In retrospect, it’s a publishing no-brainer: A gifted culinary teacher and cookbook author combines both pursuits to produce an easy-to-follow field guide into the vast universe that is Indian cooking.
That’s the background behind “Indian Cooking Unfolded” (Workman, $19.95), the latest from Twin Cities resident Raghavan Iyer. The title’s “unfolded” has a literal meaning: Some of the book’s most essential recipes are fully illuminated with a series of how-to photographs spread across accordion-style folding pages.
It’s a conceit that could have gone into yet another Indian Cooking 101 direction — bookstores are full of them. Instead, Iyer veers his readers into far more productive dimensions while channeling his trademark cooking-class approachability into print.
It’s a book that especially caters to beginners and to the time-crunched. No recipe requires more than 10 ingredients, and rather than tripping up home cooks with hard-to-find building blocks, each spice, chile or herb is a supermarket staple.
“Unfolded” is a departure from Iyer’s earlier titles — his exhaustive “660 Curries” from 2008 and his autobiographical “The Turmeric Trail: Recipes and Memories From an Indian Childhood” from 2002. In some ways, the book’s extreme user-friendliness recalls the plain-spoken practicality of Iyer’s first title, the 12-year-old “Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking.”
While taking a break from the third stop on his 40-city book tour, Iyer, with his robust and easily triggered laugh at the ready, discussed India’s centuries-long history with fusion cooking, his brushes with reality television and why he has cut his number of visits to the Indian grocery store from twice a week to once every two months.
Q: After diving so deep into “660 Curries,” what inspired you to tackle the more mainstream “Unfolded”?
A: The premise of the book is about making things accessible, stressing essential techniques and using mainstream ingredients.
I didn’t want it to be a scholarly piece. The way that the book reads is the way that I am as a teacher. I’m right there in the kitchen with you, while you’re cooking. The book retails for $19.95, and there are 100 recipes, so for 20 cents a recipe, you can have me in your kitchen [laughs].
I came up with the constraint of making dishes with 10 ingredients or less, and when I first started working on it, I felt like I was cheating the Indian grocery stores. But it turned out to be an exhilarating experience. This book has really simplified the way that I cook.
Q: How has it been an exhilarating experience?
A: Initially, I felt like you really couldn’t execute Indian food without having access to all those multitudes of legumes and spices and herbs that are still very esoteric to the American audience.
So the freeing came when I started creating recipes and tasting. It was like, “Wow, this has the complexity it would have if I were to use 10 spices.” In my mind, it freed me to think that this was extremely doable, and I feel that it represents the true flavors of India.
Before I started working on the book, I used to go once or twice a week to an Indian grocery store. Now I go once maybe every two months. I’m sure the Indian grocer doesn’t like that, but it’s exhilarating to me.
I’ve discovered that I can go to a Whole Foods or a Kowalski’s and look around and say, “I want something comforting and Indian, and I want to be able to make it in a half an hour.” That’s what this kind of freedom is all about.
Q: What was the genesis of the book’s foldout pages?
A: The idea came from my editor, Suzanne Rafer. She did the “Curries” book with me, and she’s brilliant. She said, “How do we set this book apart from everything else that’s in the bookstore?” And the book unfolds not only in a literal sense, but it also unfolds the simplicity of a complex cuisine that is 6,000 years old.
Q: There’s something almost TV-like about the way the book is designed, with step-by-step images. Are we going to be seeing you on television anytime soon?
A: That has always been a goal, to get into digital media, and I’m in the process of putting together videos with the book. I’ve been asked to be a part of food reality TV shows on three separate occasions, and I’ve politely turned them all down. Sure, you get your 15 minutes of fame, but then who remembers you? That’s not who I am as a brand.
Q: American cooks unfamiliar with Indian food will find a lot of common ground with many of your recipes — chips and salsa, potpies, cheesecake, brownies. This is Indian cooking?
A: People don’t realize that India has lived the talk of fusion for 6,000 years. With every foreign power invasion, we learned to incorporate different spices, different techniques.
Before the 16th century, we didn’t have tomatoes, or potatoes, or chiles, and they changed the entire culinary map of India. Now I go to some people’s homes, and they’re making mac-and-cheese, because they want to be like Americans. Of course they’re giving it a unique Indian spicing technique.
Q: How did you go about selecting the book’s recipes?
A: In a way it was easy because I knew that I would have to look at making traditional recipes easier, and I knew that I would be showcasing readily available ingredients.
Right now, beets are at the farmers market. The beet salad recipe in the book epitomizes flavors of northwest India, and the spicing is quintessentially southern India. The concept of a vinaigrette isn’t part of the Indian repertoire, but golden raisins go back to the Moghul emperors.
It’s all those taste elements that capture the way we eat in India: temperature, textures, colors, aromas. I love that recipe, and I’m not even a big beet fan.
Q: There’s a not-insignificant amount of cayenne pepper in that salmon recipe. Should that put the heat-sensitive on notice?
A: [Laughs]. Heat is a very personal taste element. One can say that it’s hot, and another can say that it’s bland. But I think it’s important that you use the amount of spice that I call for in the recipe.
When you’re using ingredients with textures, you have to dial up the flavor. The kale in the recipe is so textural, so hearty, and when you’re chewing something like that, you are generating saliva, and that dilutes flavors.
The cream really tones the heat down, and the salmon brings all that umami into play. But the ingredient that’s really going to bring the heat down dramatically is the vinegar. It’s a nice dish.
Q: Why do you suggest buying whole spices rather than their ground counterparts?
A: Give whole spices to a good Indian cook and he or she should be able to extract eight unique flavors from that single spice. Different techniques will create complex flavors.
There’s also a much longer shelf life when you buy them whole. Ground spices only last a few months, but whole spices can last for years, and you can create complex flavors when you need them.
Q: What’s the story behind the martini recipe?
A: I can’t resist a good martini, that’s my Bette Davis side [laughs]. Gin was such a big part of the British influence in India. And I love a good martini.
Again, I was looking to incorporate Indian flavor combinations. What you muddle together is essentially what you’d find with chutneys in the north, but instead you’re using it to make a very sophisticated cocktail.
Cooking should be fun, it should be something that you don’t get stressed out about. It’s not rocket science. Just relax and have a good time.
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