Next week, the Twin Cities community will gather to celebrate the life of James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Raghavan Iyer, a titan of the food world who passed away due to pneumonia complicated by a five-year fight with colorectal cancer in March, at age 61.
Attempting to sum up Iyer’s impact on the Twin Cities food scene — and more broadly on Indian cuisine in America — is a tall order. Iyer left his native Mumbai for the small town of Marshall, Minnesota at age 21. There, he yearned to find cuisine in line with his palate and vegetarian sensibilities, and eventually trained himself to cook Indian recipes. He later set roots down in the Twin Cities, where a 1999 deal with Betty Crocker jump-started his career as a prolific cookbook author, and his penchant for Indian cooking became the centerpiece of his life’s work.
Over the course of seven cookbooks — including the potato-centric Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked and the best-selling 660 Curries, which covers classic Indian curry dishes in great breadth — Iyer became known for his ability to drill recipes down to their essential elements and techniques, making dishes approachable in execution and, most importantly, delectable. He applied this skill to his final cookbook, On the Curry Trail: Chasing the Flavor That Seduced the World in 50 Recipes, which was published just weeks before his passing. But this time, Iyer broadened his lens, distilling a new subject — the unruly, continent-traversing history of curry itself — into a digestible and ultimately delicious format.
The term “curry,” of course, has received its fair share of criticism: Though commonly associated with Indian cuisine, it lumps together spiced, usually saucy dishes from places as far-flung as Sri Lanka and Jamaica. Commercial curry powder — which often includes a set flavor profile of spices like turmeric, black pepper, coriander, cumin, ginger, and fenugreek — was exported from India by British colonists, a one-size-fits-all approximation of Indian dishes as diverse as rogan josh and chana masala. In On the Curry Trail, Iyer takes that history in stride, illuminating how “curry,” as it’s known today, has been shaped by colonialism and migration. As Iyer put it to the New York Times in February: “We were pummeled by colonials for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. 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.”
Each section of On The Curry Trail provides recipes in geographical order roughly along the Spice Routes, starting its journey in India before stretching across the Asias into Africa, then Europe and the Americas. The book starts with madras curry, or “the mother blend,” which Iyer writes is a “perfect example of Britain’s colonialist tendency to simplify and package all that was foreign, complex, and exotic.” He gives a history lesson, recounting how South Indian cooks traditionally sun-dried classic Madras spices to make sambars. “A unique combination was cushioned in each home kitchen, defying a homogeneity throughout all South Indian kitchens,” writes Iyer. But in the 19th century, the British created a simplified standard curry powder, named after South India’s coastal city of Madras, and “opened the world” to madras curry powder. Iyer accompanies this history lesson with, of course, a recipe, getting into the nitty-gritty of how to make madras curry at home, using a mortar and pestle to grind coriander, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, and other seeds.
As On The Curry Trail travels away from India, the curry recipes change. Within the Asias, for example, Iyer explores red, green, and yellow curries as pastes, seen as a cousin of sorts to Indian curries. Egypt, in the Africa section of the cookbook, is noted for its carb-heavy and spicy tomato-sauced dish koshari; Ethiopia for its misir wot, or red lentils with ginger. Iyer even traces curry’s long thread through Europe and the Americas, documenting recipes like curried deviled eggs, German sausages served with spiced ketchup, and rich Mexican moles.
On The Curry Trail is worth the adventure in the recipes it provides, and the geographical narrative it weaves through colonialism and migration. As the last book that Iyer wrote, it’s a brilliant gift by someone who, even as he fought the clock on his own life, continued to enrich the discourse around Indian cuisine, curry, and the intertwining of culture, migration, colonialism, and food. Iyer never abandoned his singular gift for distilling complex subjects — dishes, histories, or otherwise — into something tangible but never oversimplified. In that sense, On The Curry Trail puts a fine period on a spectacular career.
Celebrations of life for Raghavan Iyer and fundraisers are planned at the Lynhall on Sunday, May 7, and at Lush on Monday, May 8. Iyer is survived by his life partner, Terry Erickson, and his son, Robert.