With nearly 30 years in the public eye, seafood loving Rick Stein has seen it all. Born in Churchill, Oxfordshire to as he puts it, bonkers parents who loved to travel, in a way Rick was always predisposed to wander the globe. At the age of 19, a little disillusioned with private education and still saddened by the suicide of his father one year earlier, Rick packed his bags and set sail for the Southern Hemisphere.
INTERVIEW BY ALEXANDER TAN
Is it great to be back in England and leaving all that hot weather behind you?
No, it’s not that nice today!
It’s amazing that you travelled India. How did that come about?
For a long time I have loved curries, ever since I was very little. I started going to Goa in the early eighties and since then I have looked at Indian seafood, Indian curries and putting them on my menu down at Padstow. I’ve developed a fascination with how curries have been put together and the different types in the different regions of India. I haven’t just been specialising in fish, I’ve been doing a lot of food and travel. I’ve done Spain, France, The Far East, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. So therefore India was the obvious next place given that Indian food is so popular in the UK.
Your deep passion lies with fish; can you tell Chaat! readers which British fish are the best suited with spicy food?
Well monkfish is good as it has a neutral flavour and a lovely texture and codfish works really well with saucer curry dishes. Oily fishes also work really well with curries too. For example, salmon is the closest fish we have to the southern Indian King fish, plus mackerel works equally well.
You start off your new book with street food, why do you think street food is getting so popular here in the UK?
Indian street food is very good. Calcutta and Bombay are just so competitive. Each cook is so skilled and intelligent that they are constantly trying to outdo each other. There is no end to the variety of street food in India.
If there were Indian street food restaurants in Britain would they be popular?
Street food is a little like tapas. If you are in India you stop to try this and try that, especially in Calcutta. This equates to how people like to eat now, not really sitting for a big meal, but rather snack here and there. Grazing is very popular.
Which of your recipes shows street food at its best?
I would say the tay bhajee from Bombay, because it’s the sort of dish that everybody loves to eat. Almost like an Indian version of a burger. That’s not to say that they are the same but both have that yummy quality that immediately gets you going. The other one would be the lilo chevda, a sweet tangy potato shred dish from Gujarat. It’s similar to Bombay mix and finished off with lime juice.
You have a large section of vegetarian dishes near the beginning of the book. Most cookbooks put vegetarian dishes near the end of the book.
That’s because they eat so much vegetarian food in India that if you didn’t give vegetarian food a big presence then you’d be missing the point. Since nearly fifty percent of the population are vegetarian in India being a vegetarian is almost the norm rather than the exception.
Did you find that vegetarian food is little more versatile to work with?
Definitely, there is some much variety with vegetables with their fresh markets. I constantly need to ask questions about the varieties. Here in the UK we just don’t have so many varieties, which is a shame.
In the book is an image with about 7 different varieties of rice, in a market stall in India. In the UK we usually use white or basmati rice. If you were to recommend a new rice for our readers to try which would you suggest?
There is a red rice that is preferred in the Kerala which is much plumper than basmati. It’s not as polished as the others but it’s fantastic. That is a rice worth trying.
You have put great thought into the introduction of your book. You even apologise to Indian readers for any disagreements or discrepancies with their methods that you may encounter. Was India different to your expectations?
Very much so, for a start I didn’t know that so many people were going to be vegetarian. Plus, I didn’t realise that so many dishes have such a religious significance and I have referred to this in the book. It’s not just about cooking but cooking the right dishes at the right time. Like the dishes for Diwali, it is not necessarily just seasonal. I could stay for ten years and still learn something new!
I think British culture is less focused on food, just the 9-5 life, eating what is quick and easy.
Yes, this is something I have touched on. We have something we have to relearn and the more we celebrate the food around us the better. In India the people love food and still spend time preparing it daily.
Do you think your Indian style bread and butter pudding is going to take over granny’s bread and butter putting here in the UK?
No I don’t think so they are totally different, though the Indian one has probably had some British Raj influence.
You have 6 episodes of your show coming up. If people are really busy and only have the chance of catching one which one should it be?
The first one, which is the showcase, is the one to watch. The bits I particularly like are the fish curry I sampled at Namila Pur in Tamil Nadu and the temple visit at Madurai. Also, the trip down the Keralan black water shouldn’t be missed. The first program is mostly about the street food in Calcutta. Of course in other episodes there are great bits too. The fish market in Bombay is terrific for example, very visual. Also, judging a cookery contest in Punjab was tremendously fun. We met an 80 year old woman who ran a truck drivers stop. She kept a rifle under her counter and I’m pretty sure she would have used it as well! That’s not something I’d recommend to British restaurant owners…
Closer to home your son is a chef now, do you have any arguments over technique or is he better than you?
I don’t work in a restaurant all the time now, I’m slowing down. He works all the time and is really fast, but we both seem to have the same accord. Maybe we should argue and debate like father and sons do. He calls me dad usually, but when he gets one over on me he calls me Rick.
What is the most special moment of your career?
My main love is the restaurant. Although a proud moment for me was winning the national prize for my first cookbook, very overwhelming.
Finally, which Indian spice do you feel that you can’t live without?
Cardamom. It’s now so popular, especially the black variety. Cardamom can be used not just in savoury but also in sweet dishes. Plus, it can also be used in Chai.