On the introductory page of “I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef,” it reads “This cookbook thoughtfully, and persuasively, expands notions of what it means to be, and cook like, a Southerner today.”
Throughout the cookbook, Vishwesh Bhatt refers to himself frequently and proudly as a Southerner. A native of Gujarat, India, Bhatt later moved to the United States where he’s become a standout culinary mind, known for his excellent dishes at Snackbar in Oxford, Miss., where he is executive chef. As a foreigner who’s also made her home in Mississippi, I think often about what makes someone Southern. It’s a descriptor people born and raised here are proud of, but is it a birthright? When do you get to adopt that moniker for yourself if you’re of a place, but not from it?
So I had to ask him — what makes someone a Southern chef? Bhatt paused for a second before responding it was a question he’s not sure he can answer. He said he learned how to cook in the South. He chose to become a chef here and learned from Southern chefs. He’s made a home and a community for himself in Oxford.
“This is the place that influences what I do. This is the place where people come and eat what I cooked, and it is the South and so therefore, I’m a Southern chef,” Bhatt told Mississippi Today.
“The idea that after living here for so long, I still have to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ And then, you know, I say I’m from Oxford, and then the follow up question is ‘No, where are you really from?’ So that’s why the title, if that makes sense. Yeah, I moved here from somewhere else, but I’m here now.”
My main takeaway from “I Am From Here,” is that food is not static, something Bhatt reminded me of when we spoke. Before our interview, I set out to make a vegetable plate like you’d find at meat-and-three restaurants across Mississippi, but with dishes from his book.
I settled on Stewed Gujarati-Style Black Eyed Peas, Spicy Potato Mash, Not Your Mama’s Cornbread, and Kashimiri-Style Collards (Haaq). The surprising star of the meal was dessert, Mr. Buzendahl’s Green Tomato Pie. It was flavored just like a traditional apple pie, but substituted the fruit with fresh unripe green tomatoes.
The dishes all turned out well, and though they were flavored with things like curry leaves, ginger and turmeric, it still felt unquestionably like I was sitting down to eat a Southern plate.
“I grew up eating okra and greens and stuff. And when I came here I was like, well, that’s not how you eat it,” Bhatt said. To him, food is “ … always evolving and changing. You can have the same ingredients in many different places and work with them very differently. And that’s okay. And it can all still be just as delicious, just as important.”
To use “I Am From Here” is to rediscover cooking. You can tell flipping through the pages of this cookbook that Bhatt has a deep respect for food. Many of his recipes call for small extra steps that ultimately produce a more tasty dish. Whether it be “blooming” whole spices in oil, or setting a pot full of basmati rice and water on the stove for 15 minutes before turning on the heat to produce a “fluffier result,” taking the time to make sure individual ingredients shine is worth it.
Rather than organize the book by meal — breakfast, lunch, etc. — he organizes it by ingredient. Bhatt says this is because so much of his cooking focuses on fresh, seasonal produce.
In all, 130 recipes fuse meals from his childhood with ingredients and dishes he’s learned along the way in homes and restaurants across the South. Take, for example, the pickled okra two ways — one with vinegar as it’s served in Bloody Marys at City Grocery in Oxford, and Gujarati style, the way he grew up where vegetables are steeped in oil and spices to achieve a similar effect but different flavor profile.
But of course, the book is not just a book about food. It’s, in a way, a guidebook to foster conversation and connection with new people.
In the introductory pages of the book, Bhatt outlines the many spices and ingredients commonly used in the recipes to come. But for so many of them — from tangy, garlicky asafoetida to the bright, punchy Kashmiri chili powder, he includes where to find them. This is helpful in a place like Mississippi where specialty grocery stores and the people who run them are not always well known.
This was intentional, Bhatt says.
“These people who run the Indian grocery store are part of the community, same as the people who have the little taco shop where you can go buy chilis,” he said. “Unless we start interacting with them, they’re always going to be the other. And so the idea is, hey, these people might be your neighbors, you don’t know them. Unless you go in that store then you’ll realize, oh, that’s the guy that lives three doors down from me.”
Yes, it’s an expectation that immigrants attempt to assimilate into the communities they come to call home, he said, “but as somebody who’s been here a while, we also need to make an effort to make people feel welcome. To bring them into the fold and learn about them.”
This place — the South, much like where he grew in India, has a lot of social issues, he said. Prejudices and preconceived notions keep people from getting to know each other, and it can be awkward and difficult to discuss the ugly parts of history responsible for the inequality that exists today.
“We are still very far from being a society that treats people equally and gives people credit or respect for just being themselves,” he said.
Now 56, Bhatt continued: “What I’ve come to realize is that I can’t really wait any longer for people to interact with me or acknowledge me. I’m just going to say that I’m here.”
Differences in opinion or beliefs are solvable if people are willing to have a conversation, he said. What better way to start one than through a meal?
“The only way I know how to talk about it is through food — like okay, here’s what we eat. Here’s what it comes from. You know, let’s start that conversation.”
What should people take away from “I Am From Here?” That cooking is easy, and a great way to get to know people.
Bhatt, 2019 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, is a featured panelist at the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 20. His cookbook goes on sale Aug. 16.