Sitting across from a stranger in a foreign country, Mirra Fine will sometimes catch herself wondering how she got lucky enough to be there. Mirra and her fiance, chef and activist Daniel Klein produce ‘The Perennial Plate’ – an online weekly documentary series ‘dedicated to socially responsible and adventurous eating.’ For series one and two the duo stayed in America, but series three of the show has seen them tie up with Intrepid Travels and visit China, Japan, India, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. In each country, they’ve been in pursuit of good food and the stories of the people who make it.
“I feel very lucky to have this job. To be able to travel the world and experience the country through the stories of the tea farmer in Sri Lanka who met his soul mate through an arranged marriage 34 years ago, or the woman in Yunnan province who is trying to bring the ideals of organic to her small village, or following a dabba walla through the streets of Mumbai… it’s a very amazing thing,” says Mirra.
Mirra has a background in advertising and freelance graphic design and has even had stints as a cheese monger and the owner of a dog-walking company. “I hadn’t picked up a camera before I met Daniel – he taught me everything I know about filming, editing, producing,” she says. Daniel himself has had a serious culinary education, one that has seen him work in kitchens in Spain, France, England, India and New York. He has worked and trained at top Michelin starred restaurants including The Fat Duck (Heston Blumenthal), Bouchon (Thomas Keller) and Applewood (David Shea).
The duo spent two weeks in Sri Lanka, visiting Colombo, Gompole, Kandy, Haputale, Unawatuna and Mirissa. They fell in love with kottu roti and king coconut water and feasted on rice and curry, experiencing “unbearable spice” only once or twice. There’s a Sri Lankan montage of the trip up on http://www.theperennialplate.com, but they also focused on three individual stories – a family of eight who own a coconut plantation outside Negombo, a fair trade tea farming couple in Gampola (“Their whole life consists of a partnership and rhythm of work, life and love”) and a family of stilt fishermen. The last was particularly difficult because of the terrible losses the tsunami had inflicted on the family – six family members had died in 2004.
“We spent time with Ranjith (22) who learned how to fish and has taken on the responsibility of bringing in money for his mother, sisters, grandmother and their children.” Ranjit would also go out to sea, spending the night on the boat. “When they came back with their catch, the women in the family cooked fish curry, vegetables, rice and salad for us in a little pot on the dirt floor of their hut.”
The many hours of footage they capture are condensed into a five minute film which they then uploaded. They hope each clip will help people think about their food and where it comes from and who produces it. (Their first episode on Thanksgiving which starred a live turkey made Mirra a vegetarian. “I decided I wasn’t okay with it. If I couldn’t kill the animal myself, and if I can’t bear to watch it being killed, then I just didn’t feel good about eating it,” she explains.)
The duo is in Turkey now – another country ticked off on the list of the 12 they’ll visit in 14 months. So far, they’ve found plenty to inspire a varied and insightful programme. “We loved the Kottu Roti in Sri Lanka, Cacio e Peppe in Italy, Stinky Tofu in China, Thali in India, Jamon in Spain…I could go on,” says Mirra. Even more appealing that the food though, is the people they get to meet. The good company is some consolation when they have to spend 6-7 months of the year away from friends and family.
For Daniel, their mandate is simple: “I think you find people who are trying to do things well in every field. Whether it’s in a fine restaurant, or a street vendor in Hanoi, or a wheat farmer in Japan, there are always a few people who desire to make something the best it can be. We like to find those people; who are inspiring, and who are passionate in what they produce. We strive to be like that as well, making the best films we can.”
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 28 April, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy the Perennial Plate.