“I hate Indian food!” declared Albert Roux, the Frenchman revered in culinary circles for bringing gastronomy to Britain. “It completely ruins the flavour of anything. You, as a fish cook, how could you?” Roux – who also happens to be the father of TV chef Michel Roux Jr – was aghast when he heard about Rick Stein’s latest TV series.
“It just made me laugh,” chuckles Stein, who counts Roux as an old friend. “I like trying things out and I do think if the fish is good quality and fresh, it works.”
Not only is Stein fond of Britain’s favourite meal, he’s especially partial to the fishy sort, regretting that it rarely makes it onto the menu of curry houses over here. In fact, after three months eating his way around India for his new six-part culinary journey, he’s decided this fish dish – a snapper, tomato and tamarind madras – is his favourite. Stumbling upon it was “life-changing”.
“Every now and then you find a meal in a place which is so wonderful, and the food so reflects where you are, that you never forget it.” Wistfully, Stein conjures up that auspicious afternoon on India’s Coromandel coast, which he’d been led to believe would be “dirty and featureless”.
“There are sacred cows walking up and down the beach. There are those beautiful slender red, blue and yellow fishing boats drawn up. And a restaurateur comes up and says, ‘I’ve got this fresh snapper. Do you want me to make a curry with it?’ Then you sit down and eat it and you just think: flip!”
Stein’s been a convert to the cuisine ever since he went to Goa in the early 80s, and regulars at his Padstow restaurant are used to seeing curries chalked up alongside local dishes.
“Some people ask, ‘Why would you put curry on the menu in Padstow?’” He shrugs in his affable, down-to-earth way. “Because I like ’em. I’ve always served some sort of spicy thing as well as local dishes. And that really came from the first trips to Goa, and eating fish curries.”
Perhaps more surprising is that the chap who has built an empire on seafood is as fervent about India’s vegetarian fare as he is about fish curry.
“I think I’m right in saying that a third of the population in India are vegetarian. It’s normal to be vegetarian. In Britain, you’re slightly patronised. It’s the reverse in India. Their delight is their vegetables. The vegetable markets are fabulous and the variety of vegetables they grow is amazing.”
Stein says that when Gandhi arrived in London in 1888, he found himself unable to eat anything but porridge; the father of the Indian independence movement was a strict vegetarian. While our tastes have clearly changed, it frustrates Stein that meat-free options remain an afterthought in your average British balti house.
One of the aims of the series – which sees Stein sampling the myriad delicacies of Kolkata, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Rajasthan and the Punjab – is to show what we’re missing out on by not embracing the food of India’s 450 million vegetarians: egg curries, creamy dals and bhajis – by which he doesn’t mean those greasy, shrivelled balls that often serve as a starter in second-rate restaurants, but a potato-based dish often served as a fragrant mash. “I loved it. It’s the best country in the world, I’d say, to be vegetarian.”
There were times when his camera crew probably wished they had that excuse. Meatier meals included an offal curry, chunky with goat’s liver and slow-cooked goat’s hooves. “They’d been cooked for so long that all the gelatinous stuff had made a very nice stew,” says Stein, beaming at my inadvertent grimace. “Yes, the crew felt that way, too; they weren’t quite as ‘go ahead’ in that respect as me. I’m very catholic in my tastes.”
But despite his best intentions, Stein didn’t quite succeed in going native. “In the south they eat with their hands a lot and I’m terrible. You use your right hand for eating with and your left for unmentionable things; I had to sit on it when I was being filmed. And I just find it really hard to have fingers covered in food. It’s a very Western thing. They say once you’ve mastered it, it tastes totally different.”
As he talks he rolls an imaginary ball of rice with the fingers of his right hand and dunks it into an imaginary masala – and there’s that wistful look again. The diners of Padstow may have to get used to more than the odd curry.