Can a Dinner Series Catalyze Change? The possibility of Brown in the South

by Chandra Ram

Photos by Molly Milroy

They didn’t expect an hour spent talking about Mexican food to change everything. But late one afternoon in October 2017, Meherwan Irani and Vishwesh Bhatt emerged from an SFA Fall Symposium session, turned to each other, and asked: How did we get here?

They had just listened to a presentation on Latinx identity and were struck by how much the questions raised mirrored their own: How did two men from different regions of India come to live and work as chefs in the South? Why had the region attracted so many other Indian expats and chefs? What was their role in the modern South? And how did the South become their home?

The first Brown in the South dinner at Chai Pani in Decatur, GA, January 2018.

Whether you fit in the place where you live is integral to identity. That sense of belonging feels especially fraught when you are a newcomer in a region that often celebrates tradition and family legacy. I know this feeling well. Growing up in Kentucky a first-generation American with an Indian father and an Irish mother, I didn’t know where I belonged. I was Brown enough to field questions about where I was “really” from, but with my clumsily draped half-sari and inability to perform traditional dances, I didn’t fit in with the other kids at the Bluegrass Indo-American Civic Society events.

Why had the region attracted so many other Indian expats and chefs? What was their role in the modern South? And how did the South become their home?

Kentucky was home, but those caveats kept me an outsider, even after I grew up, moved to Chicago, and became a writer, editor, and cookbook author. Some people assumed I was an expert on all Indian food, not grasping the vastness and diversity of the cuisines cooked across the subcontinent. They expected me, with my foreign-sounding name and brown skin, to know all.
They asked if I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen. If only they knew that my blue-eyed, red-haired Irish mother cooked most of the dosa and aloo gobi I ate growing up. Like many third-culture kids, I craved a sense of belonging. I found it—or something that felt like a path toward it—in cooking and writing. I could work out my confusion on a blank page or cutting board.

Dishes from Brown in the South at Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, August 2018.

Food was also a refuge for Irani and Bhatt. Both were living in the South, pursuing other careers, when they began to work in restaurants. After moving from California to Asheville in 2005, Irani quit his real estate career in 2009. Lacking restaurant experience but seeking a business opportunity that resonated, he opened Chai Pani that same year. The restaurant is centered around chaat, the Indian snacks eaten in homes, on the street, and at train stations. Irani says he loves chaat because it belongs to everybody: “There are no rules; it transcends religion and regionality.” Bhatt learned to cook as an undergrad at the University of Kentucky, desperate for something better than dining hall spaghetti and inspired by memories and the packets of garam masala, turmeric, and mustard seeds sent by his mother. As a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in the early 1990s, he realized that he enjoyed cooking for friends more than political science classes. Eventually he became the executive chef at Snackbar in Oxford. Food informed their search for identity: Seeing the okra and beans they grew up eating in India grow in Southern garden plots made them feel at home.

“There are no rules; it transcends religion and regionality.”

Irani and Bhatt kept their conversation going after the Symposium. Since moving to the area, they agreed, they had become Southerners. Refer to Bhatt as an Indian American and he will gently but definitively clarify: He is an American who came from India, ma’am, the edge in his voice and word choice exemplifying the polite tone heard when someone from either locale feels the need to correct you. Meanwhile, Irani, who was born in London and lived in Maharashtra, India, and San Francisco before settling in Asheville, says that he’s lived in the South longer than anywhere else, and thinks of himself as someone from both India and America: “It’s easy to hang onto the idea of being from somewhere else, but this is my home.”

With that cultural mapping in mind, they asked each other how they could build on their experiences as Southerners to help make their home a better place for natives and immigrants, as well as the next generation. We “integrate our food the way we do our family and our lives,” Irani says.

They asked friends to help them cook through the conversation for a dinner series they called Brown in the South. On the roster was Atlanta chef Asha Gomez, a native of Kerala and author of the cookbook My Two Souths, about melding Indian and Southern flavors. And Cheetie Kumar, who grew up in Chandigarh and is the chef and co-owner of Garland in Raleigh. From Nashville, the effervescent Maneet Chauhan of Chauhan Ale and Masala House and other restaurants joined in.

Brown in the South cofounders Vishwesh Bhatt (L) and Meherwan Irani.

The chefs crafted menus around ingredients like cornmeal, peanuts, and rice that are claimed by both cultures. At the first dinner in January 2018 at Chai Pani in Decatur, Georgia, themed “Desi Diner,” guests dug into the group’s take on a meat-and-three. They enjoyed Irani’s shrimp and grits made with upma, shrimp, and tomato pathia; Kumar’s speckled trout fritters with chutney and piccalilli tartar sauce; Bhatt’s pork meatloaf with apple achaar; Gomez’s Kerala fried chicken; and Chauhan’s garam masala–spiced hot chocolate topped with a rose-scented marshmallow.

I was there that night. Giddiness filled the room as we marveled at the trick they pulled off. The aromas of toasting cumin seeds and Kashmiri chili powder floated from the kitchen, as did the sounds of Bollywood music. That night the restaurant felt mystical, a Shangri-La, where bhangra and banjos lived side by side, and everyone was welcome.

