Remember the '80s? That's when terms like "globalization" and its culinary consequence, "fusion cooking," showed up everywhere. The latter involved cooking with cross-cultural ingredients, especially those from the Pacific Rim. It was new (or "nouvelle"), it was trendy, it was often bizarrely self-conscious, and it finally toned down. In fact, Applebee's features it now.
And that's usual. At any given time in history when cultures have interacted, cuisines have blended. The extent, however, can vary dramatically. An example is the cooking of Asha Gomez at her new restaurant, Cardamom Hill. The menu features the cuisine of the southwestern-most state of India, Kerala, where Gomez grew up in a communal home with a mother and three aunts who loved to cook.
Even Gomez's surname is indicative of the multiculturalism of Kerala. I presumed it was conferred by a Latino spouse.
"No," she says, laughing. "I have always used my maiden name. In the 15th century the Portuguese settled in Kerala and a lot of missionaries came with them. Many people converted to Christianity because it was a way to get out of the caste system. So, that's why I have a Portuguese name.
"As an example of the effect of that on food," Gomez continues, "people in Kerala eat beef, because the cow is not sacred in Christianity. And, of course, the Portuguese love pork, so a lot of that is eaten in Kerala, too."
Still, it's the spices that most distinguish Kerala cuisine from other Indian regional food around Atlanta. At lunch, Gomez serves a traditional thali. Diners can choose one of three available main dishes — usually one vegetarian and two featuring meat. Those are served with three side dishes.
Friends at lunch and dinner ordered Gomez's signature dish — fried chicken, which gained fame during the year she was hosting the Spice Route Supper Club. Many assume that the dish is an Indian fusion riff on the South's own fried chicken, but it's actually native to Kerala. Gomez won't reveal the spices used in her version, so I'm going to suggest you just try it. Your palate will trip out big time.
At lunch I ordered chicken curry that surprised me even more. It was boneless pieces in a dense sauce that included, among other flavors, cardamom and cinnamon. The latter was so intense that it brought the dish to the edge of spicy-hot, despite the absence of chili peppers.
I told Gomez that, as usual, my friends were worried that the food would be fiery.
"People always think Indian food is going to be terrifically hot," Gomez explained. "But hot peppers didn't arrive in India until the 16th century and weren't adopted everywhere or to the same degree. I'm hoping to educate people better in the way spices work. You can have very spicy food that is not necessarily spicy-hot and a spice can taste very different according to the way it's used."
Cardamom is a perfect example. A small quantity will give a hint of flowery sweetness (such as in chai tea), but heavier use means a decidedly pungent flavor that "takes protein to another level," Gomez said. Thus, it can titillate or flood the palate, causing something of a sensory double take. My experience with various dishes was that the initial blast of cardamom subsided quickly while other flavors emerged — like the piquant mustard seeds in a plate of sweet-potato strips or in a slaw-like thoran of sautéed vegetables with bits of coconut. Garlic, like the mustard seeds, can also add a bit of heat without resorting to chili peppers, Gomez said.
Of the entrées I've sampled, the kingfish roasted in a banana leaf has been my favorite. The meaty fish is rubbed with a mysterious masala paste before roasting. I know what you're worrying about — that the fish will be steamed until gray and semi-gelatinous. Not at all. The texture was perfect and the red-dappled surface of the fish appeared to be browned. Cardamom-scented plantains accompanied the fish.
I've tried two desserts that were available recently. A very dense rum cake that our server warned might be too dense was, in fact, too dense. But payasam, a pudding tinged with cardamom, was conversely sweet and creamy with bits of rice noodles and cashews.
Other dishes on the current dinner menu include a very Portuguese-influenced pork vindaloo; short ribs roasted in a coconut sauce; a "smoky, spicy" fish curry; goat chops redolent of mint and cilantro; and a daily vegetarian plate.
I think the kitsch-free, moodily decorated restaurant is going to be a hit with adventurous diners, but I feel bound to warn you that it's not cheap. I mentioned to Gomez that most of us are brought up to believe that ethnic restaurants are by definition cheap.
"I know," she said, "and it saddens me that people have that attitude. They don't get to experience how refined the food of other cultures can be. I don't like to make a big deal out of it, but we are buying from local farmers and we know the source of every ingredient we use. I think all restaurants should do that, so I don't talk about it, but it does make a big difference."
As we ended a recent phone conversation, Gomez told me about one of the lunch dishes she was serving that day — bitter melon cooked with yellow lentils and spinach, spiked with grated coconut, cumin, and mustard seeds. I raced out the door.