Heritage shouldn’t be a handcuff when it comes to creativity in the kitchen

Nikhita Venugopal

THE WASHINGTON POST – Asha Gomez has seen this happen time and again.

The cookbook author and chef has lived in the United States (US) for 35 years, but when Gomez is asked to contribute a recipe to a food publication, it’s almost always for a dish from her native India.

“We’re going to ask Nigella Lawson for a Kerala chicken curry or vegetable curry, but you won’t ask me for a recipe that comes out of Europe?” she said.

“It’s a type of microaggression against me as a chef. Why would you think I’m not capable of that?”

Through her new cookbook, I Cook in Color (Running Press, 2020), Gomez is pushing far beyond the borders of any one country or state. Her passport stamp to Italy turned into a rustic seared quail ragu with piccante frantumato.

Chickpeas and pomegranate molasses from the Persian market in Atlanta, where she has lived for 20 years, form the foundation of an Iranian fesenjan. Takeout-style Singapore noodles perfected during college days in Queens find their place in the book, as does Vietnamese pho, blackened catfish tacos and sambar with turnip, eggplant and butternut squash.

She weaves personal memories and anecdotes of family, friends and food with recipes that challenge the barriers built around her and the food she is expected to cook.

“As an immigrant chef, I get locked into cooking the food of my ancestral kitchen because that’s all that is expected of me,” Gomez, 50, said in an interview. “Tradition does not hold my feet to the fire and make me afraid of innovation.”

Colourful Roasted Vegetables. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

And innovate she does. She uses coconut milk instead of cream in her take on a sticky-toffee pudding, and pandan leaves – often used in Southeast Asian cooking – bring a brightness to the classic dessert sauce.

Gomez doesn’t eschew Indian flavours, but she offers them on her own terms. She sprinkles mustard and cumin seeds over thick-cut vegetables, then roasts them and drizzles with honey. Tandoori masala finds its way to a crawfish boil and leaves a crimson stain in the butter sauce.

“It was about the way I cook in my kitchen today,” said Gomez, who spoke to The Washington Post in phone and email interviews. “On any given night, you’re in Thailand, or in my mother’s kitchen in Kerala making fish head curry, or in the south of France.”

In her first book, My Two Souths, released in 2016, Gomez embraced the boundaries of the southern Indian state of Kerala and the American South to understand the culinary connections between two places she calls home.

In that book, she writes of growing up in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, surrounded by extended family in a community fondly called Carmel Compound, after her maternal grandmother. There, she watched her mother and three aunts in the kitchen. “Under the tutelage of these loving women, I absorbed lessons in preparing traditional, coastal Keralan fare,” Gomez wrote.

At 15, she moved to the US, first to New York and later to Atlanta. “The fact that my last name is Gomez from Portuguese influences, that I grew up with no taboos against eating meat and that I’m from a Christian community that can trace its history all the way back to St Thomas the Apostle, speaks to an intersectionality and diversity in my background that many in the US were not familiar with,” she said in an email.

In Atlanta, she ran an ayurvedic spa, where she served her Keralan home cooking to clients after their appointments. In 2012, she opened her own restaurant, the acclaimed Cardamom Hill, a precursor to the style of cooking she would later write about in My Two Souths.

Two-and-a-half years later, she closed its doors, and now she focusses her attention on her kitchen studio, The Third Space, for culinary pop-ups and custom dinners.

Gomez is among many chefs of colour who have pursued a greater understanding of their family’s food in a culinary journey. But when recognition of expertise assumes an inextricable bind to ethnic identity, food can stifle more than it can free.

When chef and writer Jenny Dorsey was in culinary school, she requested a fine-dining restaurant such as Per Se or Jean-Georges for her externship.

Her adviser, however, returned with several names but only one in fine dining – Annisa, the now-shuttered Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan owned by Chinese American chef Anita Lo.

“Annisa is a lovely restaurant. I would have been happy to work there. But it was literally the only fine-dining restaurant that they came back with as an option,” Dorsey said.

“I’m Chinese American, and I happen to want to work in fine dining. But to an outsider, whether that was my career adviser at culinary school or the other chefs I interact with, those two things are always together.”

Cookbook author Nik Sharma, who moved from Mumbai to the US, has felt that burden from readers in both India and the US, an assumption that tethers him to his upbringing whether he asks for it or not. When his first book, Season, was released, Sharma recalled a reviewer wondering why he had not used the Indian word ‘kachumber’ in describing a simple recipe for a cumin-cucumber salad.

“At the end of the day, I’m someone who has grown up in India and then moved to America as an adult. I was never bound by these rules in India and most certainly not going to let those rules bind me here,” said Sharma, who recently released his second cookbook, The  Flavour Equation.

This summer, food media such as Bon Appétit were forced to confront the tokenising, typecasting and erasure that Black and Brown employees and freelancers face at exceedingly White publications.

That discrimination extends to stereotypes heaped upon chefs of colouledge, while White chefs are given a pass to cherry-pick at cultures.

Both Dorsey and Gomez said change cannot be a reality unless people of coluor shape the narrative themselves, on boards, committees and in roles of leadership. “I feel like so many people had similar experiences to me, feeling really, really maligned in the food industry, feeling poorly represented, misrepresented, underrepresented, mischaracterised, pigeonholed,” Dorsey said.

“It wasn’t something that was talked about enough or collectively understood as part of the food consciousness of America.”

Recently, several Black chefs and chefs of colour, including Gomez, spoke out against another longtime gatekeeper of American food, John Edge.

Edge was criticised for his continued leadership of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organisation that hinges on Black stories but has employed few Black staff or appointed few Black board members.

For Gomez, silence is no longer an option, and that includes uncomfortable conversations to correct years of harmful assumptions.

On Food Network competition shows, for example, she has noticed that an immigrant chef deciding to stew or braise a cut of meat will be routinely told the meat has been cooked too long.

“Well, guess what, for 5,000 years we’ve been stewing our meat,” she said. “You don’t get to cancel out my culture. You don’t get to tell me, ‘Well that’s not the right way.’ “

COLOURFUL ROASTED VEGETABLES

Active time: 25 minutes | Total time: 50 minutes

Six to eight servings

Chef Asha Gomez loves a colourful platter of roasted vegetables and fruits. A self-proclaimed produce geek, Gomez likes to linger in the produce section and the farmers market, reveling in the rich colors and textures. This recipe combines some of her favourite produce, but you can customise the platter, as well as seasonings, according to your taste.

Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to four days.

Where to Buy: Black mustard seeds can be found in Indian markets, many pan-Asian supermarkets or online.

INGREDIENTS

One small (two-pound) pineapple, peeled and cut into quarter-inch slices

Two sweet potatoes (one pound eight ounces total), peeled and sliced into quarter-inch circles

Two medium beets (one pound total), peeled and sliced into quarter-inch circles

Six small vine-ripened tomatoes, on the vine (about one pound total)

One large fennel bulb (eight ounces), cut into quarter-inch slices

Eight ounces mini multicoloured sweet peppers

Half cup extra-virgin olive oil

Two teaspoons fine sea salt

Two teaspoons granulated sugar

Two teaspoons cumin seeds

One teaspoon black mustard seeds (optional; may substitute yellow mustard seeds)

One cup full-fat Greek yoghurt

Quarter cup honey

DIRECTIONS

Position three racks in the upper, centre and lower sections of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

Line three large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper, and spread the fruits and vegetables across them. (Keep all the ingredients in one layer, if possible.)

Drizzle the olive oil and sprinkle the salt, sugar, cumin seeds and mustard seeds, if using, evenly over everything. Roast for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes and beets are fork tender.

Swoosh the Greek yoghurt on one end of a large serving platter. Place the beets on the yogurt and arrange the rest of the fruits and vegetables on the platter. Drizzle with the honey and serve warm or at room temperature.

NUTRITION

(Based on eight servings)| Calories: 363; Total Fat: 16g; Saturated Fat: 3g; Cholesterol: 4mg; Sodium: 699mg; Carbohydrates: 53g; Dietary Fibre: 7g; Sugar: 32g; Protein: 7g.