People: From Here, There and Everywhere
James Beard Award winner, VISHWESH BHATT, is a fine example of the magic that happens when a person, especially a chef, exudes cosmopolitan vibes without ever disowning native pride.
[Left] Bhatt bagged the coveted James Beard Award for “Best Chef: South,” a well-deserved recognition for his passion for exploring flavors. (Photo: Galdones Photography; courtesy James Beard Foundation)
On the occasion of his new book, I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from A Southern Chef, we chat with this culinary star who has carved a niche for himself by deftly infusing the food sensibilities of his Gujarati background into the cuisine of the American South.
Sometimes, world events can light a fire that compels an award-winning busy chef to make his dinner table larger than his restaurant. Something similar inspired Chef Vishwesh Bhatt to write his debut cookbook, I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef.
Bhatt believes that the current climate necessitates that immigrants stand up and tell their stories. He adds, “If we are not telling our stories, it is difficult to complain about being overlooked or acknowledged—especially if we are not putting our stories out there. It is not easy to do it—you may have to fight for it, but it is important to put yourself out there and be heard.”
His cookbook unapologetically embraces the duality of his Southern and Indian identities. “At his restaurant, Snackbar, dal and chapatis meet collard greens and potato chips,” reads the tagline of a Wall Street Journal article on him.
But Bhatt’s sensibilities transcend limiting definitions as he embraces a more global outlook for his culinary creations. In this book, we see where his true inspiration lies. It is replete with beautiful memories of meals with his friends such as Ezme, a Turkish Tomato Salad, that he first ate at a friend’s house; an Afghan-style Spinach with Dill & Cilantro from an Afghani friend’s home; alongside a Punjabi-style Catfish inspired by street vendors in Amritsar and his conversations with the celebrated chef Maneet Chauhan of Nashville, Tennessee.
[Right] A widely celebrated chef, Bhatt has quite a fan following. (Photo: Facebook.com/SnackbarOxford)
An avid traveler, Bhatt’s Instagram (@kissmybhatt) is brimming with snapshots that rouse his interest, celebrating local flavors and people at every turn. Bhatt hopes that in the future, he can explore Portugal, North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico City, Brazil, the Caribbean, and some other regions for inspiration for his menu.
I Am From Here offers us an insightful look into the mind and kitchen of a generous-hearted food lover who happens to be an award-winning chef.
Bhatt’s passion and innovation have helped him make his restaurant, Snackbar, a coveted upscale destination in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo: Facebook.com/SnackbarOxford)
Bhatt’s culinary journey started early in his life. Growing up in Gujarat, India, Bhatt was happiest in the kitchen. Always surrounded by family members who showed him his way around spices, ingredients, and techniques, his childhood memories are replete with tasty reminders of Gujarati food.
But when a Delhi-based family friend cooked Chhole Bhature for Bhatt’s Gujarati palette, he was immediately enamored with the flavors and textures of this popular Punjabi plate. When a trip to Mumbai led him to Khyber Restaurant, he fell in love with paper-thin Rumali Roti, as delicate as a handkerchief. He became intrigued by regional Indian cuisines and that kindled his lifelong pursuit of flavor.
At 17, Bhatt migrated to Texas with his parents in 1985. He later enrolled at the University of Mississippi in a Master’s program. He would occasionally work at a local cafe. His family eventually settled in Oxford, Mississippi. But his love of food encouraged him to attend culinary school in Miami.
After moving back to Oxford in 2002, he began working with City Grocery Restaurant Group (CGRG). In the next few years, he teamed up with CGRG and opened Snackbar which has become not only a local landmark but has attracted several nominations for the James Beard Award. Ten years after he opened, Bhatt bagged the coveted James Beard Award for “Best Chef: South,” a well-deserved recognition for his passion for exploring flavors.
After more than two decades of professional cooking and a lifetime of learning, he feels his flavors now come easily. For him, cooking is a relaxing exercise where intuition meets whatever is readily available. Throughout his cookbook, a reader sees how Bhatt’s recipes are inspired by his childhood, his travels, and the kitchens of his family and friends.
He weaves in plenty of anecdotes, especially around learning to eat meat after he was raised as a vegetarian. But he also observes, “We get comfortable with three-four blends, we throw around Garam Masala a lot, [but] there is more to it.” To that end, he has included several regional Indian dishes, such as Parsi-style Sweet, Sour, and Spicy Shrimp; Ahmedabad street-style Grilled Chicken; and Braised Pork Shanks, a Kerela-based dish from Chef Asha Gomez’s repertoire. It is made with coconut milk and Malabar Spice (a product from Spicewalla, a line that he created in collaboration with Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani).
A couple of Bhatt’s many signature creations: Punjabi-style Fried Catfish and Lemon & Rosemary Ghee Jumbo Shrimp (Photo: Facebook.com/SnackbarOxford)
A quiet family dinner at home with his wife is often a one-pot dish, a stew, or a braise and a loaf of crusty bread with a bottle of wine. His go-to comfort food is Khitchidi, the second recipe in a large cookbook, or a Sunday Daal that he learned from his father. It tells readers his roots are firmly in India. While he does love his desi spices, Bhatt is just as comfortable with any version of Khitchidi like risotto or something else. With his appreciation of global flavors, he is at ease with parallels, accepting them all: both people as well as the flavors they claim as their own.
Bhatt believes that food is meant to be shared. At home, he often cooks with his wife, but neighbors and friends join in frequently. He says they seldom plan everything down to the last detail. Instead, they engage in freeform cooking, where everyone pitches in and builds a meal. A huge proponent of seasonal produce, he insists on only purchasing seasonal domestic produce, and only purchases meat as needed. Bhatt’s nuanced food memories guide his hand in the kitchen, and it shows in every engaging headnote that ties old food memories to what is available in one’s favorite marketplace.
