Food

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

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In the shade of a cardamom patch on a South Indian mountainside, Asha Gomez leaned against a tree and began to cry.

She asked a photographer to stop taking pictures and sent a videographer farther down the dirt path. Gomez, a chef from Atlanta who had traveled for 22 hours to get to the land where she was born, needed a moment.

“I think I had disconnected myself from this place in some way by saying for so long that the U.S. was home,” said 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 Ihad forgotten that.”

She wiped her tears and made her way back toward the cameras, more committed than ever to the work she had set out to do when she landed at Cochin International Airport a few days earlier.

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. Photo: Evan Sung/The New York Times

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?’” Gomez said.

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 pricesor the critical respect afforded European or American cuisines.

And even when the restaurant is fancy, the problem persists. 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.

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.

“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.”

The cookbook author and restaurateur Asha Gomez recently returned to her homeland, cameras in tow, hoping to elevate an oft-neglected cuisine. Photo: Evan Sung/The New York Times

Even though there are some notable Indian chefs cooking in the United States, integrating the kind of food Gomez loves won’t come easy, said Chang, who first met 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 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 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.

It had been eight years since Gomez last stepped onto Indian soil. She had come to adopt her son, Ethan, then a 3-year-old living in an orphanage.

So much has happened since then. For one thing, she embarked on a cooking career.

Gomez originally wanted to work in the beauty business. When the recession hit the United States in 2008, she had been running a luxe ayurvedic spa in Atlanta, where she had moved with her husband, Bobby Palayam. As her clients finished their massages and facials, she would feed them vegetarian biryanis and coconut-infused stir-fries bright with turmeric and chilies.

Then the spa succumbed to the downturn, and some of the city’s best chefs, as well as clients who understood a special thing when they tasted it, encouraged her to keep spreading the curry-and-coconut gospel of Kerala. She did, first with a supper club and then, in 2012, at Cardamom Hill. The menu drew parallels between the American South and the Indian South, highlighting both regions’ mutual love of fried chicken, braised pork and vegetables like okra and field peas.

“You know that Kerala is in your kitchen when you have coconut oil, curry leaves and mustard seeds sizzling in a chati,” she likes to tell people. “That’s our trinity.”

Grilled fish in Kochi, in the Kerela region of India, May 16, 2017. Photo: Evan Sung/The New York Times

Fish are rubbed with spices and grilled to order in Kochi, in the Kerala region of India, May 16, 2017. The cookbook author and restaurateur Asha Gomez recently returned to Kerala, her homeland, cameras in tow, hoping to elevate an oft-neglected cuisine.

Grilled fish in Kochi, in the Kerela region of India, May 16, 2017. The cookbook author and restaurateur Asha Gomez recently returned to Kerala, her homeland, cameras in tow, hoping to elevate an oft-neglected cuisine.

Two years later, just as Cardamom Hill had gained critical acclaim, she shut the place down. She wasn’t making any money, and was working so hard she had no time for her son. “I had lost my joy for cooking,” she said.

Her next restaurant was a quiet, stylish Indian patisserie where she served puff-pastry samosas and carrot cakes infused with black pepper. She closed it in February. The reasons weren’t much different.

Now she cooks for private clients at the Third Space, her kitchen and dining room in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. She teaches cooking, consults for food companies and has become a “chef ambassador” for CARE. She receives more requests for public appearances than she can say yes to. Her 2016 cookbook, “My Two Souths,” was nominated for a James Beard Award.

Gomez learned to cook from her mother, Hazel, and her three aunts, who all lived near one another in a three-household compound in Thiruvananthapuram (she said she preferred the old name, Trivandrum), Kerala’s capital city on the Arabian Sea. It was a dreamy childhood, in a religiously diverse and literate region of India where young people prefer American rock to Bollywood soundtracks.

The Portuguese had begun settling there in the 15th century, bringing with them a love of pork and for the chilies that would come to mark Kerala’s food. It’s how her family got its name, and why she grew up a meat-eating Roman Catholic in a state where more than half the population is Hindu.

