Southern Roots Run Deep

Ms. Gomez grew up pulling mangoes from the trees and buying sugar cane from the vendors gathered outside her parochial school. Evan Sung for The New York Times

While Crist may have had the good fortune to enjoy a taste of Kerala with Asha Gomez during travel away from our home there, I was busy exploring the market byways for local ingredients and food ways. What a fascinating story to hear that Asha is actually experiencing that same sense of discovery and exploration within her own home state.

It looks like Crist might have gotten his wish for Asha to come to Kerala, after all!

A Chef’s Quest in India: Win Respect for Its Cooking

“I think I had disconnected myself from this place in some way by saying for so long that the U.S. was home,” said Ms. Gomez, 47, who had moved from the Indian state of Kerala to the state of Michigan as a teenager. “There is still so much a part of me here. I think I had forgotten that.”

Ms. Gomez had come to this land of ports, tea estates and spice gardens not only to reconnect with a part of herself, but also to find new ways to use her camera-ready personality and kitchen chops to lasso Kerala’s beautiful food culture and drag it back to the United States.

“I have to remove people from the mentality that all Indian food should be clumped up into nine dishes that are not really Indian dishes,” she said. “Not all Indian food belongs on a buffet line at $4.99. Indian food is 5,000 years of tradition and history, and it belongs right up there with French cuisine.”

Her frustration over American interpretations of the beloved coconut-scented fish curries, dosas and carefully layered beef biryanis of her homeland echoes the lament of countless cooks who have immigrated from countries like China, Mexico or Vietnam only to find their food mangled to meet the limitations of a new country’s palate and relegated to its cheap-eats guides.

“I wish I could say to every immigrant cook in America, ‘Why do you think your food should be any less than any other cuisine that comes from anywhere else in the world?’” Ms. Gomez said.

In Thekkady, a town surrounded by spice gardens full of black pepper and nutmeg, the chef Asha Gomez imagined customizing Indian spice boxes for American chefs. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

It’s not hard to see why: For one thing, unless that food is served in an upscale setting, with polished service, it doesn’t command the prices or the critical respect afforded European or American cuisines.

And even when the restaurant is fancy, the problem persists. Ms. Gomez experienced it at her first restaurant, a fine-dining place in Atlanta she named Cardamom Hill, after the spice-growing region that she was touring last month. Customers would complain that she charged $32 for a complex fish curry with smoked tamarind, even when a fish entree at a well-regarded new Southern restaurant not far away cost the same.

“That makes me see red immediately,” said David Chang, the prolific chef and restaurateur, whose parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea. “It’s the worst kind of racism, because it’s so readily accepted.”

Even though there are some notable Indian chefs cooking in America, integrating the kind of food Ms. Gomez loves won’t come easy, said Mr. Chang, who first met Ms. Gomez last week over fried chicken in Atlanta. “Considering the time we’re living in, having someone with that color skin from that part of the world makes it a hard sell,” he said. “It’s probably not going to happen in one lifetime, and it is going to take relentless media exposure.”

That’s exactly why Ms. Gomez had invited a producer working on a show for PBS; two videographers, who help create her web-based subscription cooking show, “Curry and Cornbread”; and two newspaper journalists to join her in Kerala.

The trip was a relentless blur of food and road miles. One day Ms. Gomez was picking out silky pomfret and river mullet to smear with masala, in a makeshift kitchen on the banks of Fort Kochi, and the next she was in a van grinding up a narrow mountain road to Kerala’s vast tea estates, or buying iron knives from a street vendor. By the end, she was happy to order a steak and get an ayurvedic treatment at a seaside hotel.

Read the entire article here.

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