Raghavan Iyer is so descriptive when he talks about cooking, you can almost smell the spices over the phone.
Iyer is returning to Billings to teach a cooking class May 15 in support of the Montana State University Billings Foundation’s Wine & Food Festival. Iyer is choosy when it comes to selecting causes to support, but for the second time he is making the Billings benefit a priority in his busy schedule. Speaking from his home in Minneapolis last month, Iyer said although he’s teaching cooking classes throughout the country, he always squeezes in important fundraisers.
“I donate my time to six or so charities a year. They are always nonprofits to benefit women, children or education,” Iyer said.
Iyer is a Mumbai, India, native who works as a certified culinary professional, author and owner of Turmeric Trail in Minneapolis. In his Billings class, Iyer will team up with Stella Fong, a Billings certified wine professional. The 6 p.m. class costs $75 a person.
Iyer will create a menu from his new book, “Indian Cooking Unfolded,” which is due in July. The class is titled, “Flavorful Dishes from India and Southeast Asia with 10 Ingredients or Less.” To put students at ease during his classes, Iyer stresses how basic the ingredients can be.
“Part of my approach to Indian cooking, when I teach, is about bringing it into a realm that is approachable to my students,” Iyer said. “I put it in terminology that is recognizable to them. Once they start to realize that Indian food is about ingredients they are familiar with — legumes, garbanzo beans, potatoes and onions and cabbage — they become more comfortable.”
When Iyer started college, he studied chemistry with a minor in math at Bombay University. Unsatisfied, Iyer came to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in restaurant management at Michigan State University.
“Chemistry wasn’t calling out to me, but when I came here, my passion in cooking blossomed,” Iyer said.
When he began cooking in the U.S., Iyer said the biggest challenge was finding ingredients.
“The first few meals were god awful. It was a trial-and-error process. Maybe that’s where my chemistry degree came in. The kitchen was my laboratory,” Iyer said.
Then he began combining flavors he remembered from his childhood and learned where to look for the spieces. Since he grew up in a household where mainly women did the cooking, Iyer said he seldom went in the kitchen before he began living on his own in the U.S.
“I felt like, being the youngest male child, I had no reason and no desire to go to the kitchen. Here I was with no mother, no sister, no grandmother to cook for me. Needless to say, I felt sorry for myself. Woe is me.”
Iyer said he began to gain much more respect for his grandmother and mother for all of the delicious dishes they made for him. He used to plop himself down at the table without fully appreciating how the food got there.
Once he started cooking for a career, Iyer began to notice that so many people douse Indian food with curry powder. In India, where the cuisine is 6,000 years old, there are hundreds of different curries, thus his 2006 cookbook, “660 Curries.” To research the book, Iyer spent six weeks in India, traveling all over to gain a hands-on understanding about the cuisine of different regions of India.
“That was a very in-depth look at the world of Indian curry. I would go into these kitchens where the women were shy and reserved. They would look at me, here is this man who speaks American, but once I started to speak their language, they relaxed,” Iyer said.