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Food with Mark Bittman: Vishwesh Bhatt
How fusion became a dirty word, "true authenticity," and grocery store birthday cake
Vish, as he’s called by many, has a book out now that I just fell for. The book is called I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef — best title ever? — and as soon as I saw it, I was just grabbed. And then once you hear his story, and talk with him — well, you’ll see.
“Just because we like something else or we take something else, or somebody else brings in other influences, doesn't necessarily mean we are giving away or losing what we have. We're just adding. Think of it as a quilt that somebody's adding another patch to.” — Vishwesh Bhatt
Vish grew up in India, in Gujarat, and moved to the States around 30 years ago, when he was 18, where he majored in political science at college for a brief moment before realizing he wanted to cook.
In grad school, Vish met John Currence, a celebrated Southern chef and restaurateur who is now Vish’s mentor and, also, boss at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, where Vish cooks using traditional Southern ingredients — but often paired with the flavors and techniques of India. (Think daal hush puppies and collard greens saag.)
(Currence has said that Vish’s stock reply, when someone used to suggest that Vish open an Indian restaurant, was “I don’t want to be the cliché Indian guy in a small Southern town hawking curry and tikka masala.”)
It’s really fun to listen to Vish talk about traditions and authenticity; that’s a lot of what our conversation is about, and his take is really interesting, and just the right amount of sentimental. Hope you enjoy.
Please listen and subscribe, and please review on Apple — it helps us a lot! Vish’s recipe for Mom’s Rice “Pudding,” which was featured on the podcast, is below.
Mom’s Rice “Pudding”
Makes: 8 servings
This was the first (and, for the longest time, the only) dessert I could make. It has just three main ingredients: milk, sugar, and rice. That’s why I call it “pudding” in quotes—it doesn’t even require an egg-based custard, as most puddings do. My mother taught me that adding a pinch of saffron, a couple of pods of cardamom, and some almonds or pistachios to those three very basic ingredients and patiently stirring them so as not to scorch the milk makes for a rich and creamy dessert that could be eaten warm, as we often did when I was growing up, or chilled, as I almost always do now. This recipe makes a generous 8 servings. You could easily cut in half, but it’s so creamy and comforting, I can’t imagine why you would want to. — I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef
1/2 cup basmati, jasmine, or other long-grain aromatic rice, rinsed under cold running water for 2 minutes and drained
2 tablespoons ghee
8 cups whole milk
4 green cardamom pods
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon saffron threads
3 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons toasted chopped pistachios, for garnish
2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds, for garnish
Combine the rice with the ghee in a small bowl; set aside.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, bring the milk to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Once the milk has come to a boil, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook the milk, stirring constantly. Take care not to let it scorch. Add the cardamom and star anise pods; continue to stir and cook the milk.
Once the milk has started to thicken and is reduced to half, about 20 minutes, stir in the sugar and rice-ghee mixture. Continue to cook over very low heat until the rice is cooked all the way through, the sugar is completely dissolved, and the milk takes on a very light caramel color, 30 to 40 minutes. This requires constant stirring as you don’t want the rice, milk, or sugar to scorch. You’re aiming for a creamy-smooth consistency, almost like grits.
Once the rice is cooked, stir in the saffron and remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the raisins. If planning to serve chilled, allow the pudding to cool completely before refrigerating.
Garnish with chopped pistachios and slivered almonds before serving.
Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
— Recipe from I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef