They say to explore a place, do it the way a local would do. So to know how to really enjoy Australia, I caught up with the vivacious Shibani Dandekar. Born in Pune and now settled in Mumbai, Shibani has spent 15 years of her life in the island continent and holds an Australian passport. "I am a lucky girl," she says, "I am an Indian in Australia and an Australian in India, and in that way I enjoy the best of both the worlds".
Elaborating further, she explains that in Australia,"acceptance" was never a problem. The "salad-bowl" style of multiculturalism practiced in the country enabled her to retain her Indian/Marathi identity as well as be truly at home in the country. "In my school there were students from practically all nationalities… I wonder if there was any country that was not covered," surmises Shibani. So while at home she had her regular Marathi fare, she was equally at ease tucking into "shrimps on the barbie".
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Shibani reminiscises all this while she is negotiating traffic in Mumbai and her call with me keeps dropping due to bad connectivity. Yet the moment I ask her what's the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks of Australia, tension seems to melt from her voice as she nostalgically pronounces the word "holiday".
As Shibani explains to me, life in Australia seems like an extended holiday. Now what else will you think of life when it revolves around food, wine, beaches, barbecues, gorgeous walks? Yes, it definitely sounds like a vacation or should I say "a gastronomic vacation". And as I think of that, as if on cue Shibani exclaims, "My life revolves around food. Our days in Australia are spent planning from one meal to another."
One of her vivid images of Australia is people lighting up their barbecues in the evenings. In fact, in Sydney while most of us know that Shibani would perform at the Opera House, what you may not know is that she also worked at a local café called Dawn to Dusk. It is here she worked and chilled out with her family and friends.
"If I think of soul food, I think of the fresh food in Dawn to Dusk," she tells me. So local eateries like the café she worked in is her first recommendation for those planning a visit to Australia. What stands out about Australian food, Shibani explains is its quality. "Even if it is a local deli or a chick shop, food in Australia is always fresh and of the best quality," she says.
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To get into the groove of a place, checking out the party scene is a must and so I ask her where would she go for drinks with her girl friends? "To Oxford Street," is her prompt reply, "I can't remember the names of the pubs as it has been long since I went there last, but my suggestion would be to pub hop and explore them. This is the most buzzing place and it is where you should head to on a weekend."
By now Shibani has reached the studio that she was travelling to in Mumbai and has received three calls to start the rehearsals. So as she is dragged back to Mumbai studios from her memoirs of Australian culinary delights, I ask Shibani about one final "must-do" when in Australia. "Go wild," she says half in jest, half in earnestness. "No, you must check out the wildlife scene, it is truly amazing. Yes, do that breakfast with kangaroos. It is worth it."
Food is an essential part of Australian culture (those of us who watch Masterchef Australia, would surely agree), so as a validation, I ask Shibani about her take on Australian food. How would she describe it?
“It is world cuisine,” she replies, “British, Italian, Thai, Indian, Chinese, French, you name it and it is there. And everything that you get is fresh and of the best quality.” Of all the varieties available Shibani is particularly fond of sea food and the fish and chips from local eateries on the beaches.
Apart from that she also recommends the fine dining options at the Sydney Harbour with the spectacular Opera House at the backdrop. The Opera House has a special place in her heart, it here where she has performed on several occasions with her dance academy. A walk along the Harbour Bridge is a must in her list of recommendations.