The first time Vishwesh Bhatt ate caponata was at Susan Spicer’s Bayona restaurant in New Orleans. As an eggplant lover, Bhatt was so taken with the Sicilian dish that he decided to put his own version on the menu at Snackbar, the Oxford, Mississippi, restaurant where he has served as executive chef since 2009. When he did, he didn’t stray too far from tradition – although there are many versions of caponata, it usually consists of fried eggplant, capers and olives in a sauce. sweet and sour agrodolce. But more recently, Bhatt says, “I asked what would happen if I added a little something.” After experimenting with green beans and asparagus, he landed on okra. “As soon as he walked in, it made sense,” he says; since eggplants, tomatoes, and okra all grow in the same season, “they should work together, and they did.”
You can find Bhatt’s eggplant and okra caponata in her first cookbook, I am from here. Released today, the book is a collection of recipes that reflect not only Bhatt’s own history as an Indian immigrant to the southern United States, but also the ongoing evolution of the region and its cuisine. “I want people to see me as I see myself: an immigrant, a son of immigrants, who chose to make the South his home, and in doing so became a leader of the South,” he wrote. “I want the foods of my childhood, the flavors I grew up with, to be part of the Southern culinary repertoire – just like tamales, lasagna and kibbeh have become.”
Bhatt, who was 18 when he immigrated with his family to Texas from Gujarat, India, has filled his cookbook with recipes that have a lively and nuanced conversation between India and the American South: peas Gujarati-style black-eyed peas sit next to savory black-eyed pea patties; garam masala is added to succotash; Okra, a staple of Indian cuisine that was first brought to this country by slaves from West Africa, has its own chapter.
By the time he started writing the book three years ago, “the idea that I wanted to tell my story had been simmering for a while,” Bhatt says. As he wrote, he wondered “why are some foods more popular here and more readily accepted than others, and then you realize that’s not necessarily the case.” Sicilian food, he points out, took a long time to gain acceptance – “so there’s a process, and slowly, slowly, you’re accepted and assimilated.” Even so, “how long does it take to be accepted?” asks Bhatt. “What I was trying to say [in the book] this is, this is where I live, this is my home where I earn my living. Do we therefore necessarily have to wait three, four, five generations? The answer for me is clearly no. The title of the book says as much: it serves both as a declaration of belonging and as a challenge to those who would question it.
Bhatt wrote I’m from here during a time of unprecedented difficulty and uncertainty for the restaurant industry. While Snackbar has had its share of pandemic issues, “we survived,” says Bhatt. At the moment, he is navigating the takeover of the restaurant: “like everyone else, we are having trouble finding people to work with.” But he’s also thinking about other cookbooks his future might hold. “I actually liked it so much,” he says of the writing process, “that I want to do another one.”
Eggplant and okra caponata recipe
For 6 to 8 people
1 cup chopped pecans
½ cup olive oil
3 cups diced yellow onion (1 large or 2 small onions)
¼ cup sliced garlic (8-10 cloves)
4 cups diced eggplant (about 2 medium eggplant)
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
4 cups diced fresh tomatoes (about 4 tomatoes)
4 cups small okra pods, wiped clean and hard tops trimmed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons of red wine vinegar
¾ cup pitted green olives, such as Castelvetrano
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
¼ cup thinly sliced fresh basil
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons hot sauce
Step 1: Toast the pecans in a small, dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve.
2nd step: Heat the oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other wide, heavy-bottomed pot. Add onion and garlic and cook until golden, about 6 minutes. Add eggplant and salt and mix well. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until eggplant is tender, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, okra, lemon juice and vinegar and mix well. Cover and cook 5 to 6 minutes more, until okra is just tender. Stir in olives and capers.
Step 3: Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in basil, parsley, pecans and hot sauce. Taste and add salt, if desired. Serve.
Leftovers will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Enjoy leftovers for lunch with toasted pita bread or baguette, or even folded into an omelette.
Extract of I’m From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef by Vishwesh Bhatt. Copyright © 2022 by Vishwesh Bhatt. Used with permission from the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.