$20 Dinner with Asha Gomez 

Cardamom Hill's chef cooks up a life's worth of flavor on a budget

SOUTH BY SOUTH INDIA: Chef Asha Gomez prepares to cook a meal full of memories.

James Camp

SOUTH BY SOUTH INDIA: Chef Asha Gomez prepares to cook a meal full of memories.

Chefs hate the word fusion. Describe their food as inspired, informed, or influenced by certain traditions — anything but the f-word.

For chef Asha Gomez, who was born and raised in southwest India's Kerala region, the story behind her cross-cultural cooking is far more complex than a one-word catchall. Since opening Indian restaurant Cardamom Hill in 2012, Gomez has become known for dishes such as Kerala-spiced chicken and waffles and smothered pork with black cardamom and clove. Gomez didn't grow up eating things like Georgia peaches, an ingredient in the $20 meal she's planned for today, "But does that mean I cannot take a local ingredient that grows here in Georgia and still have it scream my mother's kitchen? I absolutely can. And I don't call that fusion, I call that evolution," she says.

Gomez is modeling today's menu after a typical South Indian meal with fish and lots of tropical fruits and vegetables. There will be whole roasted pompano rubbed with spiced masala, a savory peach and mango chutney flecked with mustard seeds and star anise, and a red cabbage thoran, or stir-fry, laced with shredded coconut and curry leaves, all served family style.

Gomez wanders through the produce section at the Buford Highway Farmers Market, caressing everything she passes: tender bunches of leafy greens, herbs, key limes.

"What is that amazing smell?" she asks. Intensity fills her hazel-blue eyes, as if she's desperately trying to remember a dream. "Maybe passion fruit," she says, now drawn toward a mound of golden Ataulfo mangoes. "Whatever it is, it's gorgeous."

With delicate hands, she arranges sheets of banana leaves in a bag. She speaks fondly of her family, learning to cook in her mother's kitchen, and the rich culinary history of her native Kerala. She explains how southern India's food and culture is vastly different from food in the north. For one thing, Kerala's location, nestled between the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, made it a key European trading route. Portuguese, Dutch, and French traditions deeply influenced the region's cooking. And so did religion. Around the 1600s, Portuguese missionaries converted many of the region's poor to Catholicisim. (Hence the name Gomez, which has been in her family for centuries.)

"Because of that conversion, we were no longer vegetarian. The cow was not a sacred animal anymore. Because we're on the equator belt, it is extremely hot and humid, with an abundance of fruits and vegetables," she says.

Gomez grew up eating meat on Saturdays and Sundays because the butcher only came to town on Friday nights. During the week, her family would eat what the sea had provided — roasted fish prepared over open wood flames — and gently cooked vegetables.

click to enlarge JAMES CAMP
  • James Camp

Her family moved to the States when she was 16, briefly touching down in Michigan before settling in New York for years. She came to Georgia 12 years ago with her then-husband and opened a spa off Howell Mill Road. There she would often end treatments with small meals and homemade treats. The spa went down with the economy in 2008, but the memory of her food lived on. She started the insanely popular supper club Spice Route in 2009. Dinners often sold out in minutes. Gomez says opening Cardamom Hill in 2012 was her destiny. That same year, it was nominated as one of Bon Appétit magazine's Top 50 Best New Restaurants. In 2013, Cardamom Hill was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for best new restaurant, and Gomez was nominated for Food & Wine's "The People's Best New Chef" award.

Gomez now divides her time between Cardamom Hill and her new project, the Third Space in Old Fourth Ward. It's a kitchen and event space where chefs from all over can come and host dinners and cooking demonstrations. It's also where she'll cook today's meal. A 12-seat bar lined with stools provides a front-row seat to the action in the dream kitchen Gomez designed herself. It's modern and streamlined yet undoubtedly feminine. There are tall wood cabinets finished in a sleek gray, stainless steel appliances, including two double convection ovens, and a sink large enough to bathe a small child in. At the other end of the room, an ornate chandelier made from nautical rope hangs above a dark wood dinner table that can seat at least 10.

Gomez is surrounded by her entourage, including her in-house PR specialist, her makeup artist, and her niece, Beryl, who's visiting from New Jersey with her husband and two kids. Family or not, Gomez calls almost everyone around her "baby," and to them, she's "Ashamama," the matriarch. She puts everyone to work peeling and chopping.

Gomez likes pompano because it's a low-maintenance fish. After deeply scoring each one, she turns to a pile of banana leaves, the wrapping for the fishes. She places each one over an open flame to release the essential oils. Within seconds the pale leaves are transformed into sheets of glossy jade.

In a small bowl, Gomez mixes paprika, ground coriander, and oil with her fingers. She rarely uses spoons and spatulas.

"I am such a tactile person, I have to feel what I'm doing. For me, that connection with the food is extremely important," she says.

She slathers the fish with the brick-red masala, wraps them in banana leaves, and pops them into the oven.

"Last year, my kitchen at Cardamom Hill was all about bringing my mother's kitchen to life. This year it's about my kitchen, my influences, my evolution as a chef," she says. "Finding the synergy between the two Souths, the Indian South and the American South, is fantastic for me right now."

She sprinkles whole cumin and mustard seeds into a pan of hot oil and the room instantly smells nutty, peppery, exotic. Into the pan go strands of red cabbage and shredded coconut for a quick stir-fry. It's done in minutes.

The spread of food before us, Gomez's food, is the kind that tells a story: whole succulent fish bathed in the flavors of India; Georgia peaches spiked with the same spices she found in her mother's kitchen as a child; tropical coconut peeking through shreds of cabbage the color of violets. Call it comforting, call it soulful, call it love, just don't call it fusion.

Next: Three recipes from Cardamom Hill's Asha Gomez

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