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IndyEats October 2022

Rukmini Iyer: ‘After becoming a mum, I really appreciate writing one-pot cookbooks’

The cook and author of the Roasting Tin series is back. She chats to Lauren Taylor about Indian train journeys and cooking as a new mum

Saturday 08 October 2022 06:30 BST
Iyer says she ‘didn’t know what not having much time was until I had a baby’
Iyer says she ‘didn’t know what not having much time was until I had a baby’ (David Loftus/PA)

When Rukmini Iyer wrote the hugely successful Roasting Tin series, she never imagined just how crucial her simple, one-tray recipes would actually be – until she became a mum.

“What I said about the Roasting Tin books, ‘Oh, it’s great if you don’t have much time’ – I didn’t know what not having much time was until I had a baby!” she says, laughing. “I really appreciate having written books where I can just put things in a tray.”

Her daughter Alba is seven months old and at the “hilarious” weaning stage. “It’s mad when your life’s completely turned around,” says the 37-year-old, “So I’m very, very glad to be able to do minimal prep, hands-free cooking.”

Recipes in her seventh book, Indian Express, have been a lifesaver too, with “one pan” and “one tin” chapters. “Those are the ones I’m relying on right now – and the more adventurous ones when I hand [Alba] over to her dad!”

Her latest offering focuses not just on Indian flavours, but specifically the food of a 1,000-mile train route from Tamil Nadu, south India (where her dad is from) to Kolkata, Bengal (where her mum is from) – and all the regions in between.

It’s a route her father would travel back and forth when he studied at the University of Kolkata Medical School, where he later met her mum – a journey that took 36 hours at the time. Four years ago, Iyer took the same journey with both of her parents to really discover the food of those regions – and everywhere in between.

She writes that her father’s face still lights up when he talks about the journey he first took with her mother, “Because, by then a new service had started, the Coromandel Express, a brand new train taking just 24 hours. It was also a rather unusual trip, given that it was unconventional for a couple in India to travel together unmarried in the 1970s.”

Iyer says she finds the story “romantic”, and when she recreated the journey, “We took the overnight train journey with a train picnic, listening to my parents’ stories about all the amazing food.”

So what characterises Bengali cuisine compared to south Indian?

“My mother had a really hilarious phrase, which is – ‘Tomatoes and potatoes, Bengalis put them in everything’. And they really like seafood because it’s a coastal area, you get really amazing prawns. I was in a hotel [there] with my mum and we ordered some delicious breaded prawns and what turned up was literally the size of a small lobster – so tasty and ginormous,” she says.

“Whereas in south India, where my family is vegetarian, the food is really light and healthy. [They] cook with mustard seeds, desiccated coconut, cook things in coconut milk – it’s about fresh, quick and easy stir-fries, whereas Bengal is a bit more fish-based. But both regions are really spectacular, [and] they are both rice-eating regions.”

Iyer wanted to showcase these distinct regions, while staying true to the ethos of all of her cookbooks. “What I wanted to do was think about what makes the Roasting Tin accessible and popular, and then bring a spin on it – which was the food that I grew up with, Indian-inspired foods, [and] still have something you could make on Wednesday night,” she says.

So you’ll find simple, one-tin dishes like crisp-topped marinated sea bass with green chilli, lime and coriander, from Bengal, and south Indian-inspired beetroot, curry leaf and ginger buns. The recipes are largely vegan and vegetarian, because that’s how most people of the regions eat, with some pescatarian meals thrown in – because seafood is a “state-wide obsession” in Bengal.

Crucially, what really makes a long journey in India is elaborate train snacks. “The really cool thing is you have snack vendors on the train, it’s much more exciting than a snack trolley [here]! You’re in your own compartment, like the old fashion train carriages, and you’ve got vendors going up and down the train,” Iyer says. “There’s hot samosas, potato cakes, hot chai… But as the regions change, you get local things. When you get to Bengal, you get offered something called mishti doi, a delicious, sweetened yoghurt served in little earthenware pots. In the south you get offered idlis, steamed fluffy rice cakes, which are really tasty. So it’s nice the food on the train reflects where you’re going through.”

Cooking and packing your own train snacks is very traditional too, and her recipes honour that – from sticky spiced popcorn with dates, caramel and sea salt, to cauliflower, onion and bread pakoras.

Iyer’s dad would always be well-equipped for his long train journeys, sent off with an array of snacks cooked by his mum. “The train snacks my grandma would have packed for my dad were really hardcore – she probably would have spent at least a day cooking,” Iyer says. Thankfully, her own recipes are generally much less time-intensive.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for her grandmother, who she called Thathi, to spend the majority of her day in the kitchen. “Culturally, it’s really different. If you were a stay-at-home mum back then and you’re raising a family, your job was basically cooking,” she explains.

“Now you want things that are obviously tasty, but unless I’ve made a conscious decision that today I feel like spending the afternoon cooking, I don’t want to be tied to the stove.

“So a lot of the book is how can I bring some of these lovely flavours into the food without making someone have to stay in the kitchen? Can they pack it in in 30 minutes? And the answer is yes, a lot of it you can.” Much like her other books, you won’t find spices you can’t easily pick up in a supermarket on your way home from work.

And we can’t talk about these regions of India without mentioning rice – which in true Iyer style is quick and easy. It may sound like sacrilege, but her family secret to cooking the perfect rice? “The microwave! Because it’s impossible to get it wrong” – all you need is 200 grams of good quality basmati rice in a heatproof bowl, cover with three-quarters of a pint of boiling water, put a plate on top, “Put it in the microwave on a medium setting, cook for 11 minutes and let it stand for 10.

“Then your rice is absolutely perfect.”

‘India Express: Fresh And Delicious Recipes For Every Day’ by Rukmini Iyer (published by Square Peg, £22; photography by David Loftus), available now.

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