India has never failed to fascinate visitors, not least for its dazzling diversity of food. And when beloved Aussie chef Luke Nguyen decides to make it his destination of choice for his next culinary journey, we know we’re in for an interesting – and tasty – ride.
But in his new six-part SBS series, Luke Nguyen’s India, he explores what is perhaps a slightly lesser known side to the country.
“Everyone thinks about north Indian food when it comes to Indian,” he says over the phone to me from Vietnam [where he is currently filming Top Chef Vietnam]. “But I travel through Southern India in this show. We went to Bangalore, Coimbatore, Kerala, Pondicherry… even within India people haven’t heard about some of these places we went to.
“And there’s so much diversity within southern Indian cuisine as well – I think I’d need five years of exploring,” he laughs.
Describing the show as “a great discovery of the culture, landscape, cuisine, people, spices,” Luke says he wanted to show the lesser travelled path.
“I search for food, I eat a lot,” he says. “I really wanted to understand all the spices… and I wanted to showcase the local cooks.
“I do cook on the show, but it’s not about me. It’s about showcasing India and its cooks. I visit lovely rustic kitchens that have been there for 100 years – not fancy restaurants.”
His genuine passion and curiosity about world cuisines becomes amply evident as he waxes eloquent on what was “a feast for the senses.. So many sauces, masalas grinding, the thalis (multi-course platters), various dosas …
“Each region had a different version of a dosa in different sizes, batters, textures… one even looked like a muffin, it was fluffy and had crab meat on it,” he continues. “In another area, there was one that was 1.5 metres long.. The diversity of that alone was fascinating.”
And what was the most interesting thing about discovering this lesser known side to Indian cuisine for him?
“I saw little snippets and hints of Southeast Asia in southern Indian food,” he muses. “In Kerala, for example, they use a lot of coconut. Some of the ingredients are quite similar.
“This one time, we were in the backwaters of Kerala, and there were these old Chinese fishing nets… I thought: I could be in Vietnam right now. We pulled out all this fish right there, and created a chilli tomato paste masala, wrapped it in banana leaf and grilled it. Delicious!”
Telling these stories of a land less explored is something this former refugee turned celebrity chef has done throughout his career – whether it was through redefining Vietnamese cuisine for Australians with his iconic restaurant Red Lantern (after secretly learning cookery at uni), or his various television shows exploring different parts of Asia.
“I wanted to showcase Vietnamese food as a refined Asian cuisine – highlighting the flavours, but using Aussie produce, in a modern way,” he says, explaining his ethos. “Making it beautiful, telling those stories, showing the origin of the cuisine and bringing those authentic recipes… I wanted to put Vietnamese cuisine on the global culinary map.”
Safe to say he has done that rather successfully.
Interest in Vietnamese food has been steadily growing over the past few years, with workday lunchtime go-tos ‘banh mi’ and ‘pho’ tripping off our tongues faster than we can say sanger.
“Over the last decade or so, our palates and knowledge has evolved dramatically,” Luke says. “We travel more, we have access to incredible content on TV, we are becoming more educated. It’s not just about the food of a country, like say, Chinese food anymore, it’s looking at the various regions.”
And will this new show be able to bring that to life as far as regional Indian cuisine is concerned?
“For me, it wasn’t just about food though – there’s so much more to India,” Luke says. “There’s Ayurveda, this ancient practice that is thousands of years old, an entire lifestyle, meditation, talking to the elders…
“I chose India because everything was a surprise to me, I learnt every minute of my time there – and that goes through the camera, the viewers are experiencing it with me. It’s natural and authentic, not scripted.”
One unscripted moment we can look forward to in the show is set in Chettinad, a prosperous community in Tamil Nadu (India’s southernmost state). “We stumbled upon this mansion, where all these ladies dressed in colourful saris were busy cooking… they were so hospitable and they welcomed us, they knew who I was,” says Luke.
“I was so flattered, and I asked, have you watched any of my TV shows? They said, ‘Yes, yes, we’ve watched all your movies, Jackie Chan!”
You can’t write that sort of thing into a show.
Luke Nguyen’s India premieres on SBS and SBS On Demand on October 5, 2023.