I’ll let you in on a little secret: Of the chefs assembled here for the Four Seasons Bangkok World Gourmet Festival, Chef Christine Manfield is easily the loveliest. And up to this point at least, I reckon that her dinner has been the tastiest. But more on that in a minute.
Manfield, a native of Australia whose current outpost is the Sydney restaurant Universal, is a longstanding proponent of drawing tastes and flavours from disparate cuisines. I spent a bit of time in her kitchen leading up to her dinner (more on that to come soon) and was blown away by the diversity of ingredients she was using. Some of her vegetables seemed most likely to be bound for David Thompson’s Thai meal, while some of the spices she used made the kitchen smell as if we were in Tunis or Marrakesh.
Previous to Thursday night’s dinner, I had the opportunity to chat with Manfield about Australian cuisine, writing, her eclectic palate and love of travel, excerpts of which are below:
AB: In talking with Australians, I often get the impression that Asian food is perceived as an essential part of what people today consider Australian Cuisine. Would you say that this is accurate?
CM: Absolutely. Because there were so many Chinese miners in the past, every tinpot town in Australia has a Chinese restaurant. The food wasn’t always good, but it’s always been with us. The shift happened over the last 20 years, and was a result of immigration and the fact that so many Australians travel. We’ve become used to this diversity, and now are even starting to appreciate the regional differences in Asian food.
AB: Do you plan to incorporate any Thai flavours or ingredients while here in Bangkok?
CM: Half of my repertoire stems from Thai food — fish sauce is my salt. When I was in London, we used to get excellent Thai ingredients. In Australia it’s more limited as we’re on island and there are lots of restrictions. When I’m here I like to use palm sugar, it’s like caramel. Som saa, which is like lime, orange and kaffir lime combined, is another I like to use. I like dishes that look simple, but at the same time, have highly refined flavours. You should be able to taste every flavour in a dish.
AB: Other than simply a source of inspiration for recipes, travel appears to play a central role in your life.
CM: I spend half my year traveling. Last year I went on 14 overseas trips! I take my staff abroad and lead culinary tours. I think young people should be required to travel abroad.
AB: Cooking is often perceived as a physical, rather than an intellectual endeavour, yet you and fellow Australian chef David Thompson are known as much for your writing as your restaurants. Why write?
CM: For me, a cookbook isn’t just a list of recipes. I come from an intellectual background and for me, cooking is about feeding my brain. I have a huge cookbook library and encourage my staff to read.
Now to the meal. For those here in Thailand, I thought that it was no stretch to find similarities between Manfield’s dishes and the native cuisine. As she mentions above, the flavours were generally strong, independent and crystal clear, and she also didn’t seem afraid to employ a bit of spice and salt. The first course, Dry aged beef tataki, pomegranate and pickled beetroot, did a great job of setting the pace for the entire meal:
Chef Christine Manfield’s Dry aged beef tataki, pomegranate and pickled beetroot
The slices of beef were rich and moreish, and contrasted with the acidic, fruity flavours of the pomegranate, starfruit, beetroot and citrus. The meaty and acidic elements were bound together by a slightly sweet/sour onion chutney. The result was a dish that, even if it had been the only dish of the night, would have left most of us feeling mighty satisfied.
This was followed by Woodbridge smoked sea trout, smoked eel and pomelo salad:
Chef Christine Manfield’s Woodbridge smoked sea trout, smoked eel and pomelo salad
another dish that could have easily passed as a yam or Thai-style salad in its emphasis on crispy freshness and acidity. In fact, the combination of smoked fish and thin strips of green mango was eerily similar to ngnoam swei kchey trey cha, a Cambodian dish that also revolves around these two main ingredients.
The Spiced crab, ginger and coconut broth:
Chef Christine Manfield’s Spiced crab, ginger and coconut broth
combined, among other things, mustard seed, coconut meat and curry leaves, the ingredients that define the dipping sauce that accompanies southern-Indian dosai.
The most substantial dish (Manfield is known for serving virtually carbohydrate-free meals), was Jasmine tea smoked duck breast:
Chef Christine Manfield’s Jasmine tea smoked duck breast, grilled duck sausage, spiced eggplant and green bean sambal
The dish was served with slices of a duck sausage that I found nearly identical to a very, very good sai ua, a type of northern Thai sausage (this was confirmed by the table of Thais next to us). The green bean sambal (essentially a stir-fry) included morning glory, grilled eggplant and green peppercorns, and was pleasantly spicy and salty (too salty for the aforementioned table). Amazingly, each dish was fried to order.
The dessert, Raspberry ripple:
Chef Christine Manfield’s Raspberry ripple
was delicious, and included the first ripe raspberries I’ve encountered in Asia in years, but seemed slightly out of place among the largely Asian-influenced flavours of the previous courses.
Christine will contributing to tonight’s Gala Dinner, tickets for which are still apparently available. If you’re in Bangkok and interested, act fast. Call the Four Seasons Bangkok at +66 (0) 2 126 8866, or email the hotel at email@example.com.