The first time Vishwesh Bhatt ate caponata, it was at Susan Spicer’s New Orleans restaurant Bayona. As a lover of eggplant, Bhatt was so smitten by the Sicilian dish that he decided to put his own version on the menu at Snackbar, the Oxford, Mississippi, restaurant where he has been the executive chef since 2009. When he did, he didn’t stray too far from tradition — while there are numerous versions of caponata, it typically consists of fried eggplant, capers, and olives in a sweet-sour agrodolce sauce. 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 it went in, it made sense,” he says; since eggplants, tomato, 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 his debut cookbook, I Am From Here. Out today, the book is a collection of recipes that reflect not only Bhatt’s own history as an Indian immigrant to the American South, 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 Southern chef,” he writes. “I want the food of my childhood, the flavors I grew up with, to become a 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 book with recipes that carry on a lively, nuanced conversation between India and the American South: stewed Gujarati-style black-eyed peas sit next to savory black-eyed pea griddle cakes; garam masala is added to succotash; okra, a staple of Indian cooking that was first brought to this country by enslaved people from West Africa, gets 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 brewing for awhile,” Bhatt says. As he wrote, he thought about “why some foods are more popular here, and accepted more readily than others, and then you realize actually, that’s not necessarily the case.” Sicilian food, he points out, took awhile to be accepted — “so there’s a process, and slowly, slowly you become accepted and assimilate.” Even so, “how long does one have to wait to be accepted?” Bhatt asks. “What I was trying to say [in the book] is, this is where I live, this is my home where I make a living. So do we have to necessarily wait three, four, five generations? The answer to me is clearly no.” The book’s title says as much: it serves as both a declaration of belonging and a challenge to those who would question it.
Bhatt wrote I Am From Here during a period of unparalleled hardship and uncertainty for the restaurant industry. While Snackbar had its share of pandemic troubles, “we survived,” Bhatt says. Right now, he’s navigating the restaurant’s recovery: “like everyone else, we’re struggling to find people to work.” But he’s also thinking of other cookbooks his future might hold. “I actually enjoyed it so much,” he says of the writing process, “that I want to do another one.”
Eggplant and Okra Caponata Recipe
Serves 6 to 8
1 cup chopped pecans
½ cup olive oil
3 cups diced yellow onion (1 large or 2 small onions)
¼ cup sliced garlic (8 to 10 cloves)
4 cups diced eggplant (about 2 medium eggplants)
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
4 cups diced fresh tomatoes (about 4 tomatoes)
4 cups small okra pods, wiped clean and tough tops trimmed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
¾ cup pitted green olives, such as Castelvetrano
3 tablespoons capers, rinsed
¼ cup finely 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 the heat and set aside.
Step 2: Heat the oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other wide, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and garlic and cook until golden, about 6 minutes. Add the eggplant and salt and stir well. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the eggplant is soft, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes, okra, lemon juice, and vinegar and stir well. Cover and cook for 5 to 6 minutes more, until the okra is just soft. Stir in the olives and capers.
Step 3: Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the 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 the leftovers for lunch with toasted pita or baguette, or even folded into an omelet.
Excerpted from I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef by Vishwesh Bhatt. Copyright © 2022 by Vishwesh Bhatt. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.