'Brown in the South' Dinners Explore Ties Between India and the American South
India can feel like a world apart from the South, but it shares a number of qualities with the region, like hot, humid weather; an appreciation for music and the arts; and a sense of hospitality that tends toward joyful abundance. This overlap provided the inspiration for Brown in the South, a collaborative dinner series put together by seven Southern chefs of Indian and Sri Lankan descent (pictured, opposite). The dinners celebrate ingredients common to both Mississippi and Mumbai, like okra, shrimp, chiles, rice, and tomatoes, with menus featuring spice-laden stews, crunchy fritters, simmered vegetables, fire-roasted meats, and fried cakes doused in syrup.
Vishwesh Bhatt, chef of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, and Meherwan Irani, whose empire includes Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, and Decatur, Georgia, and Botiwalla in Atlanta, conceived the idea of Brown in the South at the 2017 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium while discussing how the diversity of the South inspired their cooking. “We wondered how a bunch of Indian chefs ended up in the South, why it was easier for us to find our roots here,” Irani says. “That led to a conversation about identity and how it feels to be an Indian chef living and cooking in the South.”
The first of the series took place at Irani’s Decatur location of Chai Pani, where the chefs welcomed a sold-out crowd with Indian snacks and cocktails. Guests sat at long tables and dug into a reimagined Southern meat-and-three dinner of meatloaf topped with tart pickled apple achar, peppery Kerala-style fried chicken, and masala-spiced shrimp with upma, an Indian semolina dish that stood in for grits.
“I’ve lived here longer than I lived in India,” Irani says. “At some point, I have to stop being an Indian who lives in the South and be someone who is from both places. So we decided to get our friends together and talk about it and cook. And then, of course, being chefs, invite 150 people for dinner.”
The next party, held at Maneet Chauhan’s Chauhan Ale & Masala House in Nashville, was a family-style supper that celebrated the late-summer garden bounties of both Tennessee and India. Diners feasted on roasted okra–and-corn salad slathered with chile-mint chutney and buttery cornbread with fragrant toasted coconut, mustard seeds, and curry leaves. Between courses, the chefs held impromptu Bollywood dance-offs in the kitchen; at the after-party, they pulled guests onto the dance floor, and the moves were as universal as the meal that preceded it.
“We work hard, but there’s so much joy in it. It’s like home,” says Samantha Fore, chef-owner at Tuk Tuk, a pop-up in Lexington, Kentucky, who brought revamped tomato pie to the party. “There’s a Sri Lankan cheese toast spiced with chile pepper and onion that I love. Tomato pie always has mayo and cheese, so I brought them together and made a take on cheese toast with tomatoes and spices. It’s the perfect bite of Sri Lanka and the South.”
“I don’t think I anticipated the emotional part of it for me,” says Cheetie Kumar, who traveled from her Raleigh, North Carolina, restaurants to participate. “It was worlds colliding in the best possible way. It’s an intense relief that all of the languages of cooking are spoken and understood. It’s like a chef family, that camaraderie and community.”
With a combined 13 James Beard Award nods among them, the chefs of Brown in the South serve up serious star power from Nashville to Asheville, where the fourth Brown in the South dinner is set to take place on September 13. Some of the chefs, like Irani, have a restaurant empire; others, like Fore and Momin, are growing newer concepts. Sign up for the group’s newsletter and buy tickets at browninthesouth.com.
Chef-owner, Snackbar, Oxford, Mississippi.
Featured Recipe: Grilled Summer Squash Casserole
Chef-owner, The Third Space, Atlanta.
Featured Recipe: Johnnycakes with Spiced Cane Syrup
Chef-owner, Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites, Lexington, Kentucky.
Featured Recipe: Roasted Curry Tomato Pie
Owner, Farmo Cooks, Atlanta.
Featured Recipe: Achari Pimiento Cheese Spread