Chef, restaurateur and TV personality Peter Kuruvita.
Chef, restaurateur and TV personality Peter Kuruvita. SBS Television

Family history inspires chef's new book

PETER Kuruvita spent his 21st birthday, unlike many, on the banks of India's Ganges. The country's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated 11 days earlier. The villages were desolate. There were no tourists. The markets were empty.

The decorated chef and TV personality recalls scavenging on the abandoned marketplace floor for cabbage leaves and other vegetable scraps he could find to boil in a pot of water. Since then, no food sparks a memory of ferocious survival like soup.

For Kuruvita, food and emotion are so richly entwined.

"Food and the memories of food - who it was eaten with, the taste, the location, the physical need, and the emotional associations they carry - are my lifeblood," he says.

"I distinctly remember my father hand-feeding me dhal and rice as a baby. I could feel the coarseness of his fingers - he was an engineer - and the slight smell of diesel above everything else."

His own food journey began at four-and-a-half, when Kuruvita's Sri Lankan father and Austrian-born mother packed up their London life into "a blue Austin minibus, purchased secondhand from the Thunderbirds film set" and set off over the treacherous overland track for Colombo, Sri Lanka.

 

A young Peter Kuruvita (roof top) during his family's overland voyage from London to Sri Lanka in a minibus purchased from the Thunderbirds set.
A young Peter Kuruvita (roof top) during his family's overland voyage from London to Sri Lanka in a minibus purchased from the Thunderbirds set.

 

The cross-country odyssey through the Middle East and subcontinent is the inspiration of his third cook book, Lands of the Curry Leaf.

"My mum has been writing our family history for the past 25 years," the 54-year-old says. "She just recently handed it over to us. It gave me fuel."

The chef's latest tome criss-crosses India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan on a vegetarian voyage of spice-filled traditional dishes.

"The dietary requirements of people in the world are changing a lot," Kuruvita says.

"Places like India, you walk into a restaurant and the first thing you are asked is 'veg or non-veg'. It's a normal thing. In Australia, they're (vegetarians) sometimes considered an annoyance rather than something that's just normal. The truth is vegetarianism is normal."

But the confessed carnivore is quick to add that his book is not solely for vegetarians: "there's no reason why you can't grill a piece of meat or fish and add it to any of the recipes".

"I always like to start a recipe with a personal memory or idea of why a food means so much to me," Kuruvita says. And the book is peppered with them.

"In Sri Lanka, our whole universe is revolved around food, cooking, going to the markets and buying what you need for the day.

"I remember tugging on my auntie's sari and asking 'what is that?'. Before she told you what it was, she'd tell you what it is good for. Everything had an ayurvedic or medicinal value. Those things stuck close to me."

 

Lands of the Curry Leaf by Peter Kuruvita (Murdoch Books) is out on September 26.
Lands of the Curry Leaf by Peter Kuruvita (Murdoch Books) is out on September 26.

Kuruvita's father had a foundry in London. "He brought everything with him to set up shop in Columbo," Kuruvita says.

"My aunty still lives in Sri Lanka. The house is 270 years old. Generations of our family were born, lived and died there."

It was there his grandmother and other women in the family taught Kuruvita to cook and appreciate food beyond its purpose of filling bellies.

His "fearless eating" sense came from necessity. He recalls Sri Lanka's stifling heat sending the milk "off" and eating the "rough yoghurt" that formed beneath a layer of mould. Or picking ants from the sugar jar in 1969 when sugar was rationed to one jar a month and "more precious than gold".

By the age of 12 he'd seen "many dead bodies". The civil war in Sri Lanka was intensifying and Kuruvita's family made the move to Australia, via Singapore.

"I had trouble assimilating in Australia. I was out of school at 15 and nine months. I was a rebel," he says.

"My dad said you can leave school but you have to figure out what you want to do. I could pull a car to pieces and put it back together by the age of 14."

But he had no interest in a trade.

"Dad had retired and every morning he'd wake me up and say 'what do you want to do with your life?' and I had no idea.

"One day we were driving down our local suburb. He said 'you liked cooking with your grandma didn't you?'

"Coming to Australia, I had forgotten about all of the beautiful time I'd had with my grandmother in her kitchen. I said 'yeah, why?'."

His father gave him an ultimatum. "He parked the car outside this little restaurant called the Crab Apple and he said, go in and ask for a job or you can sleep out in the street tonight.

"I knocked on the door and the young chef said come in. It was a family restaurant in a tiny little restaurant in Mortdale (Sydney's south). They gave me a knife and my first job was cutting garlic bread. I loved it.

"Two hours later, they said 'do you want a job? When can you start?' I said, 'tonight'. I had forgotten all about Dad. He was still outside waiting."

Three weeks later Kuruvita moved out of home with the chef and worked there for a year.

"Chef life was perfect. You worked nights and weekends and I never saw anyone from school ever again."

Today, he has his own restaurants, including the hatted Noosa Beach House in Hastings St and is partnered with Flying Fish at Sheraton Fiji Resort and Flying Fish Tokoriki on Tokoriki Island, Fiji. His family, wife Karen and their three teenage sons, Jai, Marley and Taj, now call the Sunshine Coast home.

His first TV series, My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita, earned him a Logie in 2012. Since then he's filmed more, including Island Feast, Mexican Fiesta and two series of Coastal Kitchen. He's also an ambassador for Dilmah tea.

He works in 20 to 30 restaurants around the world every year and has two hats to his name, the pinnacle of a chef's career for some. He says: "It's never been about accolades."

His driving force after 40 years in the industry has been to "put Sri Lankan food on the map" as cuisine that stands on its own from Indian influences.

Kuruvita regularly returns to his home in Sri Lanka, for work and leisure, as well as hosting food tours.

"I truly believe peace can come about through food," he says.

He was filming on a Sri Lankan beach in Jaffna, a year after the civil war ended in 2009, cooking Jaffna kool (a bouillabaisse).

Local fishermen were encamped around an army post where Kuruvita was shooting My Sri Lanka.

"The army, when they moved in, took over a lot of spaces where people congregated," Kuruvita explains. "These fishermen had been congregating here for thousands of years, so they built their sitting area around the army encampment. The soldiers were there on guard.

"When I brought a bowl over to the fishermen, a soldier walked over. I said 'if you ask your commander and leave your gun behind, come and join us and we'll share a meal'. He did.

"There were three of us: a Tamil fisherman in his sixties who had seen a lot in his life. The war had been going for 30 years so he had seen many horrible things.

"Then there was this young soldier who had been sent up to Jaffna, who too, had people try to kill him as well.

"We sat down. We spoke English. It was tense.

"One thing broke it. I asked both of them, 'what did your grandmother used to cook?'. For 10 minutes, we smiled, we laughed and shared this bowl of food. You could see food had brought these guys together.

"When we finished, the soldier shook the fisherman's hand and went back to his post, picked his gun up and stood there again.

"Food stories can be pacifiers themselves."

Lands of the Curry Leaf by Peter Kuruvita (Murdoch Books) is out on September 26.


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