Oxford’s James Beard winner has a new cookbook and a message for Memphians
Photographs by Sierra Dexter
Just down the road from Memphis in Oxford, Mississippi, you’ll find a strip mall. And toward one end of that strip mall, you’ll find a restaurant called Snackbar. It’s an unassuming location and an unassuming name. But inside you’ll find some of the finest food the South offers, cooked up by Vishwesh Bhatt, winner of the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South and author of the recently released I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef.
Though he grew up in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, Vishwesh considers himself a Southerner through and through, and Oxford is his home.
While his Indian childhood influences his cooking, he’s intentionally a Southern chef.
He wrote I Am From Here for anyone who enjoys eating food, sharing food, and having a good time. “This book is meant to be cooked from,” he says.
Vishwesh doesn’t save his cooking just for the restaurant. He and his wife, Teresa, often host friends at home, where his cooking is more casual. “I am a big fan of one-pot dishes at home,” he says.
During his decades in Oxford, Vishwesh has made plenty of road trips to Memphis and has a message for the city’s food lovers:
“Memphis should know how lucky it is to have a very diverse community and some true food gems. Go out and explore these small, independently owned restaurants and markets. Support your neighbors. Expand your horizons. Trust me, you’ll thank yourselves for doing so.”
In his own home, Vishwesh keeps a packed pantry. He sources some of his staples—like mustard seeds, turmeric, cumin, sumac, cardamom, rice and lentils—from Memphis. Favorite spots include Balaji Super Market (3810 Hacks Cross Road), Mediterranean Grocery, Inc. (3561 Park Avenue), and Mediterranean Grocery #2 (4215 Hacks Cross Road). He also shops online at spicewallabrand.com, which has just launched Vish’s Masala Collection.
In his pantry, these are the essentials that Vishwesh can’t go without:
Spices: “I do not comprehend how people can cook and eat without spices. Don’t be afraid of flavor, people!”
Rice & dry beans: “When you have rice and beans, you don’t need much else to feed yourself and others.”
Pasta: “I like pasta. Who doesn’t? It provides me with a quick and versatile option for a meal when I am tired or in a hurry.”
Pickles and hot sauce: “Again, flavor. Pickles, especially Indian pickles, are a great way to add a ton of flavor to something as simple as a bowl of steamed rice.”
Oil: “I have vegetable and olive oil. I do not use them interchangeably.”
Peanut butter: “Because Bob the Dog loves it.”
Serves 6 to 8
3 cups neutral oil, such as peanut or canola
2 pounds okra pods, wiped clean and tough tops trimmed
1½ tablespoons chaat masala (store-bought or homemade), divided
2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and minced
½ cup diced red onion
½ cup seeded and diced tomatoes
1⁄3 cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons cane syrup or sorghum syrup
Juice of 2 limes
Pour the oil into a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot and heat to 350°F over medium-high heat.
Slice the okra lengthwise into very thin strips (⅛ to ¼ inch). When the oil is hot, carefully add one-quarter to one-third of the okra to the hot oil. Fry the okra until it is dark and very crisp, about 1 minute. (You’ll notice that the water bubbles begin to subside when the okra is done.) Use a slotted spoon to transfer the okra to a paper towel–lined plate. Immediately season it lightly with a couple of pinches of the chaat masala and a pinch of salt. Repeat with the remaining okra. Once all of the okra is fried and cool enough to handle, gently toss it in a medium bowl with the jalapeños, red onion, tomatoes, peanuts, cilantro, cayenne, cane syrup, lime juice, and remaining chaat masala. Serve immediately.
Reprinted from I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef by Vishwesh Bhatt. Copyright © 2022 by Vishwesh Bhatt. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves telling stories and helping other writers tell their stories.
Sierra Dexter is the owner/photographer/videographer of The Valley Imagery & Productions. Originally from Memphis, she now calls Oxford and Water Valley, Mississippi, home. She specializes in lifestyle, boudoir, and event photography and hopes to capture and bring new experiences to each client she serves. @thevalley.imagery.productions