The immigrant tale is part of the American dream, a story that can naturally be told with food. The Brown in the South dinner series that kicked off its inaugural event in Atlanta on Sunday, Jan. 14 is the brainchild of Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C., and Decatur, Ga., who teamed up with the Southern Foodways Alliance, a scholarly organization dedicated to documenting and exploring the diversity of the changing American South, to tell his modern immigrant story.
Irani began with a simple question: Would there be a time that these Indian chefs would consider themselves less as Indians who lived and worked in the South and more as Southerners who happened to be of Indian descent?
Chefs Maneet Chauhan (Nashville), Asha Gomez (Atlanta), Cheetie Kumar (Raleigh) and Vishwesh Bhatt (Oxford, Miss.) came together to present a dinner that reframes the story of the new South, as SFA director John T. Edge told the assembled crowd. He said this was a group of active Southerners, people who chose to live in the South. "Immigrants who came here to claim this place. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. day, think of this night as you step into your day tomorrow, think of these active Southerners."
A lively and diverse mix of SFA members came in from Nashville, New Orleans, Raleigh and Charleston to join Atlantans at this dinner, which plied diners with multiple courses showcasing local ingredients and Indian spices.
Sometimes it was a Southern dish with an Indian twist, like the spiced fried chicken served on an uttapam (a pancake-like bread) from Asha Gomez, and other times it was a total reinvention of a classic as in the fish puppies from Raleigh's Cheetie Kumar, whose fritters using Pamlico Sound trout topped with a savory combination of chutneys and picacalilli (Indian pickle) tartar sauce were a standout of the menu for both their deliciousness and inventiveness.
At the end of the night, traditional Southern food would never be the same again for those that got to eat the heavily-spiced Indian versions of our classic dishes like shrimp and grits from Irani, meatloaf from Vish Bhatt and an inventive take on black-eyed peas and collards in crispy black-eyed peas and almonds with gingery cabbage and collards from Cheetie Kumar.
The parade of flavors was tantalizing and ended with an unforgettable sip of garam masala hot chocolate.
The chefs have plans to continue this dinner series, moving it throughout the South to the participating chefs' restaurants. For more information and to stay up to date, keep your eye on www.southernfoodwaysalliance.com.