Ohen Rukmini Iyer wrote the hit Roasting Tin series, she never imagined how crucial her simple, one-tray recipes would actually be — until she became a mom.
“What I said about the Roasting Tin books, ‘Oh, it’s great if you don’t have much time’ – I didn’t know what it was like to not have much time until until I have a baby!” she said laughing. “I really appreciate having written books where I can just put things in a tray.”
Her daughter Alba is seven months old and in the “hilarious” stage of weaning. “It’s crazy when your life is completely turned upside down,” says the 37-year-old, “So I’m very, very happy to be able to do minimal prep and hands-free cooking.”
Recipes in his seventh book, Indian Express, were also a lifeline, with “one pan” and “one box” chapters. “These are the ones I rely on right now – and the most adventurous when I [Alba] to his father!”
His latest offering not only focuses on Indian flavors, but specifically the food of a 1,000-mile train ride from Tamil Nadu in southern India (where his father is from) to Kolkata, in Bengal (where his mother is from) – and all regions in between.
It’s a route his father traveled back and forth while studying at the University of Kolkata Medical School, where he later met his mother – a journey that took 36 hours at the time. Four years ago, Iyer took the same trip with both of his parents to really experience the food of these regions – and everywhere in between.
She writes that her father’s face still lights up when he recalls the first trip he made with his mother: “Because at that time a new service had started, the Coromandel Express, a whole new train that only took 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 trip, “We rode the night train with a train picnic, listening to my parents’ stories about all the amazing food.”
So what sets Bengali cuisine apart from South Indian cuisine?
“My mum had a really hilarious phrase, which is – ‘Tomatoes and potatoes, Bengalis put that 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 delicious breaded prawns and what turned out 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 – these are cool, quick and easy stir-fries, whereas Bengal is a bit more fish-based. But both areas are truly spectacular, [and] both are rice-consuming regions.
Iyer wanted to highlight these distinct regions, while staying true to the ethos of all his cookbooks. “What I wanted to do was think about what makes roasting accessible and popular, and then put a twist on it – which was the food I grew up with, Indian-inspired foods, [and] you still have something to do Wednesday night,” she said.
So you’ll find simple one-box dishes like crispy marinated sea bass with green chili, lime and coriander, Bengal, and beetroot, curry leaf and ginger-inspired buns. South Indian. Recipes are largely vegan and vegetarian, as that’s how most locals eat, with a few pescatarian meals thrown in – as seafood is a “statewide obsession” in the Bengal.
Basically, what really makes a long journey in India are the elaborate snacks on the train. “What’s really cool is that you have snack vendors on the train, it’s a lot more exciting than a snack cart [here]! You’re in your own compartment, like old-fashioned train carriages, and you have vendors going up and down the train,” Iyer explains. “There are hot samosas, hash browns, hot chai… But as regions change, you get local stuff. Arriving in Bengal, you are offered something called mishti doi, a delicious sweet yoghurt served in small earthenware pots. In the south, you are offered idlis, soft steamed rice cakes, which are really tasty. So it’s good that the food on the train reflects where you’re passing.
Cooking and packing your own train snacks is also very traditional, and her recipes honor that – from sticky spiced popcorn with dates, caramel and sea salt, to cauliflower, onion and bread pakoras. .
Iyer’s father would always be well equipped for his long train journeys, sent with a range of snacks prepared by his mother. “The train snacks my grandma would have made for my dad were really hardcore — she probably would have spent at least a day cooking,” Iyer says. Fortunately, his own recipes usually take much less time.
It wouldn’t have been unusual for her grandmother, whom she called Thathi, to spend most of her day in the kitchen. “Culturally, it’s really different. If you were a stay-at-home mom at the time and raising a family, your job was basically to cook,” she explains.
“Now you want things that are obviously tasty, but unless I’ve made a conscious decision that today I want to spend the afternoon cooking, I don’t want to be attached to the cook.
“So a big part of the book is how can I get some of these delicious flavors into food without having someone stay in the kitchen? Can they pack it in 30 minutes? And the answer is yes. , you can make a lot of it. Just like his other books, you won’t find spices that you can’t easily buy in a supermarket on your way home from work.
And we can’t talk about these parts of India without mentioning the rice – which, in true Iyer style, is quick and easy. It may seem like sacrilege, but his family secret to cooking the perfect rice? “The microwave! Because it’s impossible to go 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 it, “Put it in the microwave on medium heat, cook for 11 minutes and let stand for 10 minutes.
“So 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.