Manu & Clarissa: Best of Both Worlds
Despite enjoying a buoyant career that’s seen him become a household name, a humble pot of Bolognese prepared in Manu Feildel
’s own home represents one of his most noteworthy defeats.
“My wife’s Bolognese is better than mine,” Manu concedes after a sorrowful exhale. “That was hard to accept.”
The admission resolves a challenge set on the night he and his wife, Clarissa Weerasena, met.
“Her friends told me she could cook better than me,” Manu says, “so I walked up to her and asked her. She said yes she could, even though she didn’t know who I was.”
“The basis of our whole relationship is him telling me he can cook better than me,” Clarissa adds, laughing. “The Bolognese ends the debate though, right?”
Coming from a food-loving Malaysian family, Clarissa’s influence on the man who, like Kylie, Hugh, and Delta is known across Australia by simply his first name, is clear.
His most recent book, More Please
(which includes Manu’s defeated Bolognese recipe), features a greater focus on Asian flavours than his previous titles, though the chef and author is quick to point out that his recipes shouldn’t be considered authentic.
“It’s bastardised Asian food,” he insists. “There’s no actual cuisine behind it, just a collection of influences. In the mussel dish, for example, where I would have used cream, I use coconut cream.”
For authenticity, several of Clarissa’s family favourites are also featured in the book (on which she is credited as a co-author), though recording them for publication didn’t come naturally for the home cook.
“I’m used to just cooking these recipes using my senses,” Clarissa explains, “so when it came to writing them, I’d literally take a pinch of an ingredient – or however much I’d usually use – then measure exactly how much it is.”
“I learned to cook watching mum, grandma and my aunts cook in Malaysia, and that’s how they learned too.”
“Malaysian cooking is very different to my cooking background,” Manu says. “Not only the ingredients, but also the technique of putting everything in one pot. With the kind of cooking I’m used to, you cook something for a long time; it’s on the stove for two hours sometimes. Malaysian is a lot of prep, but when it comes together, it’s done in no time.”
Combining influences is something Manu believes is fundamental to understanding the elusiveness of ‘Australian food’.
“I don’t think Australian food has its own identity,” he says. “It has the English background, but with all these Asian, Irish and European influences. You can go to a French or a Chinese restaurant, but you can’t go to an Australian restaurant. What we have is ‘Modern Australian’, which is something that’s shaped by all the amazing cultures living here.”
While Manu concedes that combining influences can be rewarding – the couple now use butter in their fried rice instead of peanut oil – he believes it should be done with care.
“It’s nice to stay completely classic with a cuisine, and it’s nice to mix them, but you need to understand the cuisine before you can play with it. Sometimes people bring their influences into someone else’s cuisine and it ends up confused.”
While More Please is rich with Asian-inspired dishes, Manu’s inspirations are drawn from across the world. Moroccan lamb, Japanese tofu and the aforementioned Bolognese all appear alongside the chef’s French recipes.
“It’s what we cook at home,” Manu explains. “We love a good tagine, risotto, couscous… I’ve done a lot of travelling and I always bring ideas back, then I play with them. There’s rules in cooking, but at the same time there are no rules. You can do so much.”
“Except maybe if you start combining chocolate and blue cheese.”
Manu talks food
“I admit upfront that this mussel dish is far from a traditional Asian recipe but it is my interpretation and, if I say so myself, it is absolutely delicious!”
“The spicy potatoes with dried prawns is another scrumptious dish from Clarissa’s childhood. Clarissa and I have modified the method from her mum’s original, so that the potatoes are sautéed until crisp on the outside and beautifully fluffy on the inside. It tastes the same but better!”
“For the Japanese tofu recipe, the tofu is made from eggs and soy beans, and is available in the refrigerator section of Asian grocery stores.”