By Jennifer V. Cole
“When you get your first kitchen, you get your spice tin,” says chef Asha Gomez, who was born in the coastal Kerala state of southern India. According to tradition, in every Indian household, north to south, east to west, the woman of the house keeps a medium-sized tin that holds jars of the seven spices she uses most often. For Asha, that’s mustard seed, garam masala, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, chile powder, and cumin. She still keeps the spice tin, but Asha has come a long way from Kerala.
Asha now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she owned the Indian patisserie, Spice to Table, which closed in February 2017. It was a bright and airy space where the foods of her two souths elegantly intertwined. You might have found fried chicken, drizzled with coconut oil and topped with roasted curry leaves; carrot cake spiced with black peppercorns, cardamom, and clove; or a classic Keralan dish of beef bathed in heady cinnamon with coriander and garam masala. Yes, beef. In India.
Located on the coast, Kerala bears the influence of legions of outside influences, notably the Roman Catholics and the Portuguese, who introduced not only Christianity, but also the notion of eating beef and pork. The cow was no longer sacred. “Cuisine evolves on the borders of a country,” Asha points out, citing the malleable nature of port cities across the centuries. “Though India is known for its spices, India only had black pepper, cardamom, turmeric, and ginger in the 14th century. The spice trade with the Arabs and the Chinese brought cumin, mace, and nutmeg.” And that port city mentality, the spice trade—global commerce in general, has engrossed the tropical state of Kerala, up and down the Malabar Coast.