On a Year of Being Brown in the South
A few months ago, I sat across from Meherwan Irani at the original location of Chai Pani in Asheville. His words echo in my head — “we just set out to have a place where we could have chai and street foods.” Nine years later, he commands a small empire over two cities. I’ve got immense gratitude for him taking the time to hang out and chat with me as I sift through the madness of growing Tuk Tuk. I wouldn’t have him as a mentor if it weren’t for Brown in the South.
The last year has been a whirlwind, started by a decision to buy a 10x10 tent on a whim. I get calls wondering where my food truck is (it doesn’t exist) or what hours I’m open (I’m a pop up oriented business) and the confused reaction to my business’s home base is always entertaining. The success and curiosity is partially fueled by a group of chefs that treat me like family. My rudimentary kitchen is built and broken down on a nightly basis; it is not a massive restaurant, hole in the wall or a hip new bar. By fate, work, good fortune or a combination thereof, my year was greatly enhanced because of a community I never expected to be a part of, one that has become a source of fortitude, creativity and stability in a time where my life seems to be flying at light speed.
Let’s rewind a moment.
A bit over a year ago, I got an odd and unexpected text message from a friend of mine saying that a notable gourmand was in town, looking for me and my nonexistent restaurant. I had no idea who he was, but everyone in the local culinary scene seemed to know everything about him (and every movement he made that week). The stars didn’t align on his trip, and he was unable to visit my little tent, but we connected on Twitter.
A few Google searches and head slaps later, I remained perplexed as to why John T. Edge was hunting for my tent. I read up on the Southern Foodways Association and a few days later, they announced the Brown in the South dinner series, chock full of talent that I’ve admired from afar for years. The inaugural dinner was the day after a big pop up and a six hour drive away, but John T. got me sorted to attend in Atlanta. Armed with two hours of sleep, a bundle of nerves and a lot of caffeine, I headed to Chai Pani Decatur and was totally overwhelmed when I stepped through the doors.
When someone uproots to go halfway around the world, they’re bringing their A game, and the Brown in the South chefs are one of the clearest examples I’ve ever seen of that mentality. I walked into Meherwan Irani’s Decatur domain and was greeted by freshly fried bhel puri, cocktails infused with flavors from my parents’ home and the aroma of toasted spices. The entire place was buzzing; notable folks from all walks and industries were gathered for a meal that represented homes that were not mutually exclusive.
I tucked into a meat and three that an aunty would approve of, scarfed fried chicken and grits that felt just as South Asian as they did Southern, and warmed up with hot chocolate laced with rose, cardamom and familiarity. I watched this group of powerhouse chefs proudly represent their cultures — both Southern and Indian — with so much thought and pride. I saw cuisine that was the gold standard of what I wanted to do: a translation of my homeland and my hometown.
I didn’t think the adoption of South Asian Southern cuisine was possible on such a scale, but I left Atlanta motivated and incredibly encouraged… likely due in no small part to a well timed and hard-hitting Maneet Chauhan pep talk. At the time, I was contemplating my spot in the culinary scene of Kentucky, and questioning if continuing was a viable or sensible option. After talking with Maneet that night, it became clear there was no other option (nor would she accept one). Add in a super sweet chat with Asha Gomez, a brief discussion of all things Lexington (and Kentucky Wildcats) with Vishwesh Bhatt, and the realization that Cheetie Kumar also had a foot in the rock ’n' roll world that defined my 20’s, I finally felt comfortable with the idea I could represent my home my way.
At the end of the night, I was fangirling pretty hard over the whole experience, babbling to anyone within earshot (my first words to my husband when he picked me up were “I didn’t barf on my shoes!!!”). I pledged to myself that I would go to the next Brown in the South dinner regardless of timing and location, because the feeling in that room left me so fulfilled and ready to tackle recipe development and a newly booked pop up dinner series. I focused on translating through cuisine, because I saw what was possible when it was so openly embraced. I developed familiar dishes for a brief pop up stint with West Main Crafting Company — turmeric and fenugreek deviled eggs, fluffy dhal fritters and jaggery cakes topped with bourbon coconut cream. Random food ideas were suddenly recipes in development — I’d spike biscuits with turmeric and black pepper, tomato gravy with cinnamon and cardamom.
By March, I had a message from Vish asking if I wanted to join the lineup for the next iteration of the dinner, along with fellow upstart and MasterChef contender Farhan Momin. The initial shock was tempered by nerves and uncertainty, as I worried that the group wouldn’t want to adopt a total newbie into the fold. We are all South Asian, but our cuisines have a variation in technique and preparation despite their common roots. Add in the fact that I’m new to culinary scenes and routines and it was a perfect recipe for anxiety.
My concerns were completely unfounded. More on that another time, but suffice to say, the gratitude I have for learning to culinarily embrace being Sri Lankan and Southern is everlasting. I think a lot about how much just having these chefs as an ear has changed my perspective on possibility, and hope that my inclusion into their fold can encourage more folks to take a plunge and follow their passion.