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That's a good curry, Rikki...
on 19 July 2013
This is a charming and gently informative six-part celebration of Indian food, presented in Rick Stein's usual affable and entertaining style.
If you've seen any of his previous series then you know exactly what you're getting: a tour of India which takes in all aspects of grassroots and traditional cookery - majoring on the people who prepare the food, as well as the fresh ingredients; where they come from, how they're grown, and how all of these influences have an active interplay with social history.
Don't expect exact recipes which you can follow step by step. Each programme does include several segments (three or four) of Rick cooking dishes in a fabulous lakeside bungalow, based around the meals, meats and methods he's discovered in each region. These are really useful demonstrations - I picked up a trick about swilling ground spices in warm water before adding them to hot oil, for instance - and occasionally quite comic, like when the ginger / garlic grinder kinda explodes and showers poor Rick with hot (if fragrant) masala! But if you want actual amounts, list of ingredients, cooking times and so on, then you'd best buy the companion book.
The TV episodes aim to represent the flavours of the Indian subcontinent - and when you watch several of them it really does become obvious that different ingredients are used in different areas, or combined in subtle ways to make dishes which sound the same - but obviously taste totally different.
Rick goes out of his way to try eating at small cafes and restaurants, even when he's obviously a little uncomfortable with the surroundings. You have to applaud his determination throughout the series to learn to eat rice with his fingers, in a country where cutlery is rare and where the plate is often a banana leaf.
Each episode includes a guest chef or cookery expert who acts as a guide to local delicacies, and behind-the-scenes segments where Rick snoops in the kitchen while a dish is being made. Hot oil flares on open fires: heaped handfuls of garam masala, chilli and cumin get thrown into the mix, and he scribbles it down in his notebook while the Indian chefs deftly throw or blend the bread speciality of the region. It's almost as if you can smell the spices...
There are some times where words fail our presenter and he literally can't quite describe what he's tasting. There are also other moments where he delights in tucking in to what looks like utterly inedible fishy things, and the occasional awkward pauses where communication between Rick and his guest stalls, as he stumbles to find something suitable to say about the flavour of the food they've spent all day preparing for him.
But in many ways that's the charm of this series: it's not wildly glamorous. There's no sweeping helicopter shots or romantic moments with Rick looking windswept on a mountain top. As with the very best factual TV, the series is more about the subject then the presenter. Sure, he's Rick Stein. But his enthusiasm for the feed and the cookery is what drives each episode and what makes it so watchable.
The Indian-based soundtrack is excellent, also. Not too loud so it never competes with the dialogue, but very atmospheric.