The chefs continued to explore that kinship between Indian and Southern cuisines, inviting others to cook with them. Later that year at the “Indian Summer” dinner in Nashville, the Atlanta chef Farhan Momin toasted curry leaves, mustard seeds, and coconut in ghee and poured the mixture over cornbread, which he served tableside in cast-iron pans. The following year at a dinner during Asheville’s Chow Chow Festival, Samantha Fore of Lexington, Kentucky, served tomato pies vivid with turmeric and tangy with tamarind-cooked onions, uniting her North Carolina upbringing and Sri Lankan heritage.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Chefs Vishwesh Bhatt, Meherwan Irani, Samantha Fore, Maneet Chauhan, Farhan Momin, Asha Gomez, and Cheetie Kumar outside the Brown in the South “Holi Grail” dinner, Raleigh, NC, March 2019.

In tableside chatter and at panel discussions, the chefs drew connections between the sweet and slightly bitter flavors of Carolina barbecue and Goan pork vindaloo, recalled their mothers using jaggery the way Georgians pour cane syrup on a biscuit, noted that the rice and tea grown in India had traveled the Earth to find a new home in the South. They spoke of how the culture of hospitality in India and the South makes it impossible to get out of a visit without “just a small bite” of something that often turns into a feast, and how that welcome had made them at home in the South.

If you are fully welcome at the table, your whole self is welcome, not just the part of you that smiles and feeds others.

I would leave Brown in the South events with a smile on my face, thinking about food that spanned the chasm between my Kentucky hometown and my grandmother’s kitchen in Andhra Pradesh. Those nights proved how far we had come from my parent’s attempts to jerry-rig a chaat out of roasted peanuts, Rice Krispies, and chili powder.

I wasn’t the only person aglow with ghee and goodwill. Brown in the South became a media darling, celebrated in the pages of major food publications, proof that Indian food had shaken off its curry buffet past. But truly fitting in isn’t as easy as that. If you are fully welcome at the table, your whole self is welcome, not just the part of you that smiles and feeds others. Irani and Bhatt wanted to do more than serve food; they wanted to affect change.

Place settings at the first Brown in the South dinner in Decatur, GA, January 2018.

Chefs and restaurants are more than sources of food. They have long been leaders in political and social justice movements who feed protestors, rally for the environment, and donate their food and time to charities. Why not learn from them? For Brown in the South to become as meaningful as Bhatt and Irani imagined it to be, chefs and guests needed to push past what felt good to address deeper and more relevant issues.

As they wove cardamom into Southern culinary traditions, they had to address this time in history. In a moment when people of good conscience march in the streets to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, tear down Confederate statues, and pull back the curtain on chefs who treat their employees poorly, then Brown in the South suggests we all have a responsibility to do more than bask in a lovely meal.

How do you transform a dinner series into a catalyst for action?

How do you transform a dinner series into a catalyst for action? Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, says we create meaning and consequence in gatherings by marking what is important and identifying what we need. At Brown in the South, the chefs already do the work of creating context in their food. How do they go deeper, and explore the difficult truths behind those cultures and their commonalities? How do they use the power of a shared experience for a change of behavior and heart?

As a kid, I sat at school cafeteria tables with people who didn’t look like me. On the days my lunch box stank of cumin and asafoetida instead of the safe blandness of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I felt embarrassed and misunderstood. Today, those same people might ask me about the dishes on my plate and even want to try them, but I still don’t want my lunch to be an exhibit at the zoo or othered by the mainstream.

We need to address the racism and anti-immigration sentiments that threaten to tear the United States apart. Southerners have a jump on people in the rest of the country who have often been able to avoid taking ownership for their role in systemic racism. Owing to recent immigration patterns, the face of the new South is brown-skinned. The Indian population in America grew by almost 40 percent between 2010 and 2017, and the South was a magnet for much of that growth. Irani describes the South as one of the most diverse, progressive parts of the country. But are the Vietnamese refugees who work fishing boats along the Gulf Coast, and the Kurdish who work bakeries and cafés in Nashville afforded the same welcome given to Irani and his kin, the highly educated, well-paid Indian executives in the tech and telecom industries in Atlanta and Dallas? Or does the classism in America more closely resemble the caste system in India than we’d like to think?

BITS buttons at the Holi party at Garland in Raleigh, NC in March 2019.

This group is uniquely poised to tackle these questions. As Americans grapple with their roles in social justice and injustice—and the vice-presidential candidacy of Kamala Harris prompts a fresh look at the relationships between Black and Indian-descended Americans—a conversation between between these groups adds nuance to the larger conversation and exposes the complexities of race relations in America and India. It disabuses people of the assumption that people of color cannot be racist, and points out hierarchy of skin color within shades of brown. It asks the bigger question: Can the Brown people of the South become allies with Black people?

There is plenty to connect us, but it’s facile to talk about the curry powder that seasons a chicken salad at a church picnic without acknowledging that it made its way to America with the indentured South Asians who were forced to work for early settlers in the seventeenth century. We can do more than debate the cultural appropriation of turmeric, chai, and chana masala. We can talk about what happens to authenticity when people with a strong food culture make their homes elsewhere. In India and the South, places steeped in traditions, change is familiar. Both places suffer when people insist their cultures must remain suspended in memory behind glass.

Brown in the South will become more meaningful as the chefs plumb the nature of identity, and address how it shifts when immigration renders you an outsider. That 2017 SFA Symposium got Irani and Bhatt thinking about racism and belonging. They took action to align that conversation with their community through the dinners. Seeing the need to add context, they expanded the events in the second year to host discussions that challenged participants to take action.

“This is what it’s like if everyone stands up and is counted, and not kept separate,” Irani said. “My daughter asks me what Southern means, and I tell her that it means her. She needs to contribute to the South growing and evolving. We all need to be part of it.”

Chandra Ram is the editor of Plate magazine and a cookbook author living in Chicago.