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Going troppo

The island nations of Asia and the Pacific are long on colourful culinary traditions but short on recipe books that record their food history. So when chef Peter Kuruvita set out to film and write about cooking in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands for SBS, he knew he was creating historical archives as well as entertainment.

It started with Serendip: My Sri Lankan Kitchen, which Kuruvita wrote after overhearing a group of Sri Lankan women saying, "We don't have time any more to cook traditionally. I wish I'd written down my grandmothers' recipes but now she's gone." He arranged a group cooking session and recorded the recipes, and the women responded enthusiastically. "They said, 'We haven't been together like this for 20 years.'"

My Feast with Peter Kuruvita, his new book, is already eliciting similar responses from the recipes' traditional owners. "I'm hearing on social media that the Filipinos, the Indonesians and the Cook Islanders like it, and they're saying, 'Oh, I remember that, I think we'll try and cook it today.' And to me, that's a success. They're reinvigorated by their own cuisine."

The notion of "own cuisine" is complex for these islands, which all have long histories of colonialism: the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the French and the Americans have been and gone, leaving behind their own ingredients and cooking techniques.

"Vanuatu is a good example of what happens when you don't have any colonial influence in the early days," says Kuruvita. "Their food is: you kill it, you throw it in the fire and you eat it. If you're lucky you get salt, but mostly you dip it into the ocean and then just eat it. Or you kill it, you bring a pot of water to the boil and you boil it, and if you're lucky you get salt. But then you go to Fiji and the Indians have been there, and all of a sudden the village cuisine is amazing."

The recipes in My Feast are authentic at heart, but Kuruvita presents them in a contemporary style. "Otherwise, how do you make a little piglet that you've just slaughtered and chopped up and hung up in a tree look good?" he says. "People are happy for me to put my spin on it. I'm always making sure of that. It's really important to me that culturally I don't offend anyone. And social media's really good for that. You put it out there and people are blatantly honest - 'Can you not use soy sauce this time? It's not really Sri Lankan.'"

Kuruvita's affection and respect for the places he travelled to and the people he met along the way infuses his book. And the island pace of life seems to have rubbed off. "I love the coast," he says. "My dream of retirement would be standing on my own beach raking the grass with my little house behind me deciding whether I was going to go for a surf."

My Feast with Peter Kuruvita is published by Hardie Grant ($49.95, hbk).

This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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