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The healing power of food — and how curry took over the world

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are certain people who can take credit for helping Americans get to know a particular cuisine - for French food, Julia Child; Italian, Marcella Hazan. Well, for many years, working from his home in Minnesota, Raghavan Iyer has been one of the people who played that role for Indian food in the U.S. Here he was on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED a decade ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RAGHAVAN IYER: To me, that's the hallmark of Indian cooking, is how you could extract a multitude of flavors by using really one or two ingredients. And you can end up with something that really sings in your mouth.

SHAPIRO: Well, he's just released what he says will be his last book, and we'll explain why in a moment. It's called "On The Curry Trail: Chasing The Flavor That Seduced The World." Raghavan Iyer, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. So good to have you here.

IYER: Oh, thank you for letting me be with you.

SHAPIRO: This book, "On The Curry Trail," is about the way that curry has made its way across the world. Was there one moment that you recognized that this is something that exists everywhere in one form or another?

IYER: Yeah. I think, you know, on having done the research for the book and - it just blew my mind the - really, the far-reaching quality of what a colonial empire like the English could do and then adapt it, you know. I mean, as you know, their penchant for flavors had their cooks put together a cornucopia of flavors that they put them into a jar and label it as curry powder. And - but it really wasn't until the introduction of the Indian laborers that were brought in as slaves and as indentured servants, eventually, that that's what led to sort of the push into the world of recognizing curries and how to use curry powders. Because, as you know, we don't use curry powders in India, but we do use it in the world. So...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. This book is complicated to talk about because, Raghavan Iyer, you've written many cookbooks and produced many television programs. And you say that this book will be your last. Are you comfortable talking about why?

IYER: Yeah. Yeah. About five years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer - colorectal cancer. So make sure your listeners get themselves checked because it's so important. And I - you know, that changed completely the way I functioned. I mean, you know, you - it's like somebody pulled a rug under you, and all of a sudden, you're wondering how to deal with something like that. And once you figure that out, then you start to figure out how you learn to live again and eat again and cook again. And to me, those are all cathartic in nature. And so if I don't have control of my kitchen, I don't have control on my life. So that food becomes a very essential tool to bring that home.

SHAPIRO: And this experience you've had with sickness and treatment helped launch a new project focused on comfort foods and recovery foods. Can you tell us about that?

IYER: Yeah, I call it revival foods - comfort foods that heal - because you look at cultures that inherently have foods that the West has not embraced in terms of its medicinal outreach. I'm looking at dishes like pho, for instance, from Vietnam and...

SHAPIRO: Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Yeah.

IYER: And then you look at, you know, rassam, for instance, which is the tamarind brothy dish from southern India. And so all of these, I feel, are such important tools in fighting this regiment that we have in a body that's regulated by disease. And so I feel like it is one of those best things you can armor yourself with.

SHAPIRO: I don't want you to publicly shame a medical professional, but what was the food a doctor told you to eat as you were recovering that made you say, are you kidding me? You're a medical expert?

IYER: (Laughter) He came from a good place, and he said (laughter) you know, how about tomato soup? So it's funny. So when I called the hospital cafeteria, which is God awful, and I ordered tomato soup and I know - I'm a vegetarian, so I said, can you tell me if the soup is vegetarian-based? And she goes, hang on, let me take a look at the Campbell's soup can.

SHAPIRO: The Campbell's soup can (laughter).

IYER: Yeah. It's like, oh, my God. I'm in it. So...

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, what was the recovery food that you were really craving?

IYER: Idlis, foods from my childhood, which is a steamed fermented rice lentil cakes. And those are comforting, and they put on weight, you know, just easy to digest. And I just (coughing) love it. And (coughing) it became one of those iconic foods that helped me recover at least 20 of the 30 pounds that I lost.

SHAPIRO: Do you want to take a moment, or are you all right? Do you want to take a drink of water?

IYER: I'm all right.

SHAPIRO: OK.

IYER: Yeah, yeah, no, I'm OK.

SHAPIRO: If we could come back to the book, "On The Curry Trail," for a moment, would you mind reading the dedication for us?

IYER: Yeah. I don't have the book in front of me, but I dedicated it to my partner of 41 years, Terry, without whom this book would never have been possible, my life wouldn't have been possible. And he's literally been there by my side, you know, sort of making sure I eat well, I eat right. He's an excellent caregiver. Yeah, I'm very fortunate.

SHAPIRO: Am I correct that you met him on your first day in the United States?

IYER: Yes, I was 21, and I looked like I was 14, so...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

IYER: (Coughing) Oh, so sorry.

SHAPIRO: No, I'm...

IYER: He has been really a beacon, and so I've been very pleased with how things have turned out, so - and it's almost like, you know, you know what it's like in a relationship when you turn around and realize that, oh, the partner is still there. He hasn't left, you know? So...

(LAUGHTER)

IYER: Which is - I guess that's what they mean by in sickness and in health, so...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, this is a question that I've never asked a guest in 20 years of doing interviews, and I hope you don't take it the wrong way, but as someone who has built his life around food and who sees the end approaching, have you decided what you want served at your funeral?

IYER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: You have.

IYER: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: What's the menu?

IYER: Oh, gosh. Well, Bombay street foods, foods that I grew up with and foods of my childhood.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us a few things that are on the menu you've drawn up?

IYER: One is a street food that - it's comfort food, and we always call it an adult savory cereal. It's rice puffs and crispy chickpea flour noodles with unripe mango and potatoes and black salt. And I've got another one, which is like a potato pate with vegetables on a slice of bread, which is then slathered on with a ton of butter. And you pan fry the bread slices and then you know, and - Ari, you know, you're making me hungry.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Well, I can think of no better tribute for you than for people to eat well and think of you while they do it.

IYER: Well, thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Well, Raghavan Iyer, thank you for all you've taught us.

IYER: Oh, it's a pleasure talking with you. So thank you again.

SHAPIRO: His latest book is "On The Curry Trail: Chasing The Flavor That Seduced The World." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.