India Express: Rukmini Iyer on her most personal cookbook yet

Rukmini Iyer transformed British kitchens with her Roasting Tin books. Now, she's been inspired by her heritage.

Just a few years ago, Rukmini Iyer, a chef with experience of cooking in professional kitchens, started making simple, nourishing and delicious recipes that could be cooked in a single roasting tin, inadvertently starting a culinary revolution in the process. In 2017, she released her first book, The Roasting Tin: Simple One Dish Dinners; since then, more than a million copies of the resulting series – The Green Roasting Tin, The Roasting Tin Around the World, The Quick Roasting Tin and The Sweet Roasting Tin – have sold, changing dinnertimes around the country as people realised nutritious, healthy and interesting food really was possible to put on the table, often with just 30 minutes' hands-free cooking time.

Yet, all those years the Roasting Tin series was taking off, Iyer had another legacy in mind. Decades earlier, her parents began a courtship on the 1,000-mile-long, 24-hour railway journeys between Kolkata on India’s east coast, where her mother lived, and Chennai in the south, her father’s home region. Behind the scenes, Iyer was devising a way to combine those legacies: “I've sort of been plugging away at it for years,” Iyer says. “It's been sort of a secret passion project.”

Now, that passion project exists. India Express, Iyer’s new book, is a loving snapshot of the heritage that made her, a brightly covered tome packed with flavour, new takes on cooking Indian food, and family stories. There are pages dedicated to stuffed parathas, and others to chaat, with instructions on how best to tackle a chaat station should you be fortunate enough to attend an Indian wedding with one in place. India Express blends the no-fuss approach that has catapulted Iyer repeatedly to the top of the bestsellers chart with the kind of South Indian cooking that, as she says, “isn't really well represented in books.”

Between the recipes lies history: train picnics and the roadside tea-stalls. Before the pandemic, Iyer traced her parents’ footsteps alongside them, making the journey from Kolkata to Chennai by rail – the initial research trip behind the book, and the origin of the “express” in its title. “The plan was to eat everything in sight, learn family recipes from both East and South India, and work out ways to incorporate them into a book of everyday recipes,” Iyer writes in the introduction.

And they really did eat everything. “From a food point of view, it was really cool to try it out there,” Iyer explains. Their trip collided with harvest season: “there was loads of this date palm jaggery, which is a bit like molasses; and it was a big deal because it was the first press. But I don’t think I’ve eaten so much sugar in as many days,” she laughs. “It’s considered really rude if you don't kind of have to be rolled out of someone's house.”

A day of visiting relatives would consist of several meals – mid-morning, lunchtime, and then again mid-afternoon. “Everyone will feed you more than a full meal, be really offended if you don't eat right, then try and feed you more.”

'It’s considered really rude if you don't kind of have to be rolled out of someone's house'

Iyer’s parents moved to the UK on the cusp of the Eighties, something she imagines was a challenge. “These days, if you emigrate, you can still keep in touch with WhatsApp and video calls,” she says. “Back then, a telephone call was tremendously expensive. It literally was just letters on airmail paper. Now, I just feel like my mum must have felt so isolated - my dad was at work, and she was doing her medical exams. I'm not sure I could do it, move to a new country and have no contact with your family, or friends.”

Letters from India, Iyer explains, “were kind of a lifeline for her”. Alongside family news they would include recipes, comforting normalities from home that have become the most precious of heirlooms. “Mum won't use the originals anymore because she's too worried about the airline paper, so she's pasted and photocopied,” Iyer explains. “When I said I wanted to scan some of the originals for the book, she was very much like, ‘These are the only letters I have’. One of them, from my grandad, must have been written when I was little; he was like, ‘Thank you for sending pictures of baby Rukmini.’ It was really cute. It was a nice way of thinking about them since they're not around anymore.”

Iyer persuaded her mother, in the end – the letters came out of the plastic wrap they were encased in, and were photographed on the kitchen worktop. Now, they lie between the pages of India Express, preserved for the next generation.

She comes from a strong – and interesting – culinary lineage. While Iyer’s mother was from a wealthy enough family that for her to cook in the kitchen (where she was usually accompanied by employed cooks) was “an event”, Iyer’s grandmother was keenly experimental, even fashioning her own oven – a device that is rarely found in a traditional Indian kitchen.

'It’s helpful seeing people react to the Tin books, saying how they love making something on a weeknight'

“She wanted to make Western-style dishes from American magazines,” explains Iyer. “She’d make bread and butter pudding, do whole roast chickens, things that you wouldn't expect, really. Food is a big thing in Bengal. They're very, very into it and it's a topic of conversation. But I am surprised that she took it to such lengths when she had people to do cooking for her.”

Iyer grew up eating similar things to any other child of the Eighties in the UK: “pasta, chicken nuggets, the usual trashy food that people would eat then,” she rattles off. Her mother’s quiche, she tells me, is unrivalled. But there was also rice and vegetable curries – some readers may be surprised, upon reading India Express, to discover that the Iyer family “cook with only the barest pinch of chilli”. It’s this combination of West and East, of dinnertimes as equally influenced by Nigella, Delia and Jamie as Madhur Jaffrey and much-loved airmail recipes, that makes India Express a uniquely accessible cookbook.

Cook with Rukmini

Much as Iyer’s Roasting Tin books transformed how people cooked from scratch, there are takeaways here that will change their attitude towards making Indian food. Rice, for instance: “Cook it in the microwave. You’ll get lovely, separate grains, and it’s perfect to eat straight away.”

It also took a while to get here. Iyer may have been wanting to write a book about India for years, but it was only through watching people react to her one-tin recipes that she realised the power of simple, satisfying cooking.

“It’s helpful seeing people react to the Tin books, saying how they love making something on a weeknight,” she says. “I wanted to make it achievable, and not just something that would sit on a shelf. I never wanted it to be a book that would make you create a curry paste just to make a sauce. It was a long time in the making, and I think that’s a good thing.”

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