Several months ago, we introduced you to Asha Gomez—chef, innovator, author, and charity ambassador. After beginning her career as a professional chef in Atlanta, she realized the inherent similarities between Southern cuisine and the dishes she prepared in her birthplace of Kerala, India. This presented her with the unique opportunity to explore both food histories and the communities that can be built when we recognize our cross-cultural similarities. Her cookbook, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen, does not take a food fusion approach; instead, it offers a new style of cooking that embraces food traditions from both cultures and finds common ground in sometimes surprising ways.
We recently spoke to Asha about her history, her thoughts about modern cuisine, and what she has in the works for the future.
AC: What is your first food memory? Do you remember the first dish you cooked by yourself?
AG: The very earliest memories I have of food revolve around mangoes and mango season. My great aunt Rita Netto stored straw-lined baskets full of mangoes in a darkened room off her kitchen behind cobalt blue doors. Even as a small child, I adored the mangoes’ spectrum of colors: bright red, radiant yellow, pinkish orange, deep purple, and delicate soft green. Eating fresh mango, I imagined the succulent flesh must taste just like sweet sunshine. It is that same sense of delight and discovery of simple yet potent ingredients that inspire me today.
Typically, in Kerala households a daughter’s role in the kitchen is largely supportive, guided by her mother. As a teenager, when my skills had advanced enough for my mother to trust me with preparing a whole meal, I was both nervous and excited. For my first solo meal, I chose to prepare a rabbit dish, and even after all these years, I still select rabbit for family meals. For my inaugural dish, I decided to venture away from my mother’s standard and frequent rabbit curry and chose a fried rabbit rendition. Her heartfelt after-dinner praise of my efforts remains my earliest and perhaps, my greatest culinary triumph.
AC: What inspired you to become a chef?
AG: I guess you might say that childhood memory may have lit a spark in me, though I didn’t heed the call until many years and a whole other career later.
AC: What motivated your move from Kerala to the United States?
AG: My parents migrated when I was really young.
AC: What are the most important things about cultural identity, food, and simple childhood memories of your life in Southern India that shape you today? In a sense, you have two homes—one in India and one in the United States. What most connects you to Southern India?
AG: I found a kinship between this concept of hospitality in the South and the way I was raised to treat guests that is just part of my cultural DNA.
AC: You have spent a great deal of time and energy working toward ending hunger worldwide. What inspired you to become involved in this cause?
AG: I feed people for a living, and people come to me to satisfy their hunger. I felt that it’s a travesty that only those who have the means and access can do so, and when there is so much abundance in our world there are too many who go to bed unable to satisfy such a basic human need.
AC: We have noticed that chefs often donate time and energy to charitable causes and organizations. Do you think there is something specific about those who work with food or local farmers and suppliers that inspires community involvement?
AG: More and more today, chefs have a voice that people listen to and respect. We have an opportunity to change the way people interact with and make choices about the food they buy. As chefs, we can use our time in the limelight to be the voice for those whose needs aren’t always heard, and we can find ways to help locally in our own communities and reach out to others doing good work. My fellow chefs are truly a passionate community of human beings.
AC: Your James Beard nominated cookbook, My Two Souths, illustrates that classic Southern food and dishes from Southern India share many of the same qualities. When did you first come to this realization? What key elements are most prominent in their similarities?
AG: It was after many years of an abiding appreciation for the culture and cuisine of both of these places that I have called home that the thoughts and ideas to marry the two evolved. Although they seem like separate universes, surprisingly, I found their shared aspects—a warm, humid climate, abundant produce varieties, expanses of rice acreage, and busy coastal communities, along with a spirit of sharing, a gift for entertaining and storytelling, a talent for creating bounty out of an often-modest pantry, and a sincere embrace of simplicity—blend easily in my South-by-South cuisine.
AC: How can we best encourage home cooks to explore ingredients that might initially be unfamiliar to them?
AG: [That is] essentially what I explored in my book: this idea of taking familiar, classic staples and infusing them with unexpected spices to unlock flavors and enliven the palate. By using accessible dishes like biscuits, pies, and beignets to show home cooks new and fresh takes on classics will hopefully motivate them to reach across to the under-explored side of the grocery aisle.
AC: It seems that Indian food is occasionally simplified in American restaurants. Are there things that frustrate you about how Indian food is viewed and prepared in the United States? What would you most like for people to know about authentic Indian cooking?
AG: Every cuisine in the world has what I call high-low cooking. Indian cuisine is 5,000 years old and is the culmination of many diverse influences and layers of sophistication in what presents. And yet in America, we are only accustomed for the most part to view Indian food in terms of a buffet line or in the cheap eats section.
The way Indians cook at home is vastly different from what is represented in mainstream restaurants. I take exception and considerable umbrage to the notion in some circles that culinary innovation happens primarily in a Euro-centric milieu.
AC: What ingredients most inspire you?
AG: Local produce that is best in each season and the introduction of spice to make the ordinary extraordinary.
AC: What was your last true great dining experience?
AG: I recently experienced a meal at Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia. It was a mind-blowing experience. So much heart and so much soul in the culinary story that revealed itself before my eyes and taste buds.
AC: What do you do when you are not in the kitchen?
AG: l love traveling. I’m often planning food experiences around the places that I travel to.
AC: At Alabama Chanin, you can often find music influencing the mood and the workflow in the studio. What is your favorite music to cook by?
AG: Music, like food, adds so much sweetness and texture to our everyday lives. My musical tastes are pretty eclectic and vary depending on my mood. The soundtrack of my life includes Leonard Cohen, k.d. Lang, Bollywood/Sufi, Prince, Ceasaria Evoria, to Willie Nelson and so many more.
AC: You seem to juggle so many diverse projects. What is on the horizon for you?
AG: I have a new web-based series of cooking classes called “Curry and Cornbread”. It is a subscription-based service that offers one new recipe per week. Curious home cooks can also purchase videos individually. It is an easy way to learn more about new cuisine and cooking techniques that is not intimidating.