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Remembering Raghavan Iyer, an icon of Indian cooking

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Raghavan Iyer, the chef who did so much to popularize Indian cooking in the U.S., has died after years of cancer treatments. He released his final book "On The Curry Trail: Chasing The Flavor That Seduced The World" just a couple months ago. And our co-host Ari Shapiro spoke with him about it then and his experiences with sickness that led him to launch a new project on revival foods, comfort foods that heal.

RAGHAVAN IYER: 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...

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Yeah.

IYER: And then you look at, you know, russo, 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, you know, how about tomato soup? And so when I called the hospital cafeteria, which is god-awful, and I ordered tomato soup. And I know - and 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.

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: Idlies, foods from my childhood, which is a - it's steamed fermented rice lentil cakes. And those are comforting, and they put on weight, and I just (coughs) love it. And 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?

IYER: I'm all right.

SHAPIRO: Do you want to get a drink of water? OK.

IYER: Yeah, yeah. I'm OK.

SHAPIRO: 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. What's the menu?

IYER: Oh, gosh, all Bombay street foods, foods that I grew up with. And...

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

IYER: One is a comfort food, and we always called 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, 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.

SUMMERS: Raghavan Iyer. He died on March 31, 2023. We followed up with his publicist, who told us a celebration has been planned next month to honor Iyer's memory and that everyone will enjoy the delicious comfort foods that Iyer loved so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATMOSPHERE SONG, "OKAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.