When a desi hears about an Indian cookbook being put out by an all-American institution like Betty Crocker, she can be forgiven for raising her eyebrows and indulging in a bit of healthy skepticism. Would it be one of those smart and chic attempts at nouveau-Indian cuisine or, as was more likely, a collection of popular “restaurant” recipes that barely acknowledged the richness and diversity of India’s cooking traditions? Either way, even before seeing it, I was prepared to dislike it.

But Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking, when I finally laid my hands on it, was a pleasant surprise. It turned out to be a 336-page, well-structured, informative book with enough glossy pictures of Indian food to make one want to tie on the apron and reach for the nearest kadhai and chamcha. The 180 or so recipes have been harvested from various regions of India, ranging from the well-known Punjabi chicken tandoori and the South Indian dosa, to the less familiar Goan fish pulao and the ubiquitous Maharashtrian sabudana khichadi.

“I wanted the book to be a sort of Joy of Cooking for Indian food,” says the author Raghavan Iyer, a Minneapolis-based food consultant and writer who was commissioned for the project. “Indian cuisine is finally coming into its own in this country and, I say, it’s high time this happened. After all it has always been a healthy and health-conscious way of eating.” Accordingly, the book is written in a simple manner. Iyer has also personalized it with many helpful little notes called Raghavan ki Baaten on ingredients, menus suggestions, accompaniments, and even cultural asides.

The book is a worthy attempt at introducing the incredibly diverse cuisine of India to mainstream America. It works on the premise that most of its readers are new to Indian cooking. Hence, there are sections in the beginning that an experienced cook can skip. To a novice however, they are invaluable. Keeping in mind that savvy buyers like to know a little more about a cuisine that just its recipes, the cookbook starts off with a warm welcome in two Indian languages followed by a culinary history of India. There is a richly illustrated section showing and describing the different spices used in Indian cuisine. Elsewhere in the book are photographs of common vegetables and legumes. Every recipe has a translated title that demystifies it. In short, nowhere is the cook kept guessing as to what the author is talking about—right down to the nutritional information at the end of each recipe!

I was curious about how Iyer teamed up with Betty Crocker (who, by the way, is not a real person but a marketing creation of General Mills Corporation). “My association with General Mills goes back a long way … almost a decade,” Iyer explained. “I was invited to the Betty Crocker kitchen in Minneapolis to do a cooking demonstration for their staff. At that time Indian food was considered very foreign, very different, but the staff loved the dishes. Then three years ago, I ran into the General Mills manager and jokingly asked her if Betty Crocker was ready for Indian food yet. Till then they had only done two other ethnic cookbooks—Chinese and Italian. She asked me to put a proposal together. The rest of the story happened rather quickly. The proposal was presented to the publisher, and was accepted. They took every recipe I gave them and gave me six frantic months to write the book.”

At the end of it all, he turned in “a substantial book” replete with recipes and facts on Indian food. “I felt like a debutante,” he jokes. “This is my first book and it turned out to be big and showy.”

Even though it is his first book, Iyer is no newcomer to the food world. A South Indian and native of Bombay, he came to the U.S. in 1982 to study hotel and restaurant management at Michigan State. Later he worked in an Indian restaurant and then started Essence of Thyme, a food consulting business. “I have several major corporations as clients and have developed recipes for food companies like Starkist, Pathaks, California Raisins, General Mills, and Weight Watchers,” says the 40-year-old, self taught chef. He is a culinary instructor at the Minneapolis/St. Paul cooking schools and also co-founder of the prestigious Asian Culinary Art Institute, which trains professional chefs in the classic Asian cooking of India, Japan, Malaysia, China and Indonesia.

Iyer is a self-confessed purist. “Fusion is fine but always know your classic before attempting fusion,” he states with the authority of one who has done both. A quick glance at the more familiar recipes in the book shows that the author has not taken any undue liberties with the ingredients. He suggests substitutions when possible but in some cases as with the use of curry leaves or kadi patta in South Indian dishes he firmly asks the cook to “omit if not available.” “After all, I don’t want anyone messing with my sambhar,” declares Iyer who is firmly anchored to the cooking traditions of his South Indian roots. Not surprisingly, Betty Crocker’s sambhar powder recipe is better than those found in most cookbooks.

Recipes in the book range from the simple Mung chi Dal and Rotis for a no-fuss family meal to the more elaborate Gujarati Undhiyu and Parsee Dhansaak for entertaining special guests. There is a tempting array of chutneys, pickles, beverages, and desserts to try as well. A novice cook might find the choices a bit bewildering but there are several menu suggestions in the back of the book to help them experiment safely. Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking is worth checking out. You might surprise yourself and find a place for it in your (Indian) kitchen.

To Iyer, cooking is a passion and a mind-expanding exercise–an expression of his being. In January 2002 he will lead a culinary tour to Mumbai, Kerala, and Goa. He is also hard at work on his second book, also on Indian food but in a different mould. “This is the kind of cookbook that one can take to read in bed,” he explains. The Turmeric Trail: A Bowlful of Recipes Thickened with Memories is based on his grandmother’s life and interspersed with over 155 recipes. The book is scheduled for release by St. Martin’s Press in the spring of 2002. In the meantime, his friends are willingly helping him test his recipes. Robert, his newly-adopted toddler “who eats pretty much everything” helps as well.