y dad is typically not the most inspired gift-giver. But to give him his due, he excelled himself a few years ago with a birthday present I use more than any other: a roasting tin accompanied by three colourful cookbooks written by the food stylist Rukmini Iyer.
They were heavy to lug home from the restaurant but, in retrospect, it was well worth the back pain. As a keen cook who often lacks culinary motivation after a busy day, Iyer’s Roasting Tin series instantly struck a chord with me, as it has done with hundreds of thousands of people up and down the UK.
To date, the former trainee lawyer and 2013 MasterChef contestant has sold a whopping 900,000 copies of her four Roasting Tin books, the first of which only came out in 2017.
Thanks to Iyer, all a lazy – or efficient! – chef needs to do is spend 10 minutes or so chopping vegetables, a few seconds drizzling oil, spices and seasoning on top and anywhere up to an hour waiting for the oven to work its magic. Meanwhile, you can sit back and relax.
Speaking over Zoom from London – with a guest appearance from her Border collie – Iyer tells me this idea of simplicity stemmed from hours spent preparing meals for her friends.
“You’d often use every pan in the house,” she explains. “And you’d make some delicious feast and then it’s eaten in 15 minutes. Was it worth four or five hours of my life and having my kitchen look like a bombsite?”
Instead, the 36-year-old says she wanted to give people “an almost restaurant-quality meal but without any of that effort”. She adds, laughing: “I hate stirring.”
Her maximum flavour/minimal effort mantra has clearly caught on: not only are her books selling like hot cakes, but she also has a devoted fan base on Twitter who post about her recipes under the hashtag #TinLads, coined by the writer Alice Slater.
None of this success has gone to Iyer’s head, however. She is warm, funny and self-deprecating, especially about the Roasting Tin series, offering a tongue-in-cheek name for a potential follow-up: “What’s that coming over the hill? It’s another Roasting Tin.”
Which brings us to her new vegan and vegetarian cookbook, The Green Barbecue. As the title suggests, it has absolutely nothing to do with roasting tins, but is packed with just as much flavour.
When she was researching the book, Iyer decided to move back in with her parents for a few months in Peterborough, as “they are vegetarian and have a great garden”. Since this plan coincided with the start of the pandemic, she ended up spending the first national lockdown with them.
“It worked out fantastically,” she says. As the youngest in the household, Iyer assigned herself the role of weekly shopper. She counts herself lucky that she happened to be writing a vegetarian cookbook at the time – unlike meat and pasta (and toilet roll), “no one really had a run on vegetables”. Back in her parent’s garden, she would test out plates upon plates of barbecued food on her dad while he was home during his lunch break from the nearby GP surgery.
Her fourth cookbook, The Roasting Tin: Around the World, was published during her stay in Peterborough. Initially, Iyer was sceptical about the wisdom of the release date: “I thought it was a really terrible idea. Why would anyone want to buy an ‘around the world’ book, which seemed to be rubbing it in other people’s faces?”
She admits that her publishers soon talked her round, correctly predicting that, confined to their homes, people would relish the chance to travel “via the kitchen”.
With friends and loved ones now able to meet up outside in small groups and the weather brightening, I suspect the publication of The Green Barbecue is similarly well-timed. Or at least it is if I’m anything to go by, having lined up barbecues three weekends in a row. (After the first, I can particularly recommend the spiced paneer kofte with yoghurt and coriander, and the grapefruit and fennel panzanella with honey and watercress.)
With sales of Iyer’s books nearing the million mark, how did she react when she heard they’d topped 900,000? “It’s really weird, but my first question when I got the sales email was: do I get a gold penguin?”
Unfortunately, the accolade is only awarded by publisher Penguin to authors who sell a million copies of the same book. “Maybe I could get a half-sized one? Or a quarter-sized one? I could use it as a door stop,” she adds with a conspiratorial chuckle.
Her creativity is well known to those who own her cookbooks, but the timing of her most creative moments might surprise people. “I usually get my best ideas from driving. It’s really awkward because I just want a pen and paper. Do I pull over and use a Dictaphone? No. So I sort of try to mind-map onto the windscreen when I’m driving.”
Not resting on her past successes, Iyer has plenty more projects competing for her attention. Later this year, she will publish her first baking book in the Roasting Tin series and, in the near future, she hopes to write an Indian recipe book, centering on cuisine from Bengal and south Madras, where her mother and father were born.
Her mum has had a “massive influence” on her and her cooking. Iyer describes her as an “adventurous cook” who has an amazing memory for dishes she has eaten.
Iyer talks fondly about reading her mum’s cookbooks at the kitchen table before school, mesmerised by the pictures, and her first forays into cooking. She started cooking with her mum and sister from a young age, adding: “For someone who is a little bit anxious sometimes, she was quite chill about us standing on a chair and stirring onions. She said my first burn was when I put my finger in a pan of hot sugar syrup to see if it was hot.”
She might have become less keen on stirring since then, but her passion for food remains undimmed.
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