Rick Stein can be a divisive character at the North Sea Scullery.
A typical conversation usually goes a bit like this:
What don’t you like about him?
I don’t know; he just gets on my nerves.
Maybe Rick Stein is an acquired taste. I’m really pretty fond of him, or should I say, his programmes and his books. We don’t ever really know the celebrity chef unless we actually know them, no matter how well they might be put together as entertainment.
I even saw him once, on a railway platform in deepest England, but was too starstruck to speak to him. He also looked a bit harassed to be honest. Which is totally understandable given trains out of London in the height of summer.
I didn’t get him to begin with either, it’s fair to say that. I had a dim tendency to switch off around any earnest eulogies to local British fish and sausages in those days – of course, he was ahead of his time. But I really did get him by 2007 when he did his Mediterranean programme.
For the first time, the travelogue and cooking seemed to work for me, and it was obvious, very obvious, that there was nothing contrived about his love of literature, and history. If you were to put a really clear and enabling chef – like James Martin, say – Simon Schama and Michael Palin in a blender (please don’t, of course), you might end up with something like Rick Stein. Not since Floyd, maybe, who was a major inspiration for Stein, was there a cook who was trying to take on the whole culture of food, its intrinsic connection to all other things, art, history, literature – which he has tried to maintain throughout all his series, both TV and books.
Of course, it isn’t just the Open University – Rick Stein’s cookery is brilliant, and his India series, I think, remains his very best. Every single week there was some marvel on the dangerous looking stove, and what was more marvellous, it felt – just – like you could cook it yourself. That’s what I mean by enabling, really. It was unmissable television – and largely because of that little shack, the devil spice machine, the evident gelatinous heat, and these beautiful, wonderful dishes.
I started out with the easier ones – the Passanda, for example, is great – and then worked away around the pages, trying quite a few now. There might be some ingredient issues depending on your local shop, but once you get a slate of the staples, you’ll be alright. In particular, this book must have bumped up UK sales of Kashmiri Chilli Powder a wee bit.
Blisteringly colourful, the book is filled with sunstroke vivid photographs of India and its food. Now available in some bookshops at what amounts to thievery, India is a very, very good book and if you fancy a bit of the Stein philosophy with your curry paste, now’s the time to grind it in.
Update 1 5th April
Today, it was time for a break from meat eating. Rick Stein’s India has some fantastic vegetarian recipes, and the Chickpea Curry (Chana Masala) here is great. No Kashmiri Chilli Powder to hand, so it didn’t have the rich paprika red of the photograph, but it was incredibly tasty. One of the standout features of this book that becomes obvious as you go is the ‘Ingredients & Techniques’ section at the back – six pages of a mini cookery course all by themselves.