Celebrated chef Rick Stein about the delectable Indian food trail, his search for native recipes for a BBC series
Nakshatramana, set on the banks of the tranquil backwaters at Poothotta, is sizzling with activity. British celebrity chef Rick Stein is briskly whipping up a light, creamy dessert. Director David Pritchard is pleased with what the camera throws up on his screen. Rick gingerly pours the pale frothy mix into a bowl and covers it delicately with bits of silver vark (foil). He then garnishes the pudding with slivers of pistachios and looks immensely pleased. “Into the refrigerator”, he says. David thumps the table with joy and declares, “fantastic.” It is nimish, the rich royal dessert from Lucknow that Rick has prepared for a series on Indian food for the BBC, to be aired in summer this year.
Rick is trying to capture the vast Indian foodscape but it is the curry, Britain’s favourite food that’s making his exploration hugely tantalising.
“The curry is very important to the English and my search is for the perfect curry,” he says taking a break from a back breaking six-to-six shooting schedule. With silvery fingertips and pistachio flakes still on him Rick is all smiles. “The cooking here is superb. There is so much richness in Indian cuisine and also in the life here,” he says looking at the rice boats glide by outside the open kitchen.
Rick is a ‘raja’ of the food world having been awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services in the field. He is an adored chef, a charming TV presenter and one who has made good food his business.
The food trail in India has been a delectable experience for him and his team. The pulao puzzled him endlessly in Lucknow. Convinced that it is a biriyani masquerading as a pulao he plans to fuse the recipes “The lines between the two are blurred. I want to produce a biriyani with layers of mutton, chicken and saffron. Indians are so possessive about the biriyani like the French are about the bouillabaisse,” he says.
It was in Goa, 30 years ago, that Rick had his life changing tryst with fish. “It opened a new dimension of fish cookery for me and ever since I have always blended some of it into my menu alongside classic French cuisine.” The Goa fish curry, stuffed pomfret, shark vindaloo….Rick was bowled over by fish versions. He opened his first seafood restaurant in 1975 in Padstow, England, from where it has grown into five, and one in Sydney, Australia.
His defining contribution to the evolving foodscape has been the stress on the use of local ingredients. “I made a big fuss about going local. It was partly out of necessity then because only fresh fish was readily available locally and luckily I had hit on a great selling point,” he says recalling the times when globalisation had yet to condense the food world. Forty years of hands-on cooking serving, making menus he is pleased that people’s appreciation of food has grown enormously but he still holds the local food of a place in very high regard.
“I pander to the wish of customers wishing for global cuisine but then what happens to the local?” he asks declaring that he savours local cuisine of a place “for better or for worse.”
Mustard oil got the better of him in Kolkata but he stuck to eating dishes cooked in the sharp oil, finally enjoying it.
The series with the working title of ‘Rick Stein’s - Taste of India’ or ‘India- Search for the Perfect Curry,’ has had the team film 60 recipes cooked by Rick. He has been to the underbelly of cities to flesh out local, native recipes and discover the nuances of Indian cuisine. Impressed and delighted he finds Indians “going all the way in their food.” He cooked a variety of curries rattling the names off in obvious joy- junglee maas, safed maas, rogan josh, Cantonment curry, Madras fish curry, karimeen in banana leaf, shaap curry…
Today it’s not the success that gives him contentment but the cooking of a dish which he relished as a young boy. “You recreate dishes of your childhood in some curious way,” he says and strangely for Rick it has an Indian connect. He discovered, in this trip, the khubani murg- chicken with apricots that took him down memory lane to his mommy’s Raj type curry with sultanas.
It was time for the nimish to be out of the refrigerator. Rick was back in the kitchen waiting for the final shot, food tasting and the applause.