Raghavan Iyer, the Indian Food Evangelist in the US Who Raised the Curry to a Fine Art

The author, himself a chef, remembers a warm personality who still savoured the tastes of his childhood.

Just before Raghavan Iyer died on March 31, his last book on Indian food, On the Curry Trail: Chasing The Flavour That Seduced the World, was published. Like all his previous books, it was an ode to the food he loved and had popularised in the US and among food aficionados all over the world. An obit in The New York Times, where he had been written about in the past, referred to his networking skills and his ‘rascally charm’ and also to the controversies around him using ‘curry powder’.

I had met him in January this year for lunch and though he was not a religious man, we had some profound conversations. I asked him how he felt, knowing that the end is near. He did admit that he had good and bad days but had learnt to face this head on.

We traced his journey from Amchi Mumbai to Michigan and what it meant for him to have his mother stay with him and his partner, and how she readily embraced his relationship with Terry and their decision to adopt Robert. He told me he visited all his favourite places to eat in Mumbai, from Swati Snacks to the small joints in Chembur, and that his heart and stomach were full.

Towards the end of the day I knew my time had come to say goodbye and handed him the note I wrote. He read it before me and we couldn’t speak for some time as we were overwhelmed with emotions. I told him that I really hoped to see him again, vain as my hope was.

The author with Raghavan Iyer. Photo: Author provided

It’s truly amazing how someone you meet a few times in your life can leave a mark for posterity. That was Raghavan Iyer for me and the seeds of our special bond were sowed over our intense common love for food. It’s true we were separated by continents but the love for food was so strong, that we built a bond for life.

We connected over Facebook for the very first time, with my introducing myself and my work with food. Funnily enough, as food often tends to, we were taken on a path to discover our origins and history, and found in it the strong presence of the Thanjavur region (both of us have ancestral roots there), and its unique culinary identity.

I can vividly recall one incident – at that point I was shooting for my food and travel show in Chidambaram (the town where he was born), and the conversation soon progressed to the strong impact I had felt in the presence of the presiding deity of the Chidambaram temple, Nataraja. He helped me articulate this feeling, and how it sat with my perception of my not-so-religious self. This is how conversations with him often were – no topic was off limits, and no depths were too  cumbersome to navigate. In this approach to food and life, I had found a kindred soul.

He was planning a trip to India back in 2017 and I asked him if he can come down to Chennai to have a reading session about his book on 660 curries. It was a long shot, for here was a man who had taken the Indian food scene by storm in the US, won the James Beard award (which is like an Oscar in the food industry) and authored multiple bestsellers. Yet he readily and gladly accepted my request. When we met in person, we spoke like we had known each other for years. My interest was piqued by the idea of a man who moved all the way across the world to do a culinary course in Michigan.

‘On the Curry Trail: Chasing the Flavor That Seduced the World’ by Raghavan Iyer. (Workman Publishing Company, February 2023)

The few days I spent in with him Chennai also gave me a closer peek into the person beyond the chef. He recalled with immense fondness how he met Terry, his partner of 41 years, on his first day in college. Since then until his passing away, they had been together and were raising a son, Robert.

That trip to Chennai he came home for a meal – he had a list of all his favourites that my mother who also originates from Mayavaram in the Thanjavur district, close to Raghavan Iyer’s own origins, whipped up for him. He was ecstatic with every mouthful, and I could actually see his eyes brimming with tears, as memories from his childhood came flooding back with every mouthful.

We did a heritage walk around Mylapore, one of the oldest areas in Chennai that houses the Kapaleeshwarar temple where time really stands still even today. We went to grocery shops that have been around for decades, and picked up fresh produce.

The book reading turned into a free-flowing conversation, and Raghavan spoke about Indian food and the versatility of its spices. To date, every time I do a thematic presentation around food, I think of him and his words on how spices are used in Indian food. Something that is never emphasised or formally taught in culinary school,  but it needed the mind and intellect of Raghavan to recognise.

As we continued to stay in touch, I learnt of  his cancer diagnosis. I used to check on him often, and as the disease progressed he told me his time was running out, and he was probably going to make his final trip to India in 2023.

I remember he had posted a note on Facebook asking people to write an obituary for him. He was someone who loved people, valued them and wanted to know what he meant to them. I never wrote to him about what he means to me then. But I did carry with me a note with a set of photos capturing our time together from the time we met and collaborated.

He was a fighter. He finished his latest book On the Curry Trail during his rounds of chemotherapy. He asked me about my book and how it was shaping up and I requested him for a snippet, a request he was happy to accept. I will always cherish the fact that he was the first person to get a glimpse into my book.

Our last communication was on March 10, when he told me he was in pain and in and out of hospital, yet promised to have my byline for me.

He was truly one of a kind – a path breaker in every sense who had true humility and the ability to speak at the same level with anyone. I would attribute these qualities to one who is genuinely on a journey of search and introspection – in both our cases, culinary. We met thrice and he had an impact on me that I cherish over my lifetime.

There are people who come into our lives and never leave us even after they are gone. He is truly one of them. So long, my dear RR Iyer. Now cook up a feast for the world up there and take them by storm too.

Rakesh Raghunathan is a food historian, chef and show host based out of Chennai.