What makes the perfect curry? Renowned chef Rick Stein spent three months touring the Indian sub-continent in search of the answer to this question. The BBC series chronicling his journey was watched by millions, and the accompanying book is transforming the way we cook Indian food at home, introducing British foodies to exciting regional dishes and powerful new flavour combinations. The Happy Foodie caught up with Rick, just back from his Indian odyssey, to find out more about what the trip taught him.
Watching Rick Stein’s India, it was clear that your journey was one of discovery and learning. What has changed most in your cooking as a result of everything you saw, tasted and cooked there?
Someone who I was signing a book for the other day said their slogan was ‘You can’t hurry curry’ and I think that, having experienced how Indians cook, I’ve now become even more aware of taking the time to cook something like a stew when I’m not in a hurry. It always makes such a difference.
There is so much regional variation in Indian food. Are there elements common to all food across the sub-continent, which define it as Indian cooking?
Yes, you’ll find some combination of the following spices in every dish – coriander, cumin, black peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, chilli and turmeric.
Everyone you met in India spoke with such passion and pride of their food. Was there one person who stood out to you most as embodying the spirit of Indian cooking?
Rocky Mohan, who cooked me a delicious chicken korma in his kitchen in Lucknow in northern India. He described Madras curry powder as horrendous, but we had a wonderful conversation about the subtleties of spicing in India.
Everyone who undertakes an epic journey like yours comes back with a great anecdote or two. What is yours?
Anybody who has done business in India will know that the bureaucracy is present in every transaction. The number of permissions we needed to do anything, anywhere were mind boggling. In Calcutta, for example, we had permission to film in the streets but only if we didn’t film cows. Getting permission to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar took months, but when we arrived at the gates they told us we couldn’t bring in our tripod as we had only obtained permission for the camera.
Did you discover ingredients in India that you had never used before, but now cannot live without?
Black salt was a great discovery. It’s not just black in colour, but flavoured with sulphur. You might think that the ‘bad egg’ smell of sulphur would be off putting, but sprinkled on peanuts in a bar with a cold Kingfisher beer, it is strangely moreish.
A lot of home cooks are scared to attempt to cook curry – what would your advice be to them?
The cooking method is pretty much the same for all curries and is easy to get the hang of. I think maybe people find the number of spices, rather than the method, intimidating. My advice would be to get stuck in and go for a freshly made spice mix. If you make it yourself, it will taste better than most ready-made ones.
Did you discover any essential cookware or kitchen gadgets on your travels? Have you brought any home with you?
Yes, I brought home a thick, aluminium round-bottomed pan with loop handles called a karahi and a pair of what look like pliers, which are used to lift the karahi off the gas. It is the perfect pan for cooking curries and I’m pleased to note that most of the websites that sell them in the UK have recently sold out!