Atlanta-based chef Asha Gomez introduces Kerala cuisine to US with her cooking show

Cooks prepare the Hindu celebratory meal called a sadhya in pots as big as wading pools in Kochi, Kerala (above). Asha Gomez (below), in a tea plantation in Munnar, Kerala, wants to put the spotlight on the tradition and history of Indian food.
Asha Gomez, in a tea plantation in Munnar, Kerala, wants to put the spotlight on the tradition and history of Indian food.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Cooks prepare the Hindu celebratory meal called a sadhya in pots as big as wading pools in Kochi, Kerala (above). Asha Gomez (below), in a tea plantation in Munnar, Kerala, wants to put the spotlight on the tradition and history of Indian food.
Cooks prepare the Hindu celebratory meal called a sadhya in pots as big as wading pools in Kochi, Kerala (above).PHOTO: NYTIMES

Atlanta-based chef Asha Gomez seeks to help American diners appreciate the food from her homeland, Kerala

MUNNAR (India) • 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.

The chef from Atlanta, who had travelled 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 US was home," said the 47-year-old, who had moved from the Indian state of Kerala to Michigan as a teenager.

She wiped her tears and made her way back towards 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.

Gomez had come to this land of ports, tea estates and spice gardens to find new ways to use her camera-ready personality and kitchen chops to lasso Kerala's food culture and drag it back to the United States.

"Not all Indian food belongs on a buffet line at US$4.99. Indian food is 5,000 years of tradition and history, and it belongs right up there with French cuisine," she noted.

Her frustration over American interpretations of the beloved coconut-scented fish curries, dosais and carefully layered beef biryanis of her homeland echoes the lament of cooks who have relocated from, say, China, Mexico or Vietnam - only to find their food mangled to meet the palates of a new country.

"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 is not hard to see why.

For one thing, unless that food is served in an upscale setting, it does not command the prices or the critical respect given to European or American cuisines.

And even when the restaurant is fancy, the problem persists. Gomez experienced it herself at the first eatery she opened in the US - a fine-dining place in Atlanta she named Cardamom Hill.

Customers would complain that she charged US$32 for a complex fish curry with smoked tamarind, even when a fish entree at a wellregarded new Southern restaurant not far away cost the same.

David Chang, a prolific chef and restaurateur whose parents came to the US from South Korea, said: "That makes me see red immediately. It's the worst kind of racism because it's so readily accepted."

Even though there are some notable Indian chefs in the US, integrating the kind of food Gomez loves will not come easy, added Chang, who first met her recently over fried chicken in Atlanta.

"It's probably not going to happen in one lifetime and it is going to take relentless media exposure," he said.

That is 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 activity. 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.

She first learnt to cook from her mother and three aunts, who all lived near one another in a three-household compound in Thiruvananthapuram.

Her father, an engineer, was intent on moving the children to the US 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.

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 she soon fitted 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."

And her Kerala trip could well put her on a new road to discovery - both for her and American diners.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2017, with the headline 'A return to roots of Indian food'. Print Edition | Subscribe