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Chef Raghavan Iyer’s latest project aims to promote the healing power of comfort food

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Raghavan Iyer, pictured at Pizza Karma in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, wants to help fellow patients and their caregivers find culturally appropriate comfort food. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Rick Nelson
Star Tribune

It all comes down to comfort food.

That’s one of the many epiphanies that Raghavan Iyer has made during his treatment for colorectal cancer, and that realization has sparked the creation of his latest effort, the Revival Foods Project: Global Comforts That Heal.

Three years ago, the Minneapolis cookbook author — he’s the authority behind “660 Curries,” “The Turmeric Trail,” “Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking” and other notable titles — was in the hospital, recovering from major surgery. After 12 days, he was finally allowed to eat.

“I remember calling the cafeteria and asking, ‘Is the tomato soup vegetarian-based?’ ” he said. “And they said, ‘Hang on, let me look at the can.’ That’s what launched my thinking, because there had to be something better than that.”

Chemotherapy followed, knocking 30 pounds off Iyer’s trim frame. When working with a dietitian on strategies to regain weight, he began to hit another wall: They were not speaking the same food-as-medicine language.

All of the dietitian’s Eurocentric information was based on a Mediterranean diet, and Iyer, a Mumbai native who landed in Minnesota nearly four decades ago to attend college, was leaning into his body’s reflexive hunger for the comfort foods of his Indian upbringing.

“When we’re sick, we reach for the foods that we grew up with,” he said.

For Iyer, that means rasam (“the chicken soup of my Indian soul,” he said), a rich lentil broth redolent of tomatoes and tamarind. And lentil-rice cakes, a southern Indian staple fashioned from a fermented batter and steamed.

“In terms of nutrition and ease of digestion, these comfort foods really fit the bill,” he said. “They helped me gain back most of the weight that I lost. Food is such a motivator, and such a strong tool for making you feel good inside and out. There’s an inherent joy of eating something that nurtures the body and the soul.”

The Revival Foods Project: Global Comforts That Heal blossomed out of those experiences. As Iyer continues to undergo cancer treatments, it’s his mission to channel his knowledge and expertise to bring nourishing, culturally appropriate comfort foods to patients, hospitals and health care services.

Guided by an advisory board — including a dietitian, oncologist, gastrointestinal surgeon, attorney, health care consultant and others — Iyer sees the project moving in phases.

First up is research: identifying a dozen or so cultures, developing relevant recipes and archiving them in a free, interactive, easy-to-use database.

“Let’s say you’re from Ethiopia,” said Iyer. “You go to the database, you plug in, ‘This is my energy level,’ and ‘This is what I feel like eating,’ and it spits out a few recipes that are relevant to that background and designed to be executed with minimal energy.”

The second chapter will involve partnering with meal delivery agencies and guiding them in their efforts to craft nutritious meals targeted toward patients with specific cultural backgrounds.

Finally, Iyer plans to capitalize on the connections he’s made as a consultant with food service vendors — he’s trained chefs in corporate and collegiate dining facilities all over the country — and funnel this valuable know-how into changing the meal-planning practices of hospital kitchens.

A crowdsourcing campaign (find it at https://bit.ly/3xfGxjy), launched in early April, has already raised a fifth of its initial $100,000 goal.

In a recent Instagram post, Iyer noted that in the past three years, he’s endured four surgeries, a lung biopsy, untold hours of chemotherapy, 55 days of radiation oncology treatments and countless CT scans, colonoscopies and MRIs.

“But who’s counting,” he wrote, drawing on his ever-present sense of humor. Taking a serious tone, Iyer believes that his involvement in the Revival Foods Project is a right-place, right-time moment.

“I speak the language of suffering and recovery, and I have this passion to take this knowledge and expertise that I have, and channel it into the positive power of food, ” he said. “It’s a legacy that I feel I need to leave behind. It’s bigger than who I am, and perhaps this is my swan song.”

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