After four Indian cookbooks and a book on Asian flavors, including Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking (“Talk about gender-bender! That book is still in print!” he enthuses), Raghavan Iyer branched out. As a chef who, for the last 16 years, has trained other chefs for Bon Appetit Management company about Indian and vegetarian world cuisines, Raghavan wrote a cookbook about potatoes.
Until Smashed, Mashed, Boiled, and Baked–and Fried, Too!: A Celebration of Potatoes in 75 Irresistible Recipes came out last fall, pretty much everything Raghavan did had an Indian bent. That includes his freelance writing, his spice blends, his cooking class for Craftsy, his recipe app, and his private tours of India (including one for Saveur magazine in 2015). Because, well, he’s from India, originally.
But last year, Raghavan did something totally new. He stepped away from Indian cookbooks into new territory. Was it terrifiying? Inspiring? Were people inappropriate about it? Read on:
Q. How did the book about potatoes come about?
A. I was in New York to consult with Saveur on its India issue. I met Susanne Rafer, my editor at Workman, at a Turkish restaurant. She ordered something with potatoes and I said, “How about a book about potatoes?”
The next day I got an email from my agent, Jane Dystel. She said, ‘I heard you had a great dinner with Suzanne. Tell me about your book!’
I wrote a two-page synopsis of the book on the plane back from New York, and that was it.
But when I got the contract, I had a few ‘oh shit’ moments. I thought to myself, ‘You are not an expert on potatoes!’
Q. But you did it. And what was the response when this book came out?
A. One of the biggest questions I always got on my book tour, ‘You must have some great Indian recipes in here.’ It’s not an Indian cookbook. It’s a book that celebrates the brilliance of the potato as the fourth largest crop in the world.
Q. Did the media ask questions like that?
A. Yes. And at book signings, people would say, ‘I love Indian food.’
Q. So how did you feel when you got this kind of response?
A. As a teacher, I thought this is a way for me to educate people. I’ve lived in the US for 35 years. I’ve been here more than half my life. The ‘us against them’ mentality is always here. I’m resigned that I’m going to have to address this until the day I die.
Overall, though, writing the book was a great experience. It was a way to educate myself, do research, see how other cultures have dealt with the potato. It has resonated with people as a single subject book.
Q. Now you have to figure out what’s next.
A. I also have to figure out – Do I now go back to Indian cookbooks? Do I now look at other cultures? Can I now write about Jewish cooking, for example?
Q. That could be cultural appropriation!
A. But a Jewish person could write about Indian food. Because that person is European American.
Some people like Rick Bayless and Andy Ricker spend enough time on the cuisine to understand it. But maybe not every European American understands the nuances and the culture beyond the food.
Q. You had to figure it out. How did it feel to branch out?
A. It was my way of pushing boundaries. I have an issue about how we’re all pigeonholed.
But it’s still a struggle. After all the books I wrote about Indian cooking, people said they ‘had a friend’ who said I wasn’t doing ‘real’ Indian cooking. I was dammed if I did, and damned if I didn’t.
Q. What do you mean?
A. People say, ‘It’s not what my mother does,’ or it’s not what they think of as Indian cooking. One time I was doing a Bengali cooking concept for a restaurant. I used local fish rubbed with garlic, cardamom, chilies, mustard. I seared it and served it with fresh tomatoes and coconut. One Indian woman from another region, who was not familiar with Bengali styles of cooking, said, ‘This isn’t Indian food.’
I pointed out another table with a Bengali Indian grandmother at it. That woman grabbed my hand and had tears in her eyes. She said, ‘This is my home cooking.”
Q. There’s no such as thing as classic Indian cooking, right?
A. I hate that term. When you’re talking classic, what are you talking about? We didn’t have potatoes and tomatoes in India prior to the 16th Century. Cuisine is dynamic.
Q. Do you like being an expert in something new?
A. That was a big step for me, to write that book. The Idaho Potato Commission hired me to do three events. The US Potato Commission purchased 100 signed books. Now if I am smart, I can do more work promoting potatoes.