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Deconstructing Indian cooking

Sunday - 8/25/2013, 9:10pm  ET

Raghavan Iyer says Indian cooking is built around basic spices, such as salt, cumin, coriander and clove. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON - Thirty-one years ago, Raghavan Iyer moved from Mumbai to Minneapolis. The then 21-year-old already held a bachelor's degree in chemistry, but wanted to pursue a second degree in hotel restaurant management.

Recreating the tastes of India in the kitchen is one way Iyer planned to make his home, 8,000-miles away, feel closer. But he quickly realized his biggest limitation in this quest: American grocery stores.

"I know what it is to live in the middle of nowhere and to learn to cook Indian with main grocery store ingredients," says Iyer, author of "Indian Cooking Unfolded." "Over the years it's gotten so much better."

Iyer took the challenge as an opportunity to deconstruct Indian cooking and identify the cuisine's simplest ingredients.

"It's such a misunderstood cuisine in terms of people think it's complex and it's hard to execute," says Iyer, who worked in restaurants before becoming a teacher for 22 years. "To me, the complexity in Indian food comes from using the same ingredient in a multitude of ways."

So what are some of these basic ingredients used in Indian cooking that are available in most every grocery store?

Iyer says it's as simple as cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, salt, cardamom, cinnamon, clove and peppercorn.

"These are all everyday ingredients, but they're also very intrinsic to the way we cook. What I've always said, ‘You give old spices to a good Indian cook, we should be able to extract eight flavors from a given spice.' And I think that's what makes it so exciting is you take that concept and then you multiply that by the hundreds of spices that are out there," Iyer says.

In addition to using common spices, Iyer also uses simple main ingredients in his dishes, such as chicken, lentils and potatoes.

"I'm a huge fan of potatoes. There's no meal that's complete without its inclusion."

One of his favorite meals to make on the weekends is an Indian twist on hash browns.

In his version of hash browns, Iyer tosses the shredded potatoes with turmeric, habanero, salt and cilantro. Then he crisps the potatoes up in a hot pan -- a minimal-spice dish he says "really sings."

The recipe for Iyer's hash browns are available in "Indian Cooking Unfolded" and below.

"(The book) really sort of demystifies the world of Indian cooking and makes it accessible and approachable," Iyer says.

Recipe: Turmeric Hash Browns


  • 2 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1⁄2 cup fi nely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
  • 11⁄2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 habanero chile, stem discarded, and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil


  1. Peel the potatoes. Shred them in a food processor using the shredding attachment or by scraping them against the large holes of a box grater. Pile the potato shreds into a medium-size bowl. Mix in the cilantro, salt, turmeric, and chile. Because you are dealing with the heat of a habanero, use a spoon to do the mixing.

  2. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet or well-seasoned cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil appears to shimmer, spread the turmeric-colored potatoes in the skillet in an even layer that is about 2 inches deep. The sizzle as soon as the potatoes hit the skillet is a good sign that the skillet is the right temperature.

    Reduce the heat to medium and cook the potatoes covered, without stirring, until they are nice and crispy brown on the underside, 10 to 12 minutes. Turn the thick patty over using 2 spatulas and brown the second side the same way, 10 to 12 minutes.

  3. Serve the potatoes immediately to experience the crispy exterior and the soft interior.

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