Learn about the history of curry around the world from this new cookbook.

If you listen to the public radio podcast The Splendid Table, you may know the voice of Raghavan Iyer, a longtime friend of the show and evangelist for Indian home cooking. On  March 31, 2023, Iyer died at the age of 61 after living for several years with colorectal cancer. In the final weeks of his life, Iyer was actively promoting the cookbook he knew would be his last: On The Curry Trail.

While Iyer was charmingly soft spoken, his flavors were anything but shy. Raised in Mumbai, the Minnesota-based author loved to make the food of his childhood accessible for new audiences. His new book looks at the way curry shows up in cuisines around the globe. In February, we chatted with Iyer about the project, and learned why Moroccan food was one of his not-so-secret favorites.

Credit: Courtesy of Workman

Your past books have focused on Indian food. What inspired you to cast a wider net?

Actually, it was a natural extension! It's only appropriate that a 6,000-year-old cuisine would touch other places. India is out and about in the world, and that's what I tried to convey. 

Explain more of that history.

The world came to India for spices and black peppercorns, and in very many ways, that catapulted India into the world. People started noticing and wanting to know more, and to use more of these spices like black peppercorns, and cardamom, and saffron and things like that. People started waking up to the concept of flavors!

Curry and spice blend in bowls
Credit: Carson Downing

One big lesson of your book is that everyone across the world has a different idea of what curry is, or means. How do you define it?

It's extremely interesting to see how the world looks at curries. There are two schools of thought. In India, curry is a dish that usually is saucy and has a gravy to it. Spices form the backbone of many of our curries' flavors, but in India, curry is not one particular flavor. But in much of the rest of the world, curry is a powder, or a paste form, as in Thailand, with a more specific flavor.

Slow-Cooked Chickpeas with Saffron
Credit: Carson Downing

One of those flavors you explore in the book is ras al hanout, a Moroccan spice blend, which shows up in Slow-Cooked Chickpeas with Saffron.

Moroccans were such integral traders. When you hold the reins of power to the spice trade, you hold the reins of power in the world. They were masters at recognizing that. You see that in the foods they promoted and brought forth. Their wonderful cooking techniques, such as tagines, are extremely exciting. It's one of my favorite cuisines outside of India.

Spinach and Olive Quiche with Ras al Hanout
Credit: Kelsey Hansen

You also use ras al hanout in a Spinach and Olive Quiche! I never would have thought of that combination, but you point out that France had colonies in both Morocco and India, and today, many Moroccans live in France.

Yes, and there's a legacy of the French that were in Pondicherry [now called Puducherry] in southeast India. They brought the world of quiches and pastries to India. So you have this amazing mélange of flavors that come alive. I love the fact that it's in a pie crust and is savory, and has the olives. It's a very comforting dish, to say the least!

Any other favorite recipes from the book?

The Flaky Curry Puffs from China, with a handmade pie crust. They're filled with chicken, but I also like the mushroom version. They're scented with curry powder and baked, and crispy on the outside and flaky and hot. To me that was another dish that brought a lot of comfort.

The book is so rich with stories and history.

It was eye-opening to see how every country followed one another to colonize India. As we all know, the British ruled India for hundreds of years, but it was everybody from the Spanish and Portuguese to the Danish and the French. They all wanted to carve out a niche there.

Telling stories in this book was very important to me. I wanted people to understand the culture of a particular dish. And research brought forth categories we never imagined would happen. It was quite a lot of fun sifting through all of that. 

If I was visiting Minneapolis, where would you say I should go eat to taste foods from the curry trails?

There's a cadre of streets south of downtown they call Eat Street. You can walk up and down, and there are restaurants from different parts of Asia. It's an interesting way to sample curries from different parts of the world in one spot.

I'm sure you've heard many times in your career that people are intimidated to cook Indian food at home. Any words of wisdom?

I always say, you don't have to rely on hundreds of spices and ingredients. If you learn the techniques behind it, you can see one ingredient can be used in a multitude of ways, and you can get flavors that are poles apart. And it doesn't need to take hours. In half an hour you can get an amazing dish. I just say, "Cook with abandon!" Don't be imprisoned by thinking you only have so many things you can do. That alone will change the way you look at food.

On the Curry Trail book cover
Credit: Courtesy of Workman

On the Curry Trail

Explore the origin and lore of curry across the globe with this illustrated cookbook ($30, Workman) from award-winning author and instructor Raghavan Iyer.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.