If chef Vishwesh Bhatt invited you over for a dinner party and you entered expecting a spread of masalas and chaats custom in his homeland of Western India, you’d be served surprise. Having moved to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school several years after relocating from India to Texas at age 18, Bhatt spent his formative cooking years in the Deep South among garden bounties and briskets from the pits of the Lone Star State—meaning he’s more likely to serve you a flat iron steak from Texas’ 44 Farms and watermelon gazpacho instead. His debut cookbook, I Am From Here (W. W. Norton & Company, 2022), captures just that.
Placing emphasis on seasonality and the versatility of individual ingredients, Bhatt hones the spices of his heritage through seemingly familiar dishes while contributing to the expansion of the lexicon of Southern cooking. “Food travels,” Bhatt says. “Food doesn’t know nationalities or boundaries. Lots of people have contributed to Southern cuisine to make it what it is, and people will continue to contribute to it. It’s not a monolith that stays one way.”
Vishwesh Bhatt on His New Book, I Am From Here
How does your background cooking Indian food shine through in your cooking today?
I never really cooked Indian food. I cook with Indian spices because those are flavors I like. I know a few [dishes] that are my family recipes, but I learned how to cook here in the States. Basically, whatI would do is if I was looking at collard greens, for example, it’s like okay, this is what my mom did with them, and so in my mind, they should have the flavor of toasted coriander in them because that’s what I remember. So, I will add something along those lines to the collard greens. It’s not like I want to make them Indian; it’s just that this is how I like them.
What has kept you in Oxford, Mississippi?
Initially I came here for graduate school. My dad was teaching here, my parents lived here, so it was an easy place to come. But what has kept me here are the people of Oxford. They sort of took me in and it’s become home. It made me feel comfortable and made me feel welcome, so here I am thirty years later.
Do you experiment much with Indian flavors at the restaurant you’re at now, Snackbar?
I don’t do it consciously, but yes. I love spices; I love cooking with spices, so there’s always an element of spice in all my cooking. It’s very much influenced by foods I grew up eating because those are the flavors I’m most familiar with. But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t try something like gochujang or mole because I like those flavors, too. That’s how I see my food; it’s something that’s very Southern but Southern food cooked by somebody who moved from Western India. The idea being that the world is connected. Food travels.
Tell me about going from a vegetarian diet in India to moving to a state, Texas, where the culinary identity is rooted in meat.
Because I didn’t eat meat then I didn’t really focus on that part of the Texas cuisine until much later in life. When we first got there, what sort of made me go “oh, this is great” was all the beans and chiles and tortillas—stuff that looked very familiar to me. Once I started cooking for a living, I started eating meat and then I started thinking about it, learning about it, and appreciating it.
What can Southern chefs, at home and in professional kitchens, expect to see that is familiar to them?
I think everything in the cook book should be familiar to folks, with some spice exceptions that are not used commonly but are easy to find now. Also, what they’ll find, I hope, is that this book is meant for cooking at home. The recipes are meant for six or eight people, most of them, because when I cook, I like to do it for folks coming over for dinner and that’s when most people are usually turning to a cookbook anyway.
Why did you decide to categories the book chapters by ingredient?
The idea was to demonstrate ingredients or talk about ingredients because I do very often tell people that we have a lot of food in common between the South and Western India where I grew up. So,I wanted to sort of list those ingredients.You sometimes end up with tomatoes and what do you do with them? So, there’s a chapter on tomatoes with ten recipes to give you an idea of how versa-tile they are. Same thing with potatoes and sweet potatoes, or shrimp.
What does your recipe development look like?
The book must be very precise, right? So, I have ideas all the time and I’ve been fortunate where most of the ideas I have right off the bat are 75 to 80 percent good, and then some require a little more of something else. Most everything I cook starts with what I feel like eating and what flavors I want right now. And then that’s where I go from. Everything I do, becauseI live in Mississippi, has to make sense here. So that’s the key: If it doesn’t make sense, in terms of provenance, then it doesn’t end up on the menu.
Tell me about the grilled chicken thighs with peaches, chiles, and spiced honey.
I love peaches; I love grilled chicken. I like that sort of tanginess of the peach by itself and it goes well with something that’s grilled. Then I needed something to add a little bit of heat and texture. When I added the chiles, it got a little too hot so I was like, well, okay, we need to round this out by making it sweet, and thought, “What if we just added a tiny bit of honey to this?” and it worked.When peaches go out of season, other fruits—apples, pears—will work. The texture and flavor will change a little bit but the idea of pairing fruit with grilled meats works really well.
Bhatt came up with this recipe after a summer party left him and his wife with a surplus of peaches. With peach season nearly behind us, find fruitful flavor by swapping in apples or pears, which pair equally as well with the sweet heat.
Grilled Chicken Thighs with Peaches, Chiles, and Spiced Honey
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Juice of 2 lemons, divided
3 tablespoons fresh chopped rosemary,
½ teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper,
12 (4 to 5 ounce) bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
6 ripe (but not overripe) peaches, peeled if desired, cut in half, and pitted
1 small red onion, sliced thick enough that the slices hold their shape on the grill
12 ounces mixed chiles, cut into chunks or rounds large enough that they won’t fall through grill grates
Spiced Honey (see below), for drizzling
½ cup torn fresh mint leaves, for garnish
½ cup honey
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon salt
- Combine half each of the olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken thighs and toss to coat evenly. Set aside for 30 minutes to allow the chicken to absorb the flavors.
- In a separate medium bowl, combine the remaining olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary, salt, and pepper with the peaches, onions, and chiles and toss well.Heat the grill to medium.
- When the grill is hot, add the peach halves (flat side down), onion slices, and chile pieces. (You can also place the onions and chiles in a grill basket, if you have one, so they don’t fall through the grates.) Grill the peaches, onions, and chiles until they are marked and slightly charred on one side, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip everything and grill for another 2 to 3 minutes. The peaches, onions, and chiles should retain some firmness; you do not want them to feel cooked all the way through.(Note:If you did not peel the peaches, the skin will curl up at the edges.) Transfer to a serving platter, arranging everything so that the onions and chiles are scattered around the peach halves.
- Grill the chicken until a thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a thigh registers 165degrees, 5 to 7 minutes per side. Transfer to the serving platter, setting the cooked thighs right on top of the grilled peaches, onions, and chiles. Drizzle some of the spiced honey over top and garnish with mint before serving. Bring remaining honey to the table in a small bowl so that your guests may serve themselves more if desired.
Makes about ¾ cup
You can make this spiced honey while the chicken marinates and the grill heats, or up to a day in advance. It is delicious drizzled on top of biscuits, too.
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan, add ¼ cup water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once the mixture simmers, give it a stir and remove from heat. If not using right away, transfer to a storage container. Allow to cool completely before covering and storing at room temperature.