Indian Cooking in a Midwestern Kitchen
Raghavan Iyer’s new cookbook, Indian Cuisine Unfolded, opens up the world of Indian cuisine for the American home cook by recreating some of his favorite dishes with ingredients found in the typical American grocery store. The Bombay native also narrated a Twin Cities Public Television documentary called Asian Flavors based on a book he co-authored with Phyllis Louise Harris. The film and book celebrate the impact Asian immigrants have had in Minnesota’s culinary, cultural, and economic history. We chat with Raghavan about the flexibility of Indian cuisine, his love of garlic, and Minnesota’s changing culinary landscape. Check out Rahavan’s new book, Indian Cuisine Unfolded for more on cooking Indian cuisine at home.
AndrewZimmern.com: What was it that drew you into the food world? What makes Indian cuisine special?
Raghavan Iyer: I stumbled into the world of cooking when I came to the United States to pursue a degree in hotel and restaurant management at Michigan State University. Learning to cook in a foreign land was a matter of survival, especially when I started craving the flavors from my childhood. The curiosity of how flavors come together within the confines of my kitchen perhaps was a result of being trained in a chemistry laboratory. Everything became an experiment and the challenge for me was how to create Indian cooking of my youth in a Midwestern kitchen. That perhaps shows the immense flexibility of Indian cuisine. Its ability to adapt and take shape in any environment with a minimalistic pantry.
AZ.com: What were your first impressions of the Minnesotan palate?
RI: I was amazed to see the simplicity of the dinner plate in terms of ingredients, presentation, and above all flavors. Meat played the central role while starch and vegetable took a back seat. This was completely opposite of what I saw in India.
AZ.com: What do you miss from India?
RI: Everything! Its colors, people, family, and above all food.
AZ.com: Anything you’ve surprisingly learned to love?
RI: I have learned to love the simplicity of cooking using fewer ingredients. The love for garlic, believe it or not. Having been raised in a priestly community where vegetarianism is the name of the game and garlic is not present, even to this day, I got pulled into its web of depth in terms of aroma, taste, and balance. A pungent rose indeed!
AZ.com: Your cookbook Indian Cooking Unfolded is all about your favorite dishes from India with American supermarket ingredients. Can you share some of your secrets?
RI: As a cooking teacher for over twenty years, I feel like I have learned as much from my students as I have taught them. A cuisine that I took for granted all my life, trying to simplify it and make it mainstream has been my career goal. In the book I talk about using supermarket ingredients and creating the depth of flavors that we take pride in savoring. And you don’t need a mile long list of ingredients to get those results. We Indians are masters (that’s my not-so-humble opinion I guess) at extracting multiple flavors from any given spice, herb, or legume. So look no further than your corn, potatoes, onions, peppers, turmeric, cumin, and yellow split peas to create the magic of India in your pan.
AZ.com: What three things should every home cook know about cooking Indian cuisine? What dish would you recommend to someone new to Indian food?
RI: Whenever you work with an Indian recipe, especially mine, read through the recipe. I am teaching you essential techniques that may not necessarily make sense to you. But the end result will be nothing short of spectacular. Don’t assume a spice or an ingredient is used one specific way. It’s okay to not measure spices since most of them infuse flavor and not heat – a little less or more won’t necessarily harm your dish. When cooking Indian, keep a sense of balance in mind in terms of taste, aroma, color, texture, and temperature. Start with an ingredient that you are comfortable with. Throw in a spice or two, using techniques that are explained in great detail in Indian Cooking Unfolded, and savor the transformation. You will be hooked!
AZ.com: You helped write Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875 by Phyllis Louise Harris and narrated the documentary. What is the most surprising thing you learned about Asian cuisine in the Twin Cities?
RI: What surprised me was the depth of influence Asians had in Minnesota for over 125 years. Asia Pacific Rim restaurants account for 11 percent of the state’s nearly 10,000 eating-and-drinking establishments (or about 1100 Asian restaurants of which 700 are Chinese). Minnesotans with Asia Pacific Rim heritage make up 5 percent of the state’s total population representing 57 Asia Pacific Rim countries (about 250,000 out of 5 million). The largest group of Asia Pacific Minnesotans are the Hmong (66,000) followed by India (38,097), China (30,000), Vietnam (27,000), Korea (20,000), Philippines (15,000), etc. In addition there are bakeries, farmers, food companies, food markets, cooking teachers, food writers, celebrations and events that offer the people of Minnesota the opportunity to learn more about the flavors of the Asia Pacific Rim.
AZ.com: Three favorite restaurants in the Twin Cities?
RI: Pizzeria Lola, Rustica, and Grand Szechuan.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
RI: Chiles, various bottles of hot sauces from around the world, cilantro, ginger, butter, half-and-half, cheese, bok-choy, and yellow wax beans from my garden – great basics for a simple pasta sauce, don’t you think?
Check out Raghavan’s recipe for Indian Slaw.
Bombay-native Raghavan Iyer, a Certified Culinary Professional, and a member and Vice-President Elect of The International Association of Culinary Professionals, has acquired degrees in Chemistry (Bombay University), Hotel and Restaurant Management (Michigan State University). He is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson, and consultant to numerous national and international clients including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target, and Canola. He helped launch an Indian Meals program for Bon Appétit Management Company and trained all their chefs across the United States in Indian cuisine and Global Vegan Cuisine through 35+ national workshops. He helped design a shelf-stable, Indian, ready-to-eat meals for Target’s Archer Farms brand. Most recently, he was named a 2008 Sustainable Seafood Ambassador for the prestigious Monterey Bay Aquarium. He was the culineer for an upscale/ casual Indian-themed restaurant. Most recently he launched a line of roasted spice blends (www.turmerictrail.com) that sells online as well as some high-end retailer partners.
He is the author of Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking (Wiley, 2001), The Turmeric Trail: Recipes and Memories from an Indian Childhood (St. Martin’s Press, 2002) – 2003 James Beard Awards Finalist: Best International Cookbook, and 660 Curries (April 2008, Workman Publishing, New York). 660 Curries has been shortlisted among the top cookbooks for 2008 by National Public Radio, the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Food and Wine magazine (among many others). The book has been named 2008 Best Asian Cookbook in the USA by World Gourmand Awards.
His fourth book Indian Cooking Unfolded (Summer 2013, Workman Publishing, New York) is due for release July 2013. He was a contributor to a historical book with recipes for the Minnesota Historical Press Asian Flavors (Fall 2012). His app for iPad with video, Raghavan’s Indian Flavors, is available through iTunes. He received the highly coveted 2004 International Association of Culinary Professional’s Award of Excellence (formerly the Julia Child Awards) for Cooking Teacher of the Year, and was a Finalist for a 2005 James Beard Journalism Award as a contributing writer for EatingWell Magazine. His numerous articles have appeared in national food publications and online media like Zester Daily, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, Saveur, Weight Watchers Magazine, Cooking Pleasures, and the internationally renowned literary food magazine Gastronomica.