Her father was a civil engineer who helped build bridges for a German company. Her mother never set a table that wasn’t beautiful.

Gomez grew up pulling mangoes from the trees and buying sugar cane from the vendors outside her parochial school. At night, she would head to the street stalls called thattukadas, for chunks of chicken with crunchy fried shallots, garlic and curry leaves crisped in coconut oil. She loves to eat the dish with flaky wheat parathas, made using a method that originated in her home state.

Her father was intent on moving the children to America for college. To prepare, she and her older brothers were required to speak only English at home and eat using cutlery instead of the tidy, one-handed finger style many in Kerala use for their curry-soaked red rice and breakfast puttus.

“I think he had seen enough of the world that he didn’t want us to come to this country and be outsiders,” she said.

 

The classic Hindu celebratory meal sadhya in Kochi, in the Kerela region of India, May 17, 2017. The cookbook author and restaurateur Asha Gomez recently returned to her homeland, cameras in tow, hoping to elevate an oft-neglected cuisine.

Cooks prepare the classic Hindu celebratory meal called a sadhya in pots as big as wading pools in Kochi, in the Kerela region of India, May 17, 2017. The cookbook author and restaurateur Asha Gomez recently returned to her homeland, cameras in tow, hoping to elevate an oft-neglected cuisine.

When she was 16, her father died of a heart attack. She and her mother moved to Michigan, where her older brothers were already in college. They eventually landed in Queens, New York, where cousins encouraged her mother to cater food for the Kerala diaspora.

“I hated it,” Gomez said. “Our apartment was so small I would literally disinfect the bathtub, and I would have to wash the dishes in there.”

But Gomez fit seamlessly into New York life, developing the kind of cultural fluidity that has allowed her to adapt Kerala’s food for the uninitiated while satisfying the people from her home state, who lovingly call each other Mallus. “As much as I love tradition, I am not a traditionalist,” she said. “I’m an innovator.”

Sometimes innovators need to reconnect with their roots, which is why she got up at 4 a.m. at one point to visit a Kerala catering kitchen that for 100 years has been creating a classic Hindu celebratory meal called a sadhya, served at almost every wedding and holiday gathering in Kerala.

The meal, eaten from a banana leaf and centered on rice, can involve two dozen dishes that vary from salty to sour to bitter to sweet. Always there are spicy pickles, sambar and vegetables simmered in coconut milk or sautéed with ground coconut and curry leaves. It’s a celebratory feast that Gomez makes a few times a year.

In a wet, torrid kitchen, she watched the cooks, with bare chests and feet, add buckets of spices and vegetables to pots as big as wading pools. In a few hours, they would have lunch ready for 1,500.

She talked shop with the owner, Mahadevan Iyer. He wanted to take her to his factory, where he is packaging food for the U.S. market. “We are interested in exporting delicious Kerala,” he told her.

Only hours earlier, the young woman hired to do her hair and makeup had also asked Gomez for help. She wanted to follow the chef back to the United States to become her personal assistant. “I knew the direction this was going to go,” Gomez said. She declined the offers.

In Thekkady, a town surrounded by spice gardens full of black pepper and nutmeg, she imagined customizing Indian spice boxes for American  chefs. As she wandered the vast tea estates of the Western Ghats mountains, she mulled over a plan to provide restaurants with tea service. She even pondered how she might do for Kerala what Danish chef René Redzepi has done for Nordic cuisine, opening a small, seasonal white-tablecloth restaurant with Michelin-star ambitions.

“Can you imagine what I could do in a place like this?” she asked.

But there in the Cardamom Hills, she understood the deeper meaning of the trip. She had found a way to merge her two homes.

“I want to leave an America behind where my son can be proud of both his heritages,” she said. “I want him to carry both these places with equal pride, hand in hand.”

© 2017 New York Times News Service

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