In 1982, 21-year-old Raghavan Iyer took his very first airplane ride, from Bombay to Marshall, Minn., to attend what was then Southwest State University. As one of the few vegetarians in a community where meat dominated the plate, Iyer had little choice but to cook for himself. Unfortunately, since his mother, sisters and grandmother had taken the lead in the kitchen when he was growing up, he had no idea how.
After an ill-fated potato curry, Iyer wrote his family to ask for advice, and slowly taught himself the cuisine of his homeland. In 2001, Iyer brought what he'd learned to the American masses via his bestselling "Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking," which remains in print today.
Iyer, 58, has since written five more cookbooks, taught both amateur and professional chefs and created culinary concepts for corporate and college campuses, including Google and MIT. He's also consulted on several local restaurants, most recently creating the menu for Eden Prairie's Pizza Karma, which tops naan crusts with everything from chicken kebabs to paneer.
Though Iyer and his longtime partner, Terry Erickson, live in Minneapolis, with their adult son just a few miles away, Iyer's reputation is global. He's been recognized by the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. The foodie website Epicurious named Iyer among the top 100 influencers for home cooks.
Through all of Iyer's ups (getting his book deals, adopting a child) and downs (an immigration struggle, a cancer diagnosis), he's looked back fondly on his introduction to America, out there on the Minnesota prairie — one of the last places you'd expect to have forged one of the top names in Indian cuisine. (Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What was your life like before you came to Minnesota?
I was born and raised in Mumbai and I always wanted to be a doctor. My biggest influence in my life was my sister, who's a physician. She's the oldest in the family and I'm the youngest. Funny story: She's about 22 years older than I am and she was doing her residency in OB-GYN and she delivered me when I was born.
Wait: So how did you go from medicine to food?
I didn't get into medical school, so I thought, "Man, what am I going to do?" In addition to some of the Indian languages, I also studied French for 10 years. I used to teach French and was very fluent in it so I thought, "Gee, it would be interesting to use my French language in the hospitality field." So I applied to a lot of hospitality programs in the U.S. and I chose Southwest State because it was the cheapest. I didn't know where the hell Marshall was. I didn't know a soul in the U.S. That first day was the day I met my partner, Terry [Erickson]. We were in the same dorm and in the same program. We've been together 36 years.
Did you experience culture shock?
The hardest things were everything from food to adapting to the cold to the whole sense of being alone. If you wanted to call home, you're talking mega loads of money. I would write letters and then, weeks later, I would get a response. And I would ask, "How do you cook these things?" And I would get these, they weren't like recipes, but they would say, "These are the ingredients ..."
So you weren't the typical college student living on microwaveable meals and cafeteria chow?
I was in the dorms and it was a room-only contract. I had to fend for myself for because I knew I couldn't eat the food because I was a vegetarian. So that was my introduction to cooking.
Indian cooking, right?
The grocery store in town was the Red Owl. It's not like they had anything to do with any kind of Indian food. I remember walking down the spice aisle and I saw this little can of spice blend, it was Durkee brand, and it was called curry powder. And I thought, "What the hell is this?" Because we never grew up with that. It said, "Sprinkle this and you'll be transported to India," and I thought, "Gee, this is my ticket." So the first meal I ever made was a potato curry using Durkee's curry powder and it was awful.
How did it go joining Terry's parents at holiday meals?
Initially his mom was like, "What do I feed you?" But years ago, she had found this recipe in the Star Tribune about making a vegetarian chili and she did a great job with it. So very often she would make vegetarian chili because I loved the flavors.
Do you have any Scando-Midwestern mom specialties?
Terry's mom loved my rendition of double-stuffed potatoes. I would scoop the inside and I would add cream, garlic, peppers and lots of cheese. It became a tradition where for every holiday I would bring twice-baked potatoes. And she would always say, "Make extra so we'll have some when you leave!"
At what point did you know you wanted to stay in Minnesota?
I started working and at some point, I realized I couldn't imagine going back to India. I learned to live my life as an adult in the U.S. so I cannot turn my clock back and go back. But I go to India every year and do some food and cultural tours. But I can't imagine now saying, "Geez, Terry, it was nice knowing you for 30-some years, I'm just going to go back."
But back then, because same-sex marriage wasn't yet legal, you couldn't pursue naturalization as the spouse of a citizen.
I actually went through an 18-year immigration struggle to get my residency. Eventually, I got my citizenship. I got my residency based on a National Interest Waiver, so I had to prove that in my category I was better than the best. It's almost like they have to deem you a national treasure — it was reserved for Nobel laureates and things of that nature. I went through the application process and two times they said, "No, we don't have enough proof." So eventually, when I got my contract with General Mills, my lawyer said, "How much more national can you get than Betty Crocker?" So the book was very meaningful to me in many ways.
Does your son share your passion for cooking?
Yeah, no. [Laughs.] When Robert recently moved out, we tried all these meal services, but Robert hated every single one of them. So now that Terry retired and has the time, he will go to the grocery store or I'll go to the grocery store and get the ingredients and Terry will put together meals for the week for Robert — simple stuff, nothing elaborate.
And does he benefit from your recipe testing?
The other day, I was testing butter chicken and I made a large batch of it so Robert got five or six meals from that.
You recently decided to share your experience being a survivor of colorectal cancer so that others are encouraged to get screened.
I've eaten a plant-based diet all my life. I exercise, I did yoga, I did swimming, walking, I mean, I did everything right. There's no history of this cancer in my family.
When you were undergoing treatment, what advice did your medical team give you about food?
I was talking to my dietitian, who was affiliated with the oncology department, and I said, "I'm realizing that the information you've given me is primarily based on Eurocentric food, and on the Mediterranean diet. Do you have the ability to address the multicultural nutritional needs of people going through this whose roots are from different countries?" And she said, "Unfortunately, not."
And this concern about culturally sensitive recovery foods became the core of your recent proposal for a Bush Fellowship grant?
To put it in the simplest terms, it's looking at comfort foods, because that's what people always rely on when they're not feeling well. But it's about how you take those comfort foods and adapt them so that they become nutritionally solid to give you the biggest bang for your buck.