Meet Kusuma Rao. She’s a local (to Tucson) personal chef and creator of an underground supper club and a self described food artist fusing cultures through cuisine.
Once Circle of Food blog writes about the underground supper club it won’t be underground anymore. While Kusuma Rao has come out of the closet with this wildly popular concept among her Tucson CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) friends — we never, ever want her to come out of the kitchen.
Ms. Rao started cooking at the age of 11 when she would take the bus downtown and her father would take her to lunch at El Minuto Café. Rao said she loved the tortilla soup and would come home and try her hand at making it but never to the perfection of El Minuto. Growing up near Marana, Rao’s family always had a garden filled with citrus and plantings from India. The family cooked what they grew. Her mother, a fabulous cook, focused on South Indian fare that is low in fat, heavy in vegetables and light and flavorful with spices.
Fast forward a bunch of years later with lots of college and math and science in her corner, Rao has never stopped thinking about food and how to make it better, how to make it sustainable, and how to make it more creative. Indian-Mexican fusion, anyone?
At 27, Rao decided to dump her day job of spreadsheets and take the leap into the kitchen as a personal chef. She admits to studying food like any mad scientist, thinking about it in her head, learning about the intricacies of spices and curries, flavors and textures. Oh, the details. Bring them on.
Currently she is delving into Punjabi and Bengali cuisine. “What’s the difference I ask,” as I interview her over the phone at practically my bedtime.
“Punjabi is heavier, more butter, not as spicy, with warming spices like cinnamon and cloves and kassoori methi – aromatic fenugreek leaves – a prominent spice in Punjabi cooking,” say Rao talking really fast. Not only did I have to interrupt her numerous times to repeat and even spell certain words but during the conversation I swear I could smell the Punjabi food wafting into my home office. Her excitement and knowledge is other worldly and then my appetite was seriously challenged and delusional.
As for Bengali cuisine, “it’s not as heavy as Punjabi, also has intricate spices making use of the panch phoran spices of mustard seeds, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, and nigella onion. Think pungent and mustard oil.”
The problem facing me was that I did think about all these spices and began jonesing for some spicy fusion food at 9 p.m. As my heavy eyes closed, I could almost savor her fresh beet salad drizzled with mustard oil mentioned on her blog. If this doesn’t make a beet lover out of you, nothing will. I even dreamed of the underground supper club.
The Art of Taste Supper Club is a 5-course sit down dinner with plated food in an intimate setting. The suggested contribution of $35 to $50, includes wine pairings for the latter amount. Themes change – could be fusion tacos, Indian curries, inspired comfort food, very vegan. Chef Rao’s whim.
Kumi (to her friends) and I have a lot in common as food brings people together like nothing else except perhaps greyhounds. Amazingly, we are both greyhound adopters! One of these days, our canine counterparts, her Josephine and my Jett & Girlfriend will meet for a mini playgroup while we talk more about food.
(The photo of the Indo-Mex fusion is coconut and squash curry stuffed masa pockets with mole verde and a rich cashew Korma sauce — a Kumi creation.)