SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
John Egerton, the Southern historian, once said for as long as there's been a South, food has been central to its image. These days, a rising star of the Deep South food scene is a man born and raised in India. It's part of our series on people who found the American dream through food. NPR's Maria Godoy has this story of the changing South and a chef named Vish.
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MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Oxford, Miss. - it's a town steeped in Southern identity.
JOHN T EDGE: In many ways, this is an archetypal Southern town.
GODOY: John T. Edge is with the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is based here in town.
EDGE: Courthouse square at the center, there are beautiful homes with rolling lawns framing it. You know, there's a university adjacent.
GODOY: That university is Ole Miss, a place once rocked by deadly riots over racial integration. To some, Oxford might seem an unlikely place for an Indian chef to achieve star status.
VISHWESH BHATT: We need the chili sauce.
GODOY: But Vishwesh Bhatt, or Vish, as everyone calls him, isn't exactly cooking Indian food. He's the chef at Snackbar, an upscale restaurant that serves Southern and French food with a twist. He uses traditional Southern ingredients, like catfish, grits or mac and cheese, but Vish prepares them using the flavors and techniques of his native India. Think garam masala home fries, daal hushpuppies and his signature dish, okra chaat.
Vish throws thin slices of okra into a deep-fry basket for about a minute. Then he tosses them with a bunch of flavors and textures.
BHATT: So you've got tomatoes, cilantro, chiles, chopped peanuts, lime juice, salt, pepper and chaat masala.
GODOY: Chaat masala is a zesty spice mix used in Indian street food. The result is savory, crunchy, tangy. It's Southern and it's Indian.
Oh, my God. That's so good.
For Vish, food has been a bridge between the two Souths he's called home, the American South and the Global South. Vish was born and raised in Gujarat, India. When he was 17, his family moved to France briefly before coming to America.
BHATT: First place we showed up in the U.S. actually was Texas.
GODOY: He was 9,000 miles from home. Everything was different, but then he went to the supermarket.
BHATT: And there were beans and tortillas, and I was like, wait, I know what all those things are. I didn't know a tortilla was a tortilla. To me, it was a flatbread. And I was like, I recognize this.
GODOY: Chiles, cumin, cilantro - Tex-Mex cooking shares many of the same ingredients as the Indian food he grew up with.
BHATT: I loved it. You know, that was where I made the first connection between how similar things were between India and the U.S.
GODOY: Food became a way for Vish to make himself at home in his new country. When he went to college, he studied political science, but he also learned to cook.
BHATT: My mom had sent me with, like, a thing of spices, a tin of spices, and, you know, mustard seeds, turmeric, some garam masala.
GODOY: As he experimented in the kitchen, Vish drew on childhood memories of helping his mom prepare large family feasts back in India. Soon he was hosting his own dinner parties for friends. But it took Vish more than a decade to realize cooking was his true calling.
In the meantime, he moved on to graduate school at Ole Miss in Oxford, and that's where he met John Currence, a celebrated Southern chef who eventually became Vish's mentor and boss. John remembers Vish as always hanging out at his restaurant.
JOHN CURRENCE: He was curious, and he just really liked to eat.
GODOY: John says Vish had a natural talent. He cooks in a way that's intensely personal.
CURRENCE: You know, Vish is so beautifully influenced by, you know, the food of his family and particularly his mother.
GODOY: But Vish wanted to explore other cuisines, too, so he ended up going to culinary school. After that, he cooked French food and Southern food and Caribbean food, even a little English food. For years, the one thing Vish didn't want to cook professionally was Indian food. John says Vish didn't want to be pigeonholed.
CURRENCE: And Vish's sort of stock reply was, but I don't ever want to be the cliche Indian guy in a small Southern town in a little bitty Indian restaurant.
GODOY: Still, when John and Vish opened Snackbar in 2009, those Indian influences finally started creeping into Vish's menus. John remembers one particular dish, a Keralan fish curry served with a southern staple - collard greens.
CURRENCE: I mean, I was literally moved to tears. Here I was, experiencing that moment where, you know, an individual becomes a chef.
GODOY: Oxford loved Vish's cooking. So did the food world. Now, at age 51, Vish Bhatt is a three-time finalist for the best chef of the South from the James Beard Awards. Basically, it's the Oscars of the food world. For Vish, the recognition is still surprising.
BHATT: It's insane. I mean, it's - I still have trouble believing it.
GODOY: And Snackbar has become a favorite hangout for the Oxford community, a sort of clubhouse for locals like Julia Jimenez.
JULIA JIMENEZ: I come for happy hour maybe once every other week, more if I can talk my husband into it.
GODOY: John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance says Vish's food tells a larger story about the South.
EDGE: Just the hint of okra and the knowledge that okra is beloved in West Africa, beloved in India and beloved in the American South, those connections, in a way, spin out a story of Southern culture. It both confirms what you think about the South and subverts it at the same time. That's what's great about his food.
GODOY: It's food rooted in the Southern past while also pointing to where the South is going, as a strong economy attracts immigrants from all over.
EDGE: We live in a place that is changing rapidly and, I think, for the better. The South is not losing anything in those changes. It's gaining much. It's gaining okra chaat.
GODOY: And that's a taste of the American melting pot and an American dream. Maria Godoy, NPR News.
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SIMON: Okra chaat sounds great. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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