A food journey to South India
When we think of Indian food, we mostly associate it with curries of North India. Elizabeth, owner of Tiffin Asha, a food cart on NE Mississippi and Beech, Portland, introduces us to the overlooked food of South India. Tiffin means, “a snack” or “light meal” and Asha means, “hope” or “wish”.
Elizabeth, born in California and raised in Washington, was first introduced to the food of South India by her wife. She felt immediately in love with the unique flavors, the lightness of the cuisine and the techniques of preparation.
Elizabeth worked in restaurants for years and wanted to break off on her own and start to working for herself. Portland greatly values small businesses and she thought starting a food cart was a good way to begin her journey.
The first food “awakening“ occurred when she worked at a soup kitchen in Seattle in 1998 which served meals to different homeless shelters around town. Eventually she went to culinary school in San Francisco, after a few years of working dead-end restaurant jobs. After graduating from school, moved back to Seattle worked in more restaurants with no clear path.
They moved to Boston, where her wife went to college. Elizabeth found a job at Oleana Restaurant, where she worked the hot line under Chef Ana Sortun, a James Beard award winning chef and author of the cookbook “Spice“. This opportunity was the most influential experience of her career.
Three years later, they left Boston and went back to Seattle, where Elizabeth became the pastry assistant at Poppy an northwest dining experience. Poppy’s owner, Jerry Traunfeld, got his inspiration from the “thali”, a platter served to each guest holding a variety of small dishes.
After a while, the current pastry chef left and Elizabeth was asked to take on the pastry chef position. She accepted and stayed 2 more years before opening Tiffin Asha this year.
I asked Elizabeth to describe to me in 3 words, what Indian food means to her.
Her response: “Beautiful. Flavorful. Satisfying.“
Her food cart, parked next to Döner Haus and Gabagool in a food cart lot, in Portland was custom-built by Portland Food Trailers. The cart and her food reflects her outstanding personality. Instantly, as you order your food, she opens a new world for you. She treats you, not as a common customer, but she honors you as a guest whom she invites to dinner in her own home.
Everyone who has cooked Indian food at home knows that it requires a long preparation time, unknown spices and a portion of patience until you can taste and enjoy your creation.
I tried it before and I appreciate the uncommon spices, new preparation techniques and the new flavors. Indeed often times I cooked curries but didn’t know about the flavors of dosa, idli, sambar or gunpowder before I indulged the delicious food from Tiffin Asha.
Elizabeth has the passion, the tools like the wet grinder (for the dosa batter), the ingredients and in addition to the advice from her wife, a mother in-law who gives her answers to all her questions or new inspiration for her menu. You can describe dosa as an Indian- style crepe made of rice and dal. It takes a total of two days before the dosa batter is ready to be poured onto the griddle. The first day to soak rice and dal, the second day to grind and ferment them.
Idli is a steamed cake made from fermented rice and lentils. Inseparable from sambar. Dip it in sambar like you dip a chocolate chip cookie in milk. Sambar is a spicy tangy-sweet tamarind and lentil soup. Enjoy it with cart made gunpowder. It is a spice blend traditionally called podi. Elizabeth chooses the name because of the explosive flavors. The blends ranges from mild to very hot and it comes out with every order. You can eat the gunpowder like chutney with your dosa, sambar or savory donuts called vada.
Order the “Trilogy “ to experience everything at once and add one or two of the complementary magnificent house-made chutneys.
Elizabeth mentioned that her most satisfying Indian meal is idli with a simple fried egg and a cup of sambar. Especially at this cold time, the warm soup with the spicy touch, heats you up from the inside. Another thumbs up for the covered seating area, so you can enjoy your food experience without stress.
Tiffin Asha is a one woman crew and she has a deep connection to her customers and the Indian cuisine. She presents South Indian food with a new approach, combining some traditional ideas with her own experience and background and developing it into something new.
She takes advantages of the amazing produce we have at the local farmers markets and whenever possible she buys local and organic.
Up for a new street food experience or want to taste uncommon spices like black mustard, curry leaf or urad dal?
Visit Elizabeth at Tiffin Asha and be introduced to a new world!
836 N. Beech St. ( N. Mississippi + N. Beech)
Phone: 503 – 936- 7663