At Snackbar restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi, executive chef Vishwesh Bhatt is serving up Southern fare with global flare. His Indian roots add cultural influence to his culinary repertoire, but it’s common ingredients like peanuts that inspire his bold, global approach to Southern cuisine.
“I grew up eating peanuts my entire life,” said Bhatt. “The state I grew up in is a big producer, and we use peanuts for a lot of things. It was a pantry staple in my mother’s kitchen.”
Bhatt was born in India, but immigrated to the United States after high school, with a short stay in France in between. He initially learned to cook from his mother, but it wasn’t until college that he developed a passion for it.
“I started cooking maybe 25 years ago,” said Bhatt. “Initially I was sort of working for beer money while I was in college and then decided that I really enjoyed cooking. So, I got a job in a restaurant and I’m still here.”
His modesty belies his talent as a chef. Bhatt is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a James Beard Award finalist, and has been featured in several publications for his innovative approach to Southern cooking. For him, it’s the familiarity with common ingredients that inspires him to apply cultural twists to his cuisine.
“A lot of the ingredients that I can get in the South are also ingredients that I grew up with. So, it’s an easy transition to make,” said Bhatt. He said that he doesn’t consciously try to serve Indian food. Instead, he uses elements of Indian cooking to enhance Southern dishes.
“Not trying to serve somebody things that they have never seen makes life a little bit easier for them and me,” said Bhatt. Okra, collards and peanuts are common ingredients from his Indian background, and are typical in the South. Using his familiarity with these ingredients as the bridge between cultures allows him to blend the two, adding global flavors and spices to Southern food.
“It’s just those flavors and spices that I grew up eating. I like those flavors, and fortunately the folks I that I cook for in Oxford also like those flavors,” said Bhatt. In fact, global flavors are popular with today’s diners, and they are a welcome addition to Southern cooking.
One flavor that he has a special affinity for is peanut. They are a prominent crop in Mississippi, and they are favorite ingredient for Bhatt.
“It was not an ingredient that I discovered when I came here,” said Bhatt. “It was one of those ingredients that I immediately recognized as something that I had grown up with, so it was an easy one to adapt into things I was doing.”
Those things include substituting peanuts for other ingredients to change the flavor of a dish, like when he subs peanuts for pine nuts in pesto. He also incorporates them into dishes to provide elements of flavor and texture, as in his sweet potato salad with peanuts. “I love, love what peanuts do for that,” said Bhatt.
But some of his more innovative uses for peanuts are as flavoring elements that merge Southern and Indian foods. He’s previously served a lentil soup with peanuts that sounds like it would be the first course at a wedding reception for the two cultures. More recently he’s experimenting with other peanut ingredients such as peanut flour. His dish for peanut-flour fried okra with peanut muhammara and labneh is the perfect example of how he’s serving up Southern staples with worldly flavors.
The menu at Snackbar changes regularly, but it always features a taste of Bhatt’s inventive fusions. With the help of common ingredients like peanuts, he’s delivering a bold and flavorful twist to Southern comfort food.
Photo credit for header image: Jeffrey Grimes, Snackbar