(“Walking Sri Lanka”)
Chef Daniel Klein and co-producer/filmmaker Mirra Fine are the creators of The Perennial Plate, a weekly online documentary series that tells the stories of food and the people who make it, with a focus on socially responsible and adventurous eating. The first season took place in Minnesota, and the second took them across America. For its third season, the series is going global and traveling to China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa and Ethiopia.
In recent months, the series has been posting episodes from the South Asian leg of their world tour, including a fast-paced and musical montage video “Day in India.” It compiles footage from their Indian stay during which they filmed several episodes, including “Dabbawalla” and another featuring an interview with environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. The film-making pair, who recently announced their engagement, also spent time in Sri Lanka where they visited an organic tea farm, a coconut plantation and met a fishing family.
The vegetarian co-producer of Perennial Plate, Mirra Fine, took time from her packed itinerary to entertain a few questions by email from The Aerogram.
What’s involved in making a popular montage video like “A Day in India”?
For a montage video such as that one, we spent three weeks in the country and filmed everything we saw, ate, and experienced. We came home with at least 15 hours of footage and had to try to figure out a way to condense it into three minutes. We figured that creating “one day” from all the footage would be a great way to do so. Sometimes videos with “themes” have a better chance of going viral. Pretty much, we had to comb through all of the film and take just the beautiful shots, and then find an amazing song (or songs), and then sit for 3-4 hours putting the images to music.
How long were you in Sri Lanka?
We were in Sri Lanka for two weeks (we went there straight from India). We filmed three stories there: “Tea Farmers”, “Coconut: Nose-to-Tail” (about a family on a coconut plantation), and “Do Not Blame The Sea” — which came out on Monday and is about a stilt fishing family who lost six members in the tsunami but still fish every day. It’s quite beautiful.
The “Tea for Two” episode offers an intimate look at a Sri Lankan couple who farm organic fair trade tea, and you mention that you didn’t expect to be so taken with their relationship. What kind of video were you expecting to end up with?
When filming a new story, we never really go into it with a clear vision of what the story will be. We just have a vague idea. Especially when filming overseas, we have limited access to information due to lack of a common language, internet access etc. All we knew about Piyasena and Ariwatha (the two farmers) is that they were part of the Sri Lanka Small Organic Farmers Association meaning they were organic and fair trade.
We went to the farm hoping to see a day in their lives… hear about what it’s like to be an organic tea farmer in Sri Lanka, and hear about their lives. When we got there, we saw that there was something else even more powerful going on — and that was the relationship between the two of them. So we decided to focus on that. I’ve got a TON of footage on the editing room floor with information about tea farming, etc. But this story just touched us. So we went with that. I think we spent four hours with them.
The Perennial Plate has a video on How to Make Chopped Roti and Dal. Did you learn to make any other foods in Sri Lanka? Which foods were your favorites to eat there?
We actually didn’t learn how to make chopped Roti in Sri Lanka. Instead, we just ate it a lot and then came home and Daniel tried to make it. (He’s really good at that sort of thing). We did visit a family who showed us how to make string hoppers, which are delicious. Have you tried them? String hoppers are amazing with curry.
Sri Lankan food is really incredible. Rice and curry is the main staple, but the street food was also wonderful. Daniel loved the fried fish in chickpea flour (I didn’t try it as I’m a vegetarian). We both loved this chickpea dish that we happened upon when we saw a man in Galle selling it from a cart on the street. It is warm chickpeas with fresh chili, coconut, and spices. It was presented to us on a piece of folded up newspaper. It was amazing.
Is there any particular South Asian ingredient that you enjoy using when preparing food?
Daniel is a chef who trained for some time in India, so he loves all the spices that go into Sri Lankan and India cuisine. And he does say that the most prized ingredient that is the most difficult to find in the US is the fresh curry leaves.
Visit The Perennial Plate online to view more episodes from Sri Lanka, India and other countries.