Learning from Raghavan Iyer

 Raghavan Iyer

Raghavan Iyer won widespread acclaim with his third book, 660 Curries, Plus Biryanis, Breads, Pilafs, Raitas, and More, rated as a “a must-have for lovers of Indian cuisine.” He’s back with a new book that is designed to help anyone, regardless of skill level or location, master the flavors of Indian cuisine. In Indian Cooking Unfolded: A Master Class in Indian Cooking, Featuring 100 Easy Recipes, Using 10 Ingredients or Less, Iyer presents himself as even more of a teacher.

To give you a flavor of his style, rather than printing an interview with Raghavan, we’re publishing his musings on the wonders and comforts of milk in Indian cooking and culture.

And be sure and enter a posting here to win one of ten copies that we’re offering as part of our cookbook giveaway program.


Milk glorious milk!  

Vegetarianism as a phenomenon has always been synonymous with Indian gastronomy for over 3500 years, even though the country has been around for more than 6000 years.  Now veganism, a relatively more modern occurrence, in the Western world, is not a practiced lifestyle in contemporary India.  Maybe the answer lies in how cows are revered in Hinduism.  Dairy and dairy products, celebrated as offerings from cows for centuries, were never considered exploiting tools that put the animal in harm’s way.  They were, in fact, manna that flowed into culinary and religious rituals in Hinduism.  If Krishna, the cowherd and a reincarnation of Vishnu, had a penchant for cream, why not the common devotee? 

Milk vendors rely on the work of dairy farmers from the outskirts of the city who start their morning by hand-milking the family cow and pouring the body-warm, creamy liquid into aluminum canisters for the long trek into town.  They unload their wares from their mode of transportation and hand-carry their containers into the residential districts, ladling pre-ordered amounts of milk into empty vessels that populate the doorways.  Once the orders are filled, all the leftover milk flows into that milk vendor’s wok, turning a majority of that creamy milk into an endless supply of desserts that sweeten the special occasion table of the same consumers that rely on the dairy farmer. 

The lack of refrigeration mandates a quick resolution to the milk for fear of turning sour in the hot climate.  Part of that milk is cultured with live bacteria from the previous day’s leftover yogurt for the next day’s batch.  Another portion of that milk is cooked down to a fourth its original amount; the reduction sweetening the milk protein and the milk solids that brown the wok’s sides provide nutty flavor, texture, and light brown color.  Fudge-like milk bars, studded with cashews, pistachios, and almonds stack, pyramid-like, on trays while saffron-laced sweetened condensed milk, much like the Brazilian dulce de leche, brim makeshift bowls from leaves held together with toothpicks. 

The remaining milk festers in that now-tired wok, offering warming comfort to children who are lulled to sleep, and the vendor pulls his shutters down, a wooden plank in the store’s corner awaiting his exhausted being, as he slips into deep slumber.  The whole scene repeats the next day, as it has for centuries, as it will for decades, the omnipresent milk cloaking every fabric of humanity until death breaks the cycle, albeit for a brief moment, until the cycle of life kicks in once again.

Milk, so rudimentary to human lives, has never been taken for granted in India.  A symbol of maternal love during an infant’s early life, that same milk’s cream, usually from the sacred cow, churned into butter and clarified into ghee, releases the human body from earthly existence by providing anointing fuel at the funeral pyre, one last time purifying the soul for the next cycle of life.  Evidence of the significance and prevalence of milk in Indian culture flows from over 3700 years ago, an offering from not only the much-revered cow in Hinduism, but also from the water buffalo and goat.

Milk in all its splendor daubs the lives of Indians in ways that fascinate us even in the 21st century: from the mundane to the religious, with incarnations that boggle the palate.  Steeped, steamed, boiled, condensed, curdled, and cultured, it continues to be the epicenter of routine, ritual, love, and sacrifice in all our lives.

Indian Cooking Unfolded


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  • BglLvr  on  July 25, 2013

    We don't eat a lot of Indian food (for a good, albeit somewhat humorous reason – to follow)… My favorite so far has been dishes that I've made, as I enrolled in an Indian cooking class years ago, and really enjoyed the experience. I made Aloo Gobhi, Masoor ki Dal, and a homemade Masala Chai, which my family and I enjoyed with na'an from my local grocer. Unfortunately, the very next day after this delicious new experience, I came down with a virus that, in the end, lasted for seven days and left me incredibly weak, dehydrated, and not a fan of food of any kind at that time. An unfortunate and unfair association was psychologically knit in my psyche between 'feeling awful' and 'that meal'… I'm so ready to set things straight once again! 🙂

  • Chiodo520  on  July 26, 2013

    Sooooo many delicious dishes! I am not a sweet lover, but absolutely adore Ras Malai and the many inventive and unusual uses for milk in their cuisine.

  • oakandsage  on  July 28, 2013

    Not an uncommon occurrence, BglLvr! Our brains are hard-wired to avoid any food that we got sick after. Even now that we can generally identify the actual cause of the illness, it's hard to shake that association.

    I hope you're able to enjoy Indian cuisine again! It really is delicious.

    I think I know what sort of food I want for my birthday dinner now.

  • pstrohmeyer  on  July 29, 2013

    Because we enjoy the flavors in Indian cooking and I enjoy learning to cook new dishes, I made Chicken Tikka Masala. Delicious! Inspired me to post in hopes of winning the cookbook and continuing to explore these flavors.

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