A Kitchen Without Borders and Two American Chefs on the Road to India

Asha Gomez and Mary Sue Milliken discuss identity and the politics of food on a trip to Mumbai

Suman Mahfuz Quazi

Perched on top of a grotty bench in the narrow corridor that doubles up as the waiting area for Shree Thaker Bhojanalay – an iconic haunt in Mumbai that has been around since 1945 – American chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Indian-born Asha Gomez are engulfed in wonderment. Milliken’s mind seems to be oscillating between appreciating the genius of old architecture, stealing glances at the sun-kissed central courtyard of the antiquated South Mumbai building that houses the popular Gujarati restaurant and fondly reminiscing her first lunch in the city from a day before, which comprised soft dosas and piquant chutneys.  


It is here that the conversation takes a turn and suddenly the two chefs are talking about how ubiquitous dosas have become in the US. “We have something similar in Kerala called appams,” Gomez tells Milliken, gesticulating with her hands to form the bowl shape of the much-loved South Indian rice-flour-based pancake, which is also prevalent in neighbouring Sri Lanka as a hopper. “You can leave the batter to ferment, so the appams are fluffy, but I remember my mother leavening it with toddy,” Gomez informs Milliken. The duo have joined hands to help the Akshaya Patra Foundation, an NGO that runs school lunch programmes across India.


A kitchen without borders

  


Asha Gomez and Mary Sue Milliken outside The Table in Mumbai

Inquisitiveness and an unfettered love for food, however, are not the only things binding the two. Their shared vision for a more conscientious and inclusive food world, is perhaps a far stronger tether. They are headed to Delhi next, where they will be meeting with chef Sanjeev Kapoor to discuss solutions. But before they embark on the endeavour to fight hunger, Milliken and Gomez will be cooking up a storm in Mumbai at Magazine Street Kitchen, an experimental culinary space that invites chefs from across the world for sit-down dinners as part of its Guest Chef series. 



The menu here is an amalgamation of Milliken and Gomez’s culinary aesthetes, so you can expect dishes like avocado toast with savoury granola, crab salad with palm sugar lime dress, three cheese souffle and guava cheese empanada! A cuisine-agnostic spread that defies the limitations of authenticity, while simultaneously celebrating the vastness of traditional flavours. 


And so, it is surreal, witnessing so many culinary legacies converge at a single table for four—a Kerala-born American chef who earned her cache by reconciling Southern American food with South Indian sensibilities and an American chef known for her Mexican fare, are discussing the beauty and robustness of a massive thali, incidentally, made famous by Gujaratis who migrated to Mumbai many moons ago. In fact, for Gomez, who moved to the US at the age of 18, migration and home remain concepts that are deeply entwined with her food. 


New world, new rules

 

A dish from Gomez and Milliken's menu for Magazine Street Kitchen 

This comes through most visibly in (the success of) her last book, My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen. The award-winning cookbook offers a peek into 125 recipes that celebrate the American and Indian Souths with recipes like Kerala fried chicken with waffles and black cardamom smothered pork chop. It is as much a celebration of both of Gomez’s homes as it is a homage to the journey between the two.


One time, at a public event, another chef–albeit jokingly–said to Gomez, “you stole Southern food.” “It was very jarring for me and I felt like I was in a spot. But Southern America is as much my home as Southern India is. If I put a Keralite twist on a fried chicken, it’s because that’s who I am. I have two homes.”



The reclamation of native cuisines is a phenomenon manifesting itself in the rise of regional/micro cuisines across the world, which in turn, has helped bring to the fore home chefs like Gomez, or even Asma Khan of London’s Darjeeling Express. As the global foodscape evolves to include within its ambit a new clout of chefs, undiscovered cuisines are bound to gain currency. It’s impacting India, too, where housewives are turning entrepreneurs or foraying into the business of food through third party models like Authenticook and Curryful. That in turn, is rendering the restaurant culture, as we know it, redundant, helping make way for fresh formats like pop-ups, curated meals and collaboration-driven projects, slowly but surely.


And this transformation, as Gomez rightly puts it, is influenced by an altered narrative–a homemaker from a Mumbai suburb with a keen interest in Ayurveda is managing to find the courage to dabble in a food venture today, only because people are interested in eating consciously. So, at the heart of the rise of regional food or in the number of female chefs or in African-American chefs in the US taking the lead, lies what is common to anything great: Change. 


Inside images: Magazine Street Kitchen 
Banner image: Shutterstock.com

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