MINNEAPOLIS — To hear Raghavan Iyer, a champion of Indian curry, quote O.E. Rolvaag, a chronicler of Norwegian angst, is just the sort of amalgam of cultures that Iyer likes to nurture.
He talked about the shock of moving from teeming Bombay, India, to Marshall, Minn., to study restaurant management.
"Have you ever read 'Giants in the Earth?' " he asked, posing the Midwestern equivalent of asking Southerners if they've read "Gone With the Wind." Remember, he said, the scene where the wife, a reluctant pioneer, gazes from the door of the sod hut at the featureless prairie, and she says, "There is nothing to hide behind." That's how Marshall seemed.
Twenty-five years later, Iyer is an award-winning cookbook author, culinary educator and recipe developer. He was a James Beard award finalist for his 2002 cookbook, "The Turmeric Trail: Recipes and Memories From an Indian Childhood (St. Martin's Press, 2002). Now he has, in his words, "given birth to a horse." For four years, the Eden Prairie chef has been laboring over a curry cookbook that clocks in at 832 pages. "660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking" (Workman, $32.50) is a master's thesis of Indian food, culture and resources.
Are there really 660 curries? Yes — for starters.
"I first pitched it as 1,001, but Workman said, oh, give us between 600 and 800," Iyer said, laughing. Bottom line, the book has 701 recipes — 660 for curries and the remainder for what he calls cohorts. That's his word for side dishes and such. "Accompaniments is very much a clinical term, while cohorts signifies compatibility."
No powder in India
Curry is the word that requires more clarification. The Western world regards it as a dish spiced from a jar labeled "curry powder." But Iyer said that curry isn't about spice, but gravy. "To us, it's all about sauces," he said. "No self-respecting Indian kitchen would have curry powder."
In other words, he's written a book about 660 sauces. Maybe, he mused, that would have been a less intimidating title.
"Six hundred and sixty sauces — that's doable, right?" Ahem.
The thing is, despite arriving in this country with degrees in physics, math and chemistry, Iyer said he didn't know how to boil water.
He grew up in Mumbai, as the city has been known since 1997 when it reclaimed its original name from the British Bombay. He loved street food, much to the chagrin of his sister, who in many ways was as much his culinary instructor as his mother was.
Once in the United States, he began seeking ways to create the foods he missed. Ingredients were a challenge, but so was re-creating techniques. The experience of teaching himself informed how he's written "660 Curries," with the method more detailed than you might expect.
"I wanted it to be as if a cooking teacher is talking, so there is more explanation, as if I'm there," Iyer said. He's also paid close attention to what aspects his students have questioned over the years, so there's an effort to anticipate questions that may come up.