Many things have taken us by surprise during lockdown – the proliferation in amateur ornithology, the fascination with sourdough starters – but one of the more prosaic has been the sheer increase in washing up. Three meals a day, with restless snacks in between; staying at home has meant seemingly endless time at the sink. No wonder, then, a growing online army have turned to Rukmini Iyer’s cookery books.
They do what they say on the, well, tin: nutritional meals, from scratch, cooked in a single tray while you do something else. As Iyer advises in the introduction to her 2017 debut: ‘have a bath, help the children with their homework, or, my preferred option, flop on the sofa with a class of wine, reading Nora Ephron on crisp potatoes and true love.’
I struggle to believe she’s been doing much sofa-flopping, though: last week marked the release of Iyer’s fourth ‘tin book’, The Roasting Tin Around The World. Over the past three years, her approachable, delicious recipes have amassed a near cult-like following, to the extent that last Thursday wasn’t just a book launch in lockdown (a prospect that Iyer admitted initially filled her with dread: ‘my original thought was that it was going to tank’) but Roasting Tin Appreciation Day. Hundreds of Iyer’s fans – who identify using the hashtag #TinLads – celebrated by cooking her recipes and sharing hunger-inducing photographs of the results.
Iyer, a former chef, balances writing with food styling and has spent her career cooking other author’s recipes and then arranging the results. She is, in short, au fait with a cookery book. When I say I can't recall a similar social media phenomenon to the one she had stirred up, she tentatively agrees: ‘It’s unusual and I don’t know how to explain it.’
Some of her fans are more illuminating. ‘They just seem to capture a mood,’ Simon Savidge, a books blogger, tells me. ‘And they reach out to so many different people. There’s not a million ingredients, so it’s cost effective, and it’s perfect for so many people who want something tasty, that looks great and only takes 15 minutes to prepare.’
Iyer wanted to write books that people could cook from when they wanted to, using the ingredients they had in. ‘If I look at a recipe in a book I want to do it tonight, I want to do it now, not in three weeks when my delivery’s arrived,’ she says. ‘That instant gratification means you want to make it accessible.’
For beginner cooks, Iyer's recipes can be transformational. Bethany Rutter, an author and member of the #TinLads movement, found the recipes changed her from someone ‘who didn’t have the confidence to try to cook’ into a person who ‘felt materially different about cooking.’ Rutter says The Roasting Tin let her ‘unlock’ the logic of cooking. ‘It felt like the difference between painstakingly learning all the vowels of the Korean alphabet between realising they’re all sort of interconnected.’
Those comfortable in the kitchen lean on the Roasting Tin series with similar zeal. Savidge’s husband is a professional chef, and yet Iyer’s books remain a favourite as they push even him ‘out of his comfort zone’ in terms of flavour and ideas. Alice Slater, who created the #TinLads hashtag, ‘loves to cook’ but nevertheless fell for the innovation of Iyer’s recipes: 'I’d never thought to bake gnocchi or orzo before, never used a tomato vine to add flavour,’ she tells me.
Deceptively simple, Iyer’s recipes lure people in with the allure of the one-pot dinner. They return, though, because the results taste even better than the lack of washing up feels. ‘The hard work is in making sure it’s going to be a write-home-about, buy-books-for-your-friends good,’ Iyer says. ‘That’s the thought that’s gone in. I have to want to make it again. And so whatever alchemy that takes is enough to make other people want to eat it as well.’
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Iyer, who is 35 and originally from Peterborough, started concocting things in roasting tins after wanting to cook, but crucially not stand around for long periods after a day on her feet. ‘I found myself adapting things like fajitas and curries just by chopping everything, chucking it in a tin and putting it in the oven,’ she says. She thought that a book of roasting tin recipes must exist already, but a brief search suggested otherwise. So she drew up a proposal, complete with the infographics that encouraged the mix-and-matching of ingredients, and The Roasting Tin was born.
Support from the #TinLads and others on social media has allowed Iyer to hone her recipes in subsequent books. While many of the fans I speak to pinpoint her second, The Green Roasting Tin – which is full of vegan and vegetarian recipes – as the moment the phenomenon took off (booktuber Lauren and the Books tells me more than 200 people contacted her saying they bought it after she included it in her Favourite Books of 2018 video), the follow-up, The Quick Roasting Tin, took inspiration from how followers were using Iyer’s recipes. ‘I looked at what people were posting and they fell into such neat categories,’ she tells me, ‘that’s why we have the chapters for lunchboxes, for after work, for date night and weekend cooking. It all matched up with things that people told us they were using the books for.’
For some fans, though, Iyer’s recipes have changed life far beyond the dinner table. The Green Roasting Tin helped Sarah Hastelow embrace a meat-free diet, something she thought was impossible due to her living with Crohn’s disease, which meant she had to avoid eating vegetables. ‘It’s brought time, freedom and taste back into my life,’ she says.
‘It’s one thing having fans who are like, "this is great for dinner", but to have fans who are saying that you’ve changed the way they eat is very humbling,’ says Iyer, who has had messages from people who suffering from eating disorders, or found her books a comfort in times of bereavement. The Roasting Tin series, she’s been told, has helped people get back into food ‘who couldn’t eat before’, she says. ‘You never think that something like a cookbook could have that much effect on someone’.
Since lockdown, Iyer has breathed new life into her recipes with how-to tutorials on her Instagram account. Just like the rest of us, she’s finding herself both weary and inexplicably short of time during the pandemic, as well as struggling to get hold of certain ingredients. And yet from the outset, Iyer has told her readers that they can ‘just pick something from each food type column and put them in a roasting tin dish’, and it’ll be fine. Which is exactly the kind of comforting reassurance we need at the moment.
Check out some of Iyer's best recipes on Happy Foodie.