As in the Indian tradition, theirs was an arranged partnership that resulted in a wonderful friendship. Asha Gomez is a restaurant owner in Atlanta who has received critical acclaim for her Indian twist on classic Southern dishes. Martha Hall Foose is a Greenwood resident and a 2009 James Beard Foundation Award winner for American Cooking. Together, they collaborated on My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen, which has already received rave reviews in The New York Times.
The first “south” in the book is Asha’s native Kerala, the Indian state on the Arabian Sea. She learned to grind and combine spices in her family’s kitchen. The second “south” is Atlanta, where she was introduced to such Southern delicacies as stone ground grits, peaches and country ham.
Asha’s first visit to the United States was when she was 13 years old. “Our family went to Lansing, Michigan, to enroll my twin brothers into Michigan State University,” she explains. “We stayed for six months to make sure they were settled in. I was in the eighth grade, and I went to school in Lansing.” For the next few years, Asha traveled with her family back to Lansing every six months to visit her brothers. After her father’s untimely death when Asha was 16, her mother moved the family to Queens, New York, where she lived for the next 14 years.
Asha married and moved to Atlanta in 2000. “We’re no longer married,” she said, “but we are best of friends.” The couple’s son, Ethan, is now 11 years old.
Always interested in health and beauty, Asha ran an Ayurvedic spa in Atlanta where every treatment ended with a meal she cooked. The spa closed in 2008, but her clients began asking how to get her food again. “I began doing pop-up supper clubs that grew to 200 people.” Because of that popularity, Asha opened Cardamom Hill, a restaurant in Atlanta, in 2012. The restaurant was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation 2013 award for Best New Restaurant and made the Bon Appetit Top 50 Best New Restaurants list. She closed that restaurant in 2014 and opened Spice to Table, “Indian pastisserie.”
“What I realized at Cardamom Hill was the American palate had become extremely refined and open to these amazing flavors,” says Asha. “They don’t want a dumbed-down version of foods from other countries.” She began connecting the dots between Southern dishes and Indian dishes. “I looked at port cities like New Orleans, which is very much like the port city where I’m from in southern India. There is an abundance of seafood and foreign influences.”
Asha began creating a new cuisine that is a combination of who she is as a person and the places she’s called home. “This food is a part of my story. For example, when I moved to Georgia, I tasted peaches for the first time. My first thought was that I wanted to make a chutney with them.”
She’ll correct anyone who calls her food fusion. “My food is about how I’ve grown as a person: the kitchens I’ve eaten in, the two Souths I’ve called home, life experiences I’ve had, my evolution as a mother or as caregiver. What I put on a plate is the sum total of my life experiences.”
When contacted by a literary cookbook agent in New York about producing a cookbook, Asha said she didn’t have any experience in the cookbook-writing realm. “The agent brought in Martha, a seasoned cookbook author, and we hit it off.”
“Asha burst onto the culinary scene,” says Martha. “She came upon it in such a unique way, cooking meals for her spa patrons.” In doing the book, Martha drove to Atlanta and ate everything in Asha’s restaurant. “I mean everything! It was simple, elegant food, not fussy.” The pair worked on the recipes and stories for the book for over a year. “Asha has some amazing stories, like the time her mother invited Mother Teresa in and served her a fresh tomato juice cocktail (recipe in the book). Mother Teresa then took Asha with her to plant a neem tree.”
Martha says the book also includes stories of Asha buying prawns on the beach of the Arabian Sea and going to the farmer’s markets in Atlanta. “One of the things I love about Asha is how she values friendships with the people at the markets. She gets to know them and she supports their efforts.”
The recipes in the book are not intimidating, according to Martha. “It’s a good starter course on Indian cooking.” The Southern dishes are recognizable, yet Asha adds a twist to add an Indian flavor. “There are recipes for roasted chicken with mint,” says Martha. “And there’s a hoe cake recipe that calls for ginger. They are just really fun combinations.”