The Rediff US Special/Arthur J Pais
First he offers a bowl of jira.
"Smell it," he orders with a radiant smile, as he sets up his mini grinder.
As over 30 food writers, editors and guests inhale the aroma of jira, well, cumin, Raghavan Iyer offers them another bowl -- this time it is ground cumin.
"Now smell the difference," he says, beaming further, cutting a striking figure in his colourful sherwani and a brighter angavastram.
When was the last time anyone saw such a spectacle in Minneapolis, or for that matter in the entire Minnesota? Or even in the neighbouring states of Iowa, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin?
Iyer is familiarizing his audiences with a few basics of Indian cuisine.
The third flavour he offers is whole cumin seeds, dry-roasted until they are reddish brown.
And as his guests feast on, he is ready to offer the fourth flavour, emanating this time from dry-roasted cumin seeds.
For the fifth flavour, he offers whole cumin seeds fried in hot oil. The nutty aroma is now filling the atrium of General Mills headquarters.
And finally, Iyer passes on the seeds fried in hot oil and then ground.
In less than 10 minutes, Iyer has demonstrated the amazing flavours of just one Indian spice. And got the undivided attention of his guests who are in Minneapolis for the launch of Iyer's first book on April 17.
It is not just another launch party.
In more than one sense, culinary history is being made here.
For, General Mills, one of the biggest food businesses in the world and producer of the Betty Crocker books, which have sold over 65 million copies in the past 50 years, has for the first time published an Indian cookbook.
As Iyer completes his demo, his guests know by now that for more flavours and insights into what makes a self-effacing man with degrees in chemistry and hotel management a hotshot culinary instructor -- they will have to read the book.
Betty Crocker's Indian Home Cooking (Published by Hungry Minds, $23.95) offers 180 recipes including Katrikai Goshtu (eggplant with shallots) and Sultani Murghi (chicken stuffed with cheese and raisins).
"The recipes have been thoroughly tested for simplicity and ease-of-use," the publishers assure us.
Iyer points out that most Betty Crocker books deal with American and European cuisines. But in recent years, there have been books on Mexican and Chinese cuisine. The books are generally used by Americans who are discovering a cuisine for the first time.
"Since many of my readers are going to cook Indian food for the first time," he says, "we have to make their challenge easier." Clarity is a key ingredient of the book, he says. He agrees with the publishers who say the book will take the mystery out of Indian cooking.
"Could there be a better icon [than Betty Crocker] to bring India to the United States?" he asks.
The book's visual appeal is enhanced by the use of artifacts from the studio of Richard Bresnahan, one of America's most accomplished potters.
Bresnahan helped create a beautiful milieu for the launch by bringing many props from his studio. And Ethnic Grocers have sent heaps of spices from Chicago, which are elegantly displayed.
Earlier in the day, the South Asian American Network (SAAN) at General Mills had organized a snacking party to celebrate the launch. More than 200 people, most of them non-Indian, drop by to feast on mildly spicy bondas.
"Did we ever think that Betty Crocker, which is synonymous with basic American food, would publish a book on Indian food?" remarks Balki Radhakrishnan, SAAN co-chairman.
"Every Indian in America should be proud of this achievement."
His co-chair Venky Narayanaswamy says he has seen the proliferation of Indian restaurants across the Midwest. "But this book is going to make Indian cuisine a household name."
Iyer, who grew up in Bombay and came to the United States in the early 1980s, owns Essence of Thyme, a catering and food consulting business in Minneapolis.
In his early 40s, he has held more than 400 cooking classes in Minneapolis for over 8,000 people, including chefs of leading American restaurants.
Today, he has prepared half a dozen dishes, including lamb kebab and gaajar ka halwa, for the guests. And then there is fruit chaat and masala chai.
As one food writer swears she had not eaten more succulent and spiced kebabs, a friend of Iyer informs her that Iyer is a vegetarian.
"He doesn't eat meat, he doesn't touch fish," the friend says.
How, then, does he perfect the recipes? After all, the book has many non-veg recipes, the guest points out.
"He experiments on friends like us," she is informed. "Till he gets it hundred per cent right."
But the book is anything but an experiment. Its selection and publication has been carefully crafted over a period of two years.
"We know Indian food has been becoming increasingly popular in America," says Kim F Walters, director of publishing and licensing at Betty Crocker Enterprise. "But we wanted to make sure that middle America was ready to embrace it."
Even though Betty Crocker books sell across America and in countries where America has its bases, a substantial number of their buyers are from the Midwest.
Is Betty ready for India? Betty Crocker executives wondered for over five years. Various studies convinced them that Middle America was indeed ready.
"People were ready to recognize the rich, bountiful kitchen of India," Walters says. "We knew Indian cuisine is here to stay." The publication of the book proves America is "re-melting the pot", she adds with a hearty chuckle.
Walters, who has been in love with Indian food for over a decade -- having enjoyed it in some of the finest restaurants in England, South Africa and America -- recalls inviting Iyer and potter Bresnahan to her home a few years ago.
"They did not know each other," she says. "But the moment they met it was like two old friends meeting." And as Raghavan cooked, there was Richard on one side and Richard's wife on the other. Iyer and Bresnahan's youngest daughter, who was about three, also hit off during their very first meeting.
"Right then I knew something beautiful was going to happen," she says. Sure enough, within a few weeks, Iyer and Bresnahan had begun collaborating.
"Over the decades millions have trusted Betty Crocker books," she adds. "And now we are taking the magic of Indian cuisine into their homes."
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