He Taught Americans to Cook Indian Food. Now He’s on His Final Chapter.
Raghavan Iyer, whose books and spirited teaching spread the cuisine, is using his last days to get familiar comfort foods to patients like himself.
As the end of his life nears, Raghavan Iyer is publishing a new book and promoting the importance of feeding patients foods that speak to their origins and conditions.Credit…Nate Ryan for The New York Times
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By Kim Severson
MINNEAPOLIS — When Raghavan Iyer was a young graduate with a chemistry degree trying to decide what to do with his life, he went to the United States Consulate in his native Mumbai and flipped through college catalogs.
It was one of those moments in life when one decision changes everything. He picked a small but well-regarded hospitality management program in southwestern Minnesota. “It was the cheapest one I could find,” he said.
Mr. Iyer arrived in Marshall, Minn., in 1982, unprepared for a hard culinary truth: There was almost nothing there for a vegetarian raised on South Indian cooking to eat. To make matters worse, Mr. Iyer couldn’t cook. His found a can of something called curry powder at a local grocery store and made potato curry. It was so bad he wept.
But Mr. Iyer, a man with six languages at his command and the astrological stubbornness of a Taurus, would not be defeated. He had his mother and older sister send recipes from India. He picked up a few cooking tips from new friends and put his chemistry degree to work.
“Everything became an experiment,” he said. “Blooming the spices was the big lesson.”
Mr. Iyer, 61, has by some estimations taught more Americans how to cook Indian food than anyone else. His formula is simple: Pare down techniques, use ingredients people can buy at the supermarket and deliver it all with the kindness of a kindergarten teacher.
He has written seven books — including “Betty Crocker Indian Home Cooking” — and taught countless workshops. He has instructed thousands of professional cooks how to incorporate the sophisticated balance of Indian herbs and spices into menus at universities, museums and companies like Google. He has advised restaurants and created a line of frozen Indian meals for Target.
“In many ways he should get more recognition,” said the cookbook author Nik Sharma, 42, another former scientist who moved from India to America in his early 20s. He still reaches for Mr. Iyer’s most successful book, “660 Curries: The Gateway to the World of Indian Cooking,” an 800-page compendium published in 2008.
Next Tuesday, Mr. Iyer will publish “On the Curry Trail: Chasing the Flavor That Seduced the World in 50 Recipes.” The book explores curry powder, an ingredient that has introduced many non-Indians to the cuisine but remains controversial among some members of the diaspora.
Mr. Iyer says it will be his last. Colorectal cancer has invaded his brain and lungs. He’s been fighting it for five years, which is years longer than people with that type of cancer usually survive. He has endured thousands of hours of radiation and chemotherapy, endless scans and four surgeries with multiple complications.
“I’m a tenacious little bitch,” he said one February morning over lattes in the one-bedroom condominium in downtown Minneapolis that he shares with his partner, Terry Erickson, a retired elementary schoolteacher he met on his first day in the United States. The two have raised a son, Robert, who is 23 and lives nearby.
“I’m not worried about dying,” Mr. Iyer said. “Seriously, when you’re dead you don’t know what the hell is happening, so this book is not an homage to my death. This is really celebrating life, family, friends and food.”
That he eats a vegetarian diet, practices yoga and was an avid swimmer have helped him make it this long, he said. So did idli, the spongy, beloved South Indian breakfast staple made by fermenting and steaming rice.
After his first surgery, he lost 30 pounds — a lot for a man who had never topped 155. Before he went into the hospital, he made dozens of idli and froze them so Mr. Erickson could easily warm them up when Mr. Iyer returned home to recuperate.
“Idli nourished me from the inside out,” Mr. Iyer said.
His experience gave him the idea for the Revival Project, which he hopes to get up and running before he dies. He is building a searchable database of comfort-food recipes, organized by cuisine and medical condition, that hospital and other health care workers could use.
“I still don’t understand why the great wisdom of the world’s home cooks and healers has not yet found its way into hospitals and dietary training,” he said. If it weren’t for idli and sambar, yogurt and bowls of brothy rasam, Mr. Iyer might have not regained enough strength to finish “On the Curry Trail.”
Mr. Iyer landed the book contract before he was diagnosed. He worked on the manuscript between surgeries and treatment, using a 600-page research report on spice routes and other historical and cultural lore compiled for him by Margaret Bresnahan, an archivist at Minnesota Public Radio.
As his deadline loomed, he was terribly sick from a round of chemotherapy. It may have been the best excuse ever for postponing, he concedes. But he didn’t want it to be the first deadline he missed.
The novelist Amy Tan met Mr. Iyer at the wedding of the writer Scott Turow. Both authors wrote endorsements for the book jacket.
“I jokingly said to Raghavan that this book is a recipe for world peace,” Ms. Tan said in a phone interview. “The way he embraces commonality as a form of love is truly special.”
She’s a vegan but not skilled in the kitchen, which is why she appreciates the way Mr. Iyer writes a recipe.
“Part of the inclusiveness is that he is very kind to those of us who don’t cook much,” she said. “The recipes capture the flavors, but you are able to buy the ingredients at the local grocery store, and then you get extra credit if you actually grind the seeds.”
When Mr. Iyer began his career, there were only 20 Indian restaurants in New York City, and Madhur Jaffrey had yet to become the most famous Indian cook in the West. To navigate that landscape, he walked directly into the heart of the mainstream American kitchen.
His first book, published in 2001, was the Betty Crocker cookbook. He got the contract because he ran into an editor he knew who worked at the General Mills headquarters in Minneapolis.
“I said, ‘Is Betty ready for Indian?’” he recalled.
Over the years, Mr. Iyer has taken criticism for not hewing close enough to certain Indian preparations. “I tell people that just because it’s not your mother’s cooking, it doesn’t mean it isn’t classic,” he said.
His point isn’t to preach the gospel of Indian cuisine. “I don’t want you to tell me I changed the way you think about Indian food,” he said. “I want you to tell me I changed the way you cook.”
Consider his evolution on the subject of curry. Mr. Iyer has spent much of his career explaining that curry is not a flavor, but any dish that is saucy. In Western countries, many people define curry as the taste that comes from a can of curry powder — the invention of British colonialists who wanted an easy way to take the flavors of India home with them.
“No self-respecting Indian kitchen,” he said, “would have curry powder.”
But it occurred to him that the powder would be an intriguing subject for a book. “We were pummeled by colonials for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said. “So I wanted to look at the diaspora of curry powders through the eyes of the colonials who invented it and the Indians who they sent around the world.”
The book follows curry powder’s journey to countries like Denmark and Australia, and offers recipes for flaky curry puffs from China and chickpeas with saffron from Morocco, whose complex spice mixes are close siblings of curry powder and garam masala. He even includes a British curry-house vindaloo.
Mr. Iyer’s work builds, in part, on the cookbooks of Ms. Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, the Indian cooking heavyweights who began their culinary careers in the 1970s and whom he refers to as “the grandes dames of Indian cooking.”
With his more Americanized, accessible approach to ingredients and his affable style, he built a bridge for a younger generation expanding what it means to cook Indian food in America.
In an interview with Mr. Iyer on a recent episode of the podcast “The Splendid Table,” the host, Francis Lam, called him an icon who helped build the foundation of what Mr. Lam said is a new “golden age of Indian food culture in America.”
His accessibility is what most impresses Asha Gomez, a cook from Kerala whose book “My Two Souths” draws culinary parallels between South India and the American South. “There is always a sense of reverence I have toward him because he paved this path that all of us now so easily walk on,” she said.
Mr. Sharma, the cookbook writer, said that watching the success of someone whose life was very similar to his was inspirational.
“He’s an openly queer Indian food writer and that’s very rare,” he said. “As a person of color, there are so many boxes we have to tick sometimes. It’s a heavy, loaded subject. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to build a space for himself.”
During my visit, Mr. Iyer offered to cook lunch. It would be his first time at the stove in months. For a while, he was simply too tired. And he had just spent nearly a month with his family in India. He arrived there thin and exhausted, but with a list of dishes he wanted to taste one last time.
His 83-year-old sister, Lalitha Iyer, a retired doctor who helped raise him, made sure he ate.
“She’s a feisty old broad,” he said. “She said, ‘If you don’t eat I’m going to come back with you to the U.S.’” He returned five pounds heavier.
Mr. Iyer donned an old promotional apron for his “660 Curries” book, slid the lid from his spice box and started in. He chopped carrots and bell peppers to stir into a pot of rice seasoned with curry leaves, smoky black coriander pods and sticks of cinnamon. He ground tomatoes, garlic, ginger and red onions in a food processor along with his Madras masala blend, and stirred it into a pan of canned kidney beans. He placed a clay pot of homemade yogurt, which he always has in the refrigerator, in the middle of the table.
It felt energizing to get into the kitchen again. “If I control the kitchen,” he said, “I feel I have control over my life.”
Tomorrow he would start a new round of chemotherapy. There were some dates on the calendar to promote his new book, if he had the energy.
“By this time today I would have been taking my second nap,” he said. “But something takes over your body when you are in the kitchen, and you’re just in your own world. You get into this rhythm where things make a lot of sense.”
Recipes: Pan-Fried Tofu With Red Curry Paste | Red Curry Paste
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