, massaman curry is really popular. But you know, that is also actually from Indonesia
Chongqing chicken, Burmese khao suey and asparagus and sweet corn dimsum arrive.
Suman: What was your first day in India like?
Diana: Well, this is my third visit to India and I am here for a culinary tour with CRED Experience. When I came here last year for the first time, my trip began from Mumbai. There are cars and cows on the road; there are high rises and slums — it's like this organised chaos, and the contrast is so interesting. I was pretty familiar with Indian food because South Indian fare is popular in Malaysia, so I know what sambhar is. It's the culture that awes me.
Seefah: I came here eight years ago and I remember crying for the first two months. Before that, I had dropped out of engineering school to pursue cooking. I studied in Thailand and then worked in China for three years. So, when I came here, everything was different. People used to think I am Nepali. But Indians are so warm that I eventually felt at home. I mean, I am half Indian now, considering I am married to a Maharashtrian.
Suman: You know, in India, it's still such an odd concept for men to cook, but the F&B industry is full of male chefs. Is it challenging being a woman in this industry?
Diana: There's so much generalisation. You associate chefs with male and nurses with female. But the hierarchies inside a kitchen are phasing out and you need to be more nurturing than nasty. Women bring that in. I mean, all our mums cook so there's no reason why a woman can't be a chef. It's challenging, but things are changing.
Seefah: See, I have a small frame. So, I was perceived as a very young person both, here and in China. Managers thought I was like a girl child in the kitchen, but you don't need to keep telling them who you are. You just have to show them what you can do.
What's your favourite Indian dish?
Diana: Vada and rava dosa.
Seefah: Butter chicken.
A Hindi word or phrase that you love using.
Seefah: Chalo bhai. It's very useful while getting a cab or auto.
You're stuck in an elevator with a chef. Who would it be?
Diana: Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay.
Seefah: Vicky Ratnani.
Watch the video of MasterChef Diana Chan and Chef Seefah discussing the culinary and cultural rise of SE Asia here:
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