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A Happy Marriage of Flavors

Chef Vishwesh Bhatt expands the Southern culinary repertoire

As a child in Gujarat, India, Vishwesh Bhatt measured spices at his mother’s side. As a young man, having emigrated to the United States with his family at age 18, Bhatt followed his passion for the culinary arts and saw it blossom and bear fruit. Some 20 years ago, having planted roots anew in the American South, he found his restaurant home in Oxford, Mississippi, where John Currence, the celebrated chef-founder of the City Grocery Restaurant Group, became a close friend and mentor.

Photo: Pableaux Johnson

After working together at City Grocery, Bhatt and Currence went on to open a new spot together, Snackbar, where today, guests may enjoy Muhammara Spread, Tandoori-Spiced Fried Quail, and Hummingbird Cake with Cardamom-Black Pepper Cream Cheese Frosting. In 2019, Bhatt won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South.

In Bhatt’s first cookbook, I Am From Here, written with Sara Camp Milam, the South’s ever-evolving food culture is on vibrant display. “I want the food of my childhood, the flavors I grew up with, to become a part of the Southern culinary repertoire — just like tamales, lasagna, and kibbeh have become,” Bhatt writes. He relishes the commonalities between Indian and American Southern ingredients — such as black-eyed peas, peanuts, and all manner of greens — and happily marries flavors from both culinary traditions. The result illustrates beautifully the comfort Bhatt has found in Southern kitchens and breaks new ground in the “Southern cookbook” genre.

“When I hear two chefs discuss the virtues of Virginia peanuts over Georgia ones,” writes Bhatt in the book’s introduction, “I remember my father talking with his brothers about why he likes the peanuts from Bharuch more than the ones from Surendranagar.”

His recipes are arranged by ingredient, beginning with rice and including chapters on peas and beans, okra, tomatoes, eggplant, corn, potatoes, peanuts, greens, shrimp, catfish, chicken, and pork and lamb. (Note: no beef here.) There’s plenty for vegetarians to love, but a bounty of delights for omnivores as well.

To get the most out of I Am From Here, a home cook will first want to stock up on some essential Indian pantry items, which Bhatt helpfully arranges in a shopping list, including ajwain seeds, asafoetida, fenugreek seeds, and others. (All can be found at Indian markets or online.) He provides recipes for chaat masala and garam masala, spice blends called for in many of the dishes, as well as instructions for making ghee, or clarified butter, which also shows up frequently.

Once these staples are stocked and prepped, recipes like Grown-up Stir-Fried Rice, Slow-cooked Okra with Garam Masala and Yogurt, and Peanut Curry are within easy reach. But there are also many dishes collected here that fall toward the traditional end of the Southern culinary spectrum, such as Cornmeal-Fried Catfish and Jambalaya, or nod to other foodways and friends of Bhatt’s, such as Kung Pao Catfish and Seon’s Chicken Ramen. Is there a recipe for Mississippi’s beloved Comeback Sauce in these pages? Reader, there is — and here, as in other recipes involving mayonnaise, Bhatt prefers Duke’s.

I paged through the book hungrily, wondering what we might try first. Crispy Smashed New Potatoes with Lime, Cilantro, and Spices? Yum. Savory Black-Eyed Pea Griddle Cakes? Yum! But someone in my family — who, ahem, does the lion’s share of the cooking — is rather “tight with the pig,” as his Carolina-bred dad might put it, so I suggested we first give Bhatt’s Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Tandoori spices a whirl. In a helpful “What Should I Make?” index of recipes listed by occasion — including cocktail party bites, brunch, weeknight quick fixes, and other groupings — this dish is listed under “Grill and Chill,” and thus seemed suitable for a Thursday night dinner on our screen porch.

My husband whipped up the tandoori blend, then marinated the tenderloin in yogurt overnight; it came off the grill delectably tender and delicately spiced enough to be a hit with our teenager. We served it with Bhatt’s Coal-Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Rosemary-Chili Lime Butter, because I love anything sweet potato, and that butter concoction sounded amazing. I came in the house as Todd was simmering the infused butter and encountered the most incredible fresh scent. Rosemary and lime, oh my! I would wear this as a perfume. And you better believe I loved every bite of sweet potatoes slathered in it.

After this resounding first success, I suspect we’ll return to the multitude of options offered in I Am From Here again and again, as a surefire way to brighten up summer vegetables and a much-needed escape from the usual flavor-profile comfort zone. Ever drawn to the sweet potatoes, I’m looking forward to trying Bhatt’s Sweet Potato and Peanut Salad, which he promises “will become your new favorite picnic item.” And I’m already hoping for a getaway, sooner or later, to his homebase, Snackbar.

A Happy Marriage of Flavors

Susannah Felts is a writer based in Nashville. She is a columnist for BookPage, and her writing has appeared in The Best American Science and Nature WritingJoylandOxford AmericanGuernicaLiterary Hub, and elsewhere.