- Photo Credit: Tate Carlson, Pictured: Mr. Iyer.
When Raghavan Iyer left Mumbai for the U.S. in 1982 to study engineering and management, it’s a fair bet that he did not expect to become a cookery guru.
What started with quick letters home to get recipes, became a passion for cooking that has turned into a career. Today Mr. Iyer is a member of the culinary elite in the U.S.
He has published four cookbooks, been nominated for the James Beard Award for America’s best chefs, and has an Emmy for hosting the television documentary, Asian Flavors.
The presidency of the International Association of Culinary Professionals will also belong to him in 2014. He is the first Indian-American to be selected for the post.
Through his food and 22-year cookery teaching career he has helped debunk myths surrounding Indian cooking.
Mr. Iyer spoke to The Wall Street Journal about his books, becoming a good cook and why Indians are good at appropriating cuisines.
The Wall Street Journal: How did you get into cooking?
Raghavan Iyer: I used to cook a lot when I was in college and experimented with food. My meals became much more elaborate, because I was learning techniques that I could apply to the flavors of my childhood. I worked at an Indian restaurant for about six years after I graduated. For the bulk of it I was actually in the kitchen, so I learned the commercial side of cooking Indian food as well. What it taught me was how to think about it from a commercial standpoint, but on the flip side of it, I felt like it also stymied my creativity. So, I got out of it, and I thought, what do I do?
I always wanted to teach, so I started teaching cooking. The teaching led to the writing. I always loved to write. I do all my writing. The writing, of course, led to the books. That’s how life took on a whole new meaning.
WSJ: What do you believe is unique about Indian cuisine?
Mr. Iyer: Here’s a cuisine that is 6,000 years old and it has such a rich diversity, but it’s also cuisine that never left India. What Indians are masterful at is with every foreign invasion, with every influence from colleagues that came and settled in India, whether it be traders or rulers, they all brought with them a certain technique.
They all brought with them ingredients. We took that and we embraced it and we made it part of our own. So it has constantly emerged. Every culture of course has its own food. It’s an integral part of the way we function, but I feel like it’s more so in India. We are passionate about food in all forms and in all kinds. To me, you think Indian food, you think spices. You think the world of flavors. That’s what the whole world came to India for, for the spice trade.
When you unearth the complexity of spices, I think you unearth the beauty of the cuisine, like India.
WSJ: Tell us about your books.
Mr. Iyer: My first one was actually, believe it or not, “Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking.” That came out in 2001, they gave me carte blanche to write it.
That’s why the book has that very classic feel to it. There were no shortcuts. It was all about the complexity and the simplicity of regional Indian cooking. My second “The Turmeric Trail” was very personal and was a James Beard finalist for best international cookbook.
The third was “660 Curries,” after which I went into sort of depression. I really didn’t feel like writing or reading or even cooking for a long time. Of course, eventually I got back on the horse.
My newest book, “Indian Cooking Unfolded” is based upon my 22-year culinary teaching career. A few years ago I got the IAC Julia Child Award for cooking teacher of the year. It’s sort of an authoritative book that gives you the building blocks and the techniques of Indian cooking.
WSJ: You are President of The IACP this year. The first Indian-American to hold this position, what does this mean to you?
Mr. Iyer: It’s an organization that has really been extremely important for me, and I felt it gave me the opportunity to build my career.
It’s been around for 35 years. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of workshops and seminars at the conferences, and that gave me more visibility. That’s the point where I feel like okay, now it’s my turn to give back to the organization. So, when I was asked to consider joining the board, I did. It’s an elected position. It’s a humongous responsibility, but I feel like this is coming full circle, and now I feel like it’s my turn to give back.
Recipes extracted from Mr. Iyer’s new book, “Indian Cooking Unfolded”
Coconut Squash with Chiles
Lacto-vegetarian (vegan if you use oil)
1 pound yellow squash or zucchini
1⁄2 cup dried unsweetened coconut shreds
1 to 2 fresh green serrano chiles, stems discarded
2 tablespoons ghee, homemade or store-bought, or canola oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1. Slice about ½ inch off both ends of each squash and discard. Cut the squash in 1-inch cubes and place them in a small saucepan. Pour 1 cup of water over the squash and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan, and cook the squash, stirring occasionally, until it is fork-tender but still firm looking, 5 to 8 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, transfer about ½ cup of the simmering liquid from the pan with the squash to a blender. Add the coconut and chilies and puree them, scraping the inside of the blender as needed, to make a thick paste mottled with green flecks of hot chilies amid a sea of naturally sweet coconut. Add this to the pan of squash. At this point, I usually scoop some of the liquid from the pan, add it to the blender, swish it around to make sure I get every last bit of paste, and then pour it back into the pan.
3. Heat the ghee in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once the ghee appears to shimmer, sprinkle in the cumin seeds; they will instantly sizzle and perfume the air with their nutty aroma, 5 to 10 seconds. Pour the cumin seed oil over the squash and stir it in along with the salt.
4. Serve the squash curry warm sprinkled with the cilantro.
Chilled Cucumber Avocado Potage with Mustard
Makes about 6 cups
1 large cucumber
4 cups buttermilk
1 large ripe Hass avocado, pulp scooped
1 to 2 fresh green serrano chilies, stems discarded
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1⁄4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1. Peel, seed, and coarsely chop the cucumber. Measure out about ¼ cup of the cucumber pieces and finely chop them. Set the finely chopped cucumber aside.
2. Pour the buttermilk into a blender and add the coarsely chopped cucumber, avocado, chilies, and salt (you may have to do this in batches). Puree the mélange to a smooth blend and pour it into a medium-size bowl.
3. Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil appears to shimmer, add the mustard seeds, cover the skillet, and wait until the seeds have stopped popping (not unlike popcorn), about 30 seconds. Immediately pour this sizzling oil over the soup and stir it in well so it’s completely blended.
4.Chill the soup for at least 1 hour. Ladle it into individual bowls and divvy up the finely chopped cucumber among the bowls. Serve the soup sprinkled with the cilantro.
Visi R. Tilak is freelance writer with bylines in publications such as the The NEw York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Boston Globe, Indian Express, India Today and Tehelka.