In Portland, A Couple is Cooking Up South Indian Cuisine With Heart

Tiffin Asha owners, left to right Elizabeth Golay, Sheila Bommakanti photo by Dina Avila

In May of 2013, Chef Elizabeth Golay opened a food cart in Portland, Oregon called Tiffin Asha. “Asha” means “hope” or “wish” and this was Golay’s wish come true. It was such a smashing success that in June of 2014, her partner Sheila Bommakanti said farewell to being a civil rights attorney to work with Golay full time. But it wasn’t until January of 2017, when the pair’s complete dream was realized and Tiffin Asha went brick and mortar.

Chef Elizabeth Golay says her love of all things culinary definitely started with her mom. “She cooks with such love. I came from a family where it was part of our tradition to eat together at a table. I feel fortunate for that.” Her overarching food philosophy is “To always cook with the heart, follow what is natural and give it balance.”

She describes the vibe at Tiffin Asha as “Simple and earthy, cozy and romantic with little hints of Indian beauty” with food that offers a unique approach to South Indian that is both authentic and modern. “Where traditional methods of Indian cooking are woven into Pacific Northwest ingredients,” she says.

Her goal is to bring something unique to Portland by focusing on foods from the South and “to create my own blueprint on the cuisine. I love to do things that most people wouldn’t necessarily associate with Indian food because most of what we see in Indian restaurants in this country focus on the North. That is changing but very slowly. It’s both fun and challenging.”

Her partner – in the restaurant and in life –  Sheila Bommakanti, says that guests at Tiffin Asha truly love the food. “A lot of people say they can tell the owners work at the restaurant because the food is made with such care and love. Elizabeth cooks with heart, and she has her whole career. I think that’s what they’re picking up on, and it makes their experience very comforting and satisfying,” Bommakanti says.

Chef says her personal favorites on the menu are all of their gun powders (aka podis) and accompaniments they do, including Indian pickles. “My favorite and also a classic is the mango pickle. There are so many options to enjoying our food with these pairings. Another favorite would be our string hoppers also known as iddiyappams (steamed pressed rice noodles we serve at the restaurant with different curries.)”

One of her favorite things to cook with right now is coconut. “I pretty much use every form of coconut on all my menus!” She also loves using curry leaves; nuts (including peanuts, cashews, and almonds); green mangoes; and, she adds, “randomly dosakai (a yellowish round cucumber that you can cook with.) There is a local farm that grows them out here!”

Ask Chef what she wishes people knew when it comes to food and she’ll tell you she wishes that “people wouldn’t put food into compartmental boxes. They can eat more freely with an open mind. There is food out there people don’t know to crave. Food trends shouldn’t be the only thing on people’s radar. We should also bring to light some of the lesser known cuisines that play a part in this melting pot of a country.”

Tiffin Asha offers both beer and wine, and, of course, they have wines specifically selected because they pair so well with their food, “which sounds like a no-brainer, Bommakanti  says, “but with Indian cuisine, most people don’t even think about wine pairings with Indian food. This is another way we try to offer folks a unique experience, and sort of help introduce them to the idea that Indian food need not be a stranger to the wonderful world of wine!”

Chef says it’s amazing working with her wife because “I get to always be close to her and see her talent for this industry shine. She is a natural even though she didn’t set out to be in this industry and even though she has been a part of this industry since joining on with me when this business opened she still continues to stubbornly claim that this is my industry, not hers!”

She’s quick to ad that it’s not all ribbons and roses. “Don’t get me wrong though, it can be very hard too,” she says. “I think opening and running a restaurant for any relationship is going to test it in the most intense ways. We had been through so much together already that I think we already had some coping skills in place that helped. It is also helpful to deeply love each other and nothing can shake that.”

Bommakanti says that people have responded well to everything that Tiffin Asha has to offer. “For many South Indians like myself, it has been a home away from home. For newcomers to the cuisine, it has been a whole new world to discover. The cuisine is very agreeable for a number of diets – we have so many vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. Regarding the latter, much of South Indian cooking is gluten-free, so folks who are celiac or gluten intolerant that dine with have many choices for food, including our fried chicken!”

But it’s not just food that it vitality important to the pair, visibility is right at the top of their list too. “I believe it is important to my restaurant and role as the Chef of Tiffin Asha,” Chef explains. “I believe it’s important for people to understand how this white girl started cooking South Indian food! Tiffin Asha is the direct result of our marriage, two cultures coming together. It is a combination of both our backgrounds.”

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