Keith Floyd was the first celebrity chef I ever admired. He was charming, he was witty, he drank too much and he had the funkiest introductory music on his shows. Floyd on Fish, Floyd on France, through the eighties and into the nineties, I followed him glass by glass as he sloshed his way around the world. His was never the kind of show that gave you precise measurements or summed up at the end so that you could dutifully write down each of the ingredients and the instructions. His shows were half travelogue, half cooking, half (yes that's three) ode to the joys of drinking and eating. It's no wonder I half fell in love with him!
And so, last year when his new series Floyd's India appeared on the television the Critic came up with the perfect gift: the cookbook to the series, which would allow me to try out all the nifty recipes and HIM to taste them!
This book is pure Floyd. If you already like Floyd, you will probably love it. If you love eating and drinking and reading the experiences of someone else who loves eating and drinking you will probably also love it. If you are Julian Barnes, you will hate it. (Julian Barnes' Pedant in the Kitchen is a book-long rant against imprecise over-casual recipe writers.) So, like Floyd's TV series, the book spends a lot of time (for a cookbook) on the background, some 50 pages on the various regions of India he visited and a page or so before each of the sections to explain the following recipes. The recipes are grouped by main ingredient - Masala, Rice, Thali (oops that's a kind of dish), Chicken, etc. So there are two parts to the book, the stories and the recipes.
The stories are lovely, Floyd at his best. In the Tandoori section he unashamedly vents his spite against British Airways: "In July 2001 I purchased for about 70 pence a tandoor oven that stood 3 feet hight. Unfortunately British Airways wanted, in my opinion, an absolutely outrageous sum of money per kilo to fly it back to the UK and it would have cost about £600 in excess baggage so sadly it stayed put in India. Afer this experience, the film crew and I changed our airline to Emirates, who were pleased to have our business and our filming equipment." His story of the carry leaves that had to be purchase some 20 times because the seller kept looking at the camera ("A cardinal sin in a director's eyes!") made me laugh out loud. Reading the first fifty pages, and especially gazing at the gorgeous photos, you can't believe you have wasted some 37 years of your life without getting to India.
And the recipes are also, in good and bad ways, pure Floyd. They are mouthwatering, they are instructive, they make you want to explore new vistas. They are also, unfortuantely, somewhat vague. Often the quantities are simply "cover with water" and he expects you to know your exotic spices well enough that you know yourself how much you want to add. I had never cooked with curry leaves before and so was a bit concerned about deciding how much a "pinch" would be. (Why couldn't he just say 3-4 or 6-8 or whatever he meant?!?) That said, I've tried several of the recipes so far and none have let me down. In fact, the Jodhpuri Pulau (recipe below) is so good that it has received the ultimate cookbook compliment in my kitchen: the page is covered with grease and the book opens naturally to the recipe.
So all in all, the book is every bit as good as the series was. However, I did find there was a little something missing from Mr. Floyd this time around, a certain lack of spark. This might be due to the fact that he was unfamiliar with Indian food prior to the series. In his own words: 'Then, one fine day, he gets a fax, "Go and do a series on India," it says. "I don't know anything about India," he replies. "Don't worry," they say. "We will send you all the information. All you have to do is pop on to a plane and get cooking." And so they did.' So maybe that is what is why he is missing his usual assurance. Or maybe it's the fact that Indian food does not give scope for the "one glass for the pot, one glass for the chef" method of cooking?
Nevertheless it has been a fun read. It doesn't include every classic recipe you'd like to see (e.g. no samosas, only one bread recipe) but then it has a lot of dishes that you'll never see in your British or American Indian restaurant. And so if you enjoy exploring new regions in photos and recipes with a master raconteur this is the book for you. If you are looking for a textbook on Indian cuisine with precise measurements, look elsewhere.
Floyd's Jodhpuri Pulau (serves 6-8)
I chose this recipe for two reasons: I was dying to use the lovely yellow lentils (dal) that I bought at the Indian market, and the photo looked mouthwatering, with bits of spice and caramelised onions perched on top. Despite the fact that my rice was too sticky both times I tried it (obviously I didn't rinse it as much as Floyd advised) I absolutely loved it. My comments and departures from the recipe are in parentheses.
50 g/2 oz split yellow or rend lentils, washed
600 g/1 lb 6 oz. basmati rice, washed under running water for at lest 15 minutes and strained (the greenie in me can't bear running water for 15 minutes just for rice)
100 g/4 oz. ghee
1 tsp. cumin seeds
2 pieces of cinnamon stick
4-5 cardamom pods
2 black cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
1. Soak the washed lentils in fresh water for three hours and the washed rice for one hour. (Ahem. I threw them all in the same bowl and just soaked them for an hour or so.)
2. Cut the onion in half and slice it very finely into half moon shapes. Heat a little oil and fry the slices until they are very crispy, then drain and put to one side. (This was easier than I expected. Fry the slices in small quantities if they don't fit in your pan in an even layer and as soon as the first of the onions are nearly as cooked as you want begin removing them. By the time you get the last bits out they'll probably be slightly more cooked than you wanted and the majority will be just right.)
3. Strain the soacked lentils and the rice. Heat a little oil and the ghee (notice those vague quantities again!) in a pan or kerai, add all the whole spices and teh bay leaves and stir while they crackle.
4. Stir in the lentils, then add the rice and stir gently so that all the grains are coated with the oil. Add just enough water to cover the rice and season with salt. Bring to the boil, then lower the ehat and cook gently, stirring from time to time until the liquid is absorbed and teh rice is cooked.
5. Serve garnished with the crispy fried onions. (And warn your guests to look out for the cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks in the rice, which should not be eaten!)