The food of the south of India and the south of the United States may not seem a natural pair, but maybe that's because the fusion doesn't happen at a geographic border—or all that often (Tex-Mex it's not). In the kitchen of Asha Gomez, though, who grew up in Kerala, India, before moving to New York, and then Atlanta, the meeting happens at every meal.
Her cooking intrinsically melds the food of her childhood and the food of her current home. She opened the restaurant Cardamom Hill in Atlanta a few years back to great acclaim, but closed it after striving to be more available for her son. She now runs two daytime venues, where her time is more flexible and her son can play DJ—"with his singular mix of Led Zeppelin, Bollywood, and a bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd," as she tells in her new book, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen.
It’s Asha's real life that makes the food in her book so pleasant. Her cooking feels like food my mom would make me if she had the same geographical footprint as Asha: The recipes are wholly cozy and nourishing, not showy and not too complicated to execute for dinner tonight. The ingredient lists only include what they have to and while there are plenty of spices are used, sure (we’re cooking Indian food here!), they're used repeatedly throughout the book. You can imagine her pantry is not any bigger than yours.
And importantly, nothing is a forced fusion: Both areas use similar crops; are made with resourcefulness and soul; and strike a balance between hot, cool, spicy, savory, and sweet. Asha bridges the food of her two souths with ease, like this is just how she cooks. Because it is. The result is a marriage of flavors and dishes that feels new and yet familiar at the same time—it's exciting its comfort.
Here are ten reasons to come back to this book:
1. Her rice dishes are superb. I will make the Cooling Yogurt Rice (page 112) and the Weeknight Fancy Chicken and Rice (p. 177) over and over. The first reminded me of savory rice pudding: Creaminess here is flecked with toasty mustard seeds, ginger, and chiles. And while I found the chicken in the Chicken and Rice to be unnecessary—it actually was quite dry—the cardamom, anise, turmeric rice deserves to be made all on its own.
2. It’s food that hugs you back. Classic kichadi mixes lentils with rice, but in an obvious yet wholly genius move, Asha puts those lentils into ginger and leek-simmered grits instead. She just made India’s beloved comfort dish even more homey.
3. She doesn’t fully abide by the concept of the book; this is good. It’s primarily about how Asha cooks—and not every dish is 50% one south, 50% another south. Fish sauce pops up in pickled peaches and in a corn-green bean salad, because it tastes good and she likes what it does. So why wouldn’t she include it in her book?
4. There are good stories. At times, the book’s writing can feel static and repetitive—lots of stories start at the farmers market—but then there’s a surprising, delightful one that brings a recipe to life. Asha’s mom made Hazel’s Fresh Tomato Juice Cocktail (p. 57) when Mother Theresa visited their town during a drought—"she loved the juice."
5. Oil-poaching fish will be a lot more appealing. For fish that never risks dryness, poach it in oil. The problem is that it often leaves you with a heap of spent oil. In My Two Souths, Asha takes the waste-not route: On page 167, she poaches snapper in coconut oil, lemon, and thyme and then makes a sauce of the fragrant poaching liquid.
6. You will learn about ingredients. Did you know that mace is the web coating on the outside of a whole nutmeg seed? Or that Tellicherry peppercorns are just normal ones that stay on the plant longer so they’re bigger and more aromatic, but also less spicy? Neither did I—till now!
7. Your sweetest teeth will be thrilled. Asha admits she has a real sweet tooth, and this was confirmed in every sweet dish I made from the book. The Cardamom Stewed Plantains (p. 46) in the breakfast chapter were a full-on dessert to me, and I imagined that the Peanut Sesame Blondies (p. 259) would be a little less sweet than usual given the sesame and the salted peanuts, but instead, they shouted sweetness. If that’s your thing, you’ll be jazzed.
8. And the desserts chapter is full of surprises. I haven’t ever seen black pepper played up so frequently in any chapter before, and in this book, it’s the desserts chapter: There are pink peppercorn- and ginger-poached pears, black pepper brandy sauce for broiled citrus, sugared black pepper (coarse peppercorns in melted sugar), pepper pralines, and black pepper frosting on a carrot cake. Asha also puts banana peppers in rhubarb pie!
9. You’ll want to make your own maraschino cherries for the first time. Since Luxardo cherries are fairly easy to acquire, the need for a homemade version hasn’t seemed necessary—but when you realize you can flavor the cherries and the liqueur they stew in, the idea gets a lot more appealing. Asha goes for green cardamom (page 223; talk about edible gift!).
10. Cardamom fans, you'll find even more ways to use your favorite spice. When you put ground cardamom in maraschino cherries liqueur, and then smother a pork chop with the pods—oh, but also bake it into cornbread... and add a heap to shrimp étoufée...—you’ll start wandering around your kitchen, seeing how else to play with the spice.
Tell us: What's your idea of soul food?