At first glance, you might not think that the American South has much in common with southern India. But, Asha Gomez finds several intersections in food traditions, hospitality, and more from both regions in her new book My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen, and I received a review copy. She grew up in Kerala where the climate was also hot and humid, where rice is also a local crop, where there’s also an active coast line, and where “a talent for creating bounty out of an often modest pantry” is also common. She then spent fourteen years living in New York before getting married and moving to Georgia. Hosting supper clubs serving Keralan cuisine out her home in Georgia evolved into a restaurant business. Today, she operates a culinary event venue and an Indian patisserie. She continues to bring together the “resourcefulness and soulfulness” of both home regions in her cooking. The book includes dishes for breakfast, lunch, tea time, dinner, and desserts and sweets. The recipe for Puffy Ginger Hoecakes combines flavors of uttapam rice pancakes in these cornmeal cakes, and they’re served with a spicy syrup made with cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and red pepper flakes mixed into maple syrup. She tells the story of how the dish Country Captain traveled from India to the American South via a British sea captain. She interprets it with more of its Indian roots with spices and coconut and serves it with Carolina gold rice. Her Three Spice Carrot Cake is made with ground black pepper, clove powder, and cardamom and is topped with cream cheese frosting flecked with more of those same spices. I was very interested in the Onion Lentil Dumplings in Savory Buttermilk in which the lentil dumplings are served on top of a warm bowl of spiced buttermilk soup. Then, the Shrimp Pan Roast or Chemmen got my full attention.
In both of Gomez’s south's she’s able to bring home freshly caught shellfish. In Kerala, this would be made with fresh prawns, but here shrimp is more common. In addition to the fresh shrimp, dried shrimp is also used to amp up the flavor. In the past, a need to buy dried shrimp would send me across town on a food hunt. I’m delighted that now I can buy dried shrimp right in my neighborhood at a Korean grocery store. To begin this dish, the dried shrimp was combined with some freshly grated ginger and coconut milk in a blender and pureed into a smooth paste. Coconut oil was then heated in a large skillet. Minced shallots were added with fresh bay leaves. Once the shallots were browned, hot paprika and turmeric were added. Then, tomato paste, the dried shrimp paste, some salt, and a little water were added. The mixture was cooked for a few minutes. The fresh shrimp were then cooked gently in the sauce just until they began to curl. Because I always like to push the spiciness level a bit higher, I added a pinch or so of cayenne.
If you’re worried at all about using dried shrimp, you shouldn’t be. They add great, umami flavor but aren’t overpowering at all. The spices all come together deliciously here, and the tomato paste adds more umami and a hint of sweetness. It’s fascinating to read how two areas that are worlds apart actually have a lot in common, and it’s even better to eat the results of a combination of those two places. Happy Holidays, everyone!
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