Raghavan Iyer Dies at 61; Made Indian Cooking Accessible to Americans

Raghavan Iyer, who as a young man left India for the United States clueless about how to cook even a simple potato curry and went on to teach America’s heartland how to prepare one of the world’s most complex cuisines, died on Friday in San Francisco. He was 61.

The cause was pneumonia complicated by colorectal cancer that had metastasized to his lungs and brain, said Terry Erickson, his partner of 41 years. Mr. Iyer lived in Minneapolis and was visiting San Francisco at his death.

Mr. Erickson was one of the first people Mr. Iyer met when he arrived in Minnesota from Mumbai at 21 to attend a small but well-regarded hospitality management program. He had picked it because it was the least expensive one he could find in America.

“When I first got to this country, I was almost embarrassed about where I was from and the food we ate,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in February. After a while, he said, he realized that his culture was the “tool” he could use to overcome feelings of inferiority.

Mr. Iyer parlayed a rascally charm and a palate imprinted by the vegetarian South Indian food of his childhood into a prolific career, one built in part on the cookbooks of Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, the Indian cooking heavyweights who began their culinary careers in the 1970s. He referred to them as “the grandes dames of Indian cooking.”

His contributions were a bridge to a new breed of American cooks and cookbook authors from the Indian diaspora, like Nik Sharma and Asha Gomez, who broke with classic preparations and found success playing with ingredients — swapping feta for the Indian cheese paneer, for example, or replacing the crust of a pizza with naan.

Mr. Iyer consulted for restaurants around the country, taught countless workshops, led tours to India, created a line of frozen Indian meals for Target and instructed thousands of professional cooks at universities, museums and companies, including Google.

But his favorite thing was helping individual cooks confidently tackle dishes like curries and biryanis, often using basic ingredients common in supermarkets.

Mr. Iyer published “Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking,” the first of his seven books, in 2001. The Betty Crocker company hadn’t been in the market for an Indian cookbook, but Mr. Iyer kept pressing an editor he knew at General Mills, Betty Crocker’s corporate parent, with headquarters in Minneapolis.

Betty Crocker eventually let him cook a multicourse Indian lunch for a collection of executives and book publishers. It was a spectacular success. Afterward, he asked, “Is Betty ready for Indian?” The book went on to be a hit.

“He was very kind to those of us who are not great cooks,” said the author Amy Tan, who befriended Mr. Iyer at the wedding of the novelist Scott Turow. “He knew if you made this all authentic, quote unquote, I am not going make it. He was all about love and sharing and being honest and genuine.”

Mr. Iyer’s approach sometimes put him at odds with cooks in the Indian diaspora, who thought he was compromising recipes and drifting too far from traditional preparations.

His last book, “On the Curry Trail: Chasing the Flavor That Seduced the World in 50 Recipes,” which he wrote between bouts of chemotherapy and surgeries, was published in February. It centers on curry powder, an ingredient that has introduced many non-Indians to the cuisine but remains controversial. In Western countries, many people define curry not as a saucy dish but as the taste that comes from a can of curry powder — the invention of British colonialists who wanted an easy way to take the flavors of India home with them.

That was in part why Mr. Iyer thought the powder would be an intriguing subject for a book. “We were pummeled by colonials for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Iyer was a master at nurturing friendships, mixing just the right amount of caring, gossip and knowledge to endear him to friends in almost every state. He would often use his books as an excuse to visit his vast network. The tour schedule for “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked — and Fried Too!” (2016), a book about his beloved potato, was 54 pages long.

“He had more tour stops than Mariah Carey,” said Rebecca Carlisle, the vice president of marketing and publicity for his publisher, Workman Publisher.

Mr. Iyer was promoting that last book and visiting friends in California when he developed pneumonia and was hospitalized in San Francisco. Mr. Erickson flew in from Minneapolis, and, four days later, Mr. Iyer died in the hospital.

Raghavan Ramachandran Iyer was born on April 21, 1961, in Chidambaram, a small city in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, to Gangabai Ramachandran, a homemaker, and S. Ramachandran, an officer in the Indian navy who later moved the family to Mumbai. He was the youngest of six children. His oldest sister, Lalitha Iyer, was a resident in obstetrics and gynecology when their mother was pregnant with Mr. Iyer, and she helped deliver him.

Mr. Iyer, who attended Jesuit schools, wanted to be a doctor, too, but he didn’t get into medical school, although he did earn a Bachelor of Science in chemistry at Bombay University. Because he spoke six languages and loved to eat, he decided to pursue a career in hospitality.

Soon after he met Mr. Erikson at Southwest Minnesota State University, the two fell in love. They moved to Lansing, Mich., to pursue hospitality degrees at Michigan State University before settling back in Minneapolis. It was a time when gay couples were often closeted, which for many years was true for them, Mr. Erikson said.

In addition to Mr. Erikson, Mr. Iyer is survived by their son, Robert, who also lives in Minneapolis, and four siblings in India: Bhaskaran, Lalitha and Ravi Iyer and Mathangi Gopalkrishnan.

Mr. Erickson said Mr. Iyer struggled with immigration issues for 18 years. Eventually, with the help of the Betty Crocker book and a growing national culinary presence, he attained residency through the national interest waiver, which requires, among other qualifications, that the applicant demonstrate significant expertise or exceptional ability in his or her field.

He went on to write “660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking” (2008), an 800-page compendium that remains an essential reference, and to win a number of awards for his teaching, books and television work.

“I don’t want to die a bitter old queen,” he said in an interview in February, one of his last. “I’ve been recognized. I’ve been fine professionally. But the one legacy that I’m leaving behind are my relationships. It’s what I can hang my hat on.”

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