In the restaurant, Bhatt is inspired by the work of folks like the late Floyd Cardoz, Norman Van Aken, Ben Barker, Frank Staple, John Currents, Ashley Christenson, and others who have shaped his work ethic.
With its soul-filled perspective on how culinary styles evolve over time while still translating layers of life experiences, I Am From Here is pivotal in the culinary space as an iconic cookbook that celebrates immigrant narratives and cuisines. It is not just another cookbook containing a mix of Indian and fusion cuisine. Nor is it just the debut cookbook of an award-winning celebrity chef. This is a book for those of us who keep cookbooks on our nightstands and enjoy reading them for their detailed headnotes that transport us into kitchens, dinner tables, and markets across the world. It is for readers who not only love to cook but want to learn about a chef’s inspiration and creativity. Bhatt shows that like the Indian masala dabba, it isn’t always a set of spices that make a dish. It is about where and how it all comes together into your life that makes it memorable.
More importantly, I Am From Here carries a message far greater than its collection of dozens of mouthwatering recipes, more nuanced than the weights and measures of the ingredients, and more detailed than the cooking instructions. Bhatt encourages readers to take a critical look at not only one’s roots but also how we grow as a community. He emphasizes, “Be proud of where you came from. Make yourself comfortable in the place you are now, claim it, embrace it, be an active citizen. It matters. Otherwise, you always end up being a foreigner. Explore. Don’t be afraid to explore flavor. . . most of the time, the journey of exploration leads to something fun.”
Nandita Godbole is an Atlanta- and Los Angeles-based author of many cookbooks and a food-novel. Her upcoming cookbook, Masaleydaar: Classic Indian Spice Blends is due out in December 2022. Her work has been featured on Healthline, Epicurious, Washington Post, Thrillist, Eater, The Boston Globe, Atlanta’s NPR/ WABE, Forbes, CNN, CondeNast, BBC-Future, NBC, NBC-Asian America, and others.
Sweet Potato Turnovers
With Cardamom and Black Pepper
Recipe excerpted from I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef by Vishwesh Bhatt.
Makes 12 turnovers; serves 6 for dessert
Ingredients for the sweet potato filling:
- 3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1” inch cubes
- ¼ cup ghee (store-bought or homemade)
- ¾ cup seedless raisins
- 1½ tablespoons cracked black pepper (These should be fairly large pieces—you can achieve this texture by cracking black peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or with the back of a spoon.)
- ¾ teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed (Crush enough green cardamom pods to yield ¾ teaspoon seeds—4 to 5 pods. Then, crush the seeds themselves with a mortar and pestle.)
- 4 tablespoons cane sugar crystals, divided (You want a sugar with crystals that are larger than granulated sugar. This can be coarse sugar, sanding sugar, or turbinado.)
(Photo: courtesy W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)
Ingredients for the dough:
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3½ to 4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for dusting
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
- 4 cups plus 6 tablespoons neutral oil, such as peanut or canola, divided
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- To make the filling, in a medium bowl, toss the sweet potatoes with the ghee. Spread them out in a single layer on the prepared sheet pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until cooked through.
- While the potatoes are cooking, put the raisins in a small bowl and add enough water to cover them. Soak for 20 minutes to plump, then drain.
- When the potatoes are done, return them to the bowl. Toss immediately with black pepper, cardamom, raisins, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Mash the mixture lightly with the back of a spoon. Allow to cool to room temperature. The filling can be made up to a day ahead; allow it to cool completely before storing in a covered container in the refrigerator.
- To make the dough, dissolve the salt in 1 cup warm water; set aside. Combine the flour, pepper, and fennel seeds in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well blended. Continue to pulse the flour mixture while slowly adding 6 tablespoons oil through the feed tube. Remove the lid and scrape down the sides of the food processor. Cover again and, with the motor running, slowly add the salt water through the feed tube until the dough comes together. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough (moisten your hands if necessary) until it is smooth. Shapeinto a ball or disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for 10 to 15 minutes or up to overnight in the refrigerator.
- Divide the chilled dough into 12 equal portions, each slightly smaller than a golf ball. Roll out one portion at a time on a lightly floured surface nto a 5-inch circle. Spoon 2 to 3 tablespoons filling in the middle of the circle. Fold the dough in half over the filling to make a semicircle and crimp the edges with a fork to seal. Repeat the process with the remaining portions of dough, until you have 12 turnovers.
- Heat 4 cups oil to 350°F in a cast-iron skillet, Dutch oven, or electric fryer. If you don’t have a deep-fry thermometer, drop in a scrap of dough to test the temperature. If it sizzles and floats to he top, your oil is ready. If it sinks to the bottom of the pot, the oil still needs to heat up more.
- While the oil is heating, line a sheet pan with paper towels and place it near the stove or fryer.
- Once the oil is ready, carefully add three or four turnovers, depending on the size of your pot or fryer. If the pot is too crowded, it will bring down the temperature of the oil, resulting in soggy, undercooked turnovers. Watch the turnovers as they fry, carefully turning them with a slotted spoon until they are golden brown on both sides. If you see that the crust is burning, your oil is too hot, and you need to reduce the heat slightly. Carefully remove the turnovers and place on the prepared sheet pan. Sprinkle with some of the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. When all of the turnovers from the first batch are finished, let the oil temperature return to 350°F before adding more. Serve hot or at room temperature.
- Note: If you do not want to deep-fry, you could place the turnovers on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake them in a 375°F oven for about 15 minutes, until golden. The flavors will be just as good, but the crust will not have the same texture.
(Copyright © 2022 by Vishwesh Bhatt. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.)
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