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Blistered Okra with Basil Sauce

Chef Katsuji Tanabe dishes out traditional Mexican dishes with Japanese and North Carolina twists.

“In Mexico, we don’t eat okra,” says Katsuji Tanabe, the Mexico City-raised chef of the recently opened a’Verde Cocina + Tequila Bar in Cary, North Carolina. “But we do have nopales—a cactus that’s very slimy and has always reminded me of okra.” After a career working at restaurants in L.A., Chicago, and Las Vegas, Tanabe settled in North Carolina, and he’s taking full advantage of the locale. “It’s so cool to be in Cary and work with local produce like this,” he says. “In Chicago and L.A., you can get everything at any time of the year, but it’s not always local and it’s not always the best. Now in the South, it makes me so happy to use things like sweet potatoes and okra.”

He cooks that okra in the tradition of nopales, roasting them in a sizzling cast iron pan alongside shallots and garlic. But like many of his dishes, the okra reflects his childhood growing up with a Mexican mother and a Japanese father. “My family would put soy sauce and lime juice on all our vegetables, which I didn’t realize until later was a little different than other Mexican households,” he says. “For this dish, I use tamari, a gluten free soy sauce, but you can use regular soy sauce, too.”

The key, Tanabe says, is