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Forget curry powder; it's all about the sauce

MINNEAPOLIS -- To hear Raghavan Iyer, a champion of Indian curry, quote O.E. Rolvaag, a chronicler of Norwegian angst, is just the sort of amalgam of cultures that Iyer likes to nurture. Over breakfast of coffee and an eclair, he talked about the...

MINNEAPOLIS -- To hear Raghavan Iyer, a champion of Indian curry, quote O.E. Rolvaag, a chronicler of Norwegian angst, is just the sort of amalgam of cultures that Iyer likes to nurture. Over breakfast of coffee and an eclair, he talked about the shock of moving from teeming Bombay, India, to Marshall, Minn., to study restaurant management.

"Have you ever read 'Giants in the Earth?' '' he asked, posing the Midwestern equivalent of asking Southerners if they've read "Gone With the Wind." Remember, he said, the scene where the wife, a reluctant pioneer, gazes from the door of the sod hut at the featureless prairie, and she says: "There is nothing to hide behind." That's how Marshall seemed.

Twenty-five years later, Iyer is an award-winning cookbook author, culinary educator and recipe developer. He was a James Beard award finalist for his 2002 cookbook, "The Turmeric Trail: Recipes and Memories From an Indian Childhood" (St. Martin's Press, 2002).

Now he has, in his words, "given birth to a horse." For the past four years, the Eden Prairie chef has been laboring over a curry cookbook that clocks in at 832 pages. "660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking" (Workman, $32.50) is a master's thesis of Indian food, culture and resources.

Are there really 660 curries?

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"I first pitched it as 1,001, but Workman said, oh, give us between 600 and 800," Iyer said, laughing. Bottom line, the book has 701 recipes -- 660 for curries and the remainder for what he calls cohorts. That's his word for side dishes and such.

NO POWDER IN INDIA

Curry is the word that requires more clarification. The Western world regards it as a dish spiced from a jar labeled "curry powder." But Iyer said that curry isn't about spice, but gravy. "To us, it's all about sauces," he said. "No self-respecting Indian kitchen would have curry powder."

In other words, he's written a book about 660 sauces. The man who was named Cooking Teacher of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2004 arrived in this country with degrees in physics, math and chemistry, but didn't know how to boil water. He grew up in Mumbai and loved street food, much to the chagrin of his sister, who in many ways was as much his culinary instructor as his mother was. Once here, he began seeking ways to create the foods he missed. Ingredients were a challenge, but so was recreating techniques.

The book contains a much-needed glossary of terms, from amaranth to yogurt. There also are mail-order sources for ingredients. (He recommends Asia Imports, 1840 Central Ave. NE., Minneapolis.) He also includes dishes from the cuisines of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Evidence of how Indian food is becoming mainstream is his recent partnership with Bon Appetit Management Co. to develop menus and train chefs to prepare Indian cooking in cafes of clients such as Yahoo, Target, Medtronic and Best Buy.

More tellingly, he and his partner have a son in elementary school who dives into Indian foods as easily as French fries. Which leads to Iyer's personal passion.

"I'm a potato-holic," he said. "Any size, shape, variety -- you can wake me up at 2 a.m. for a potato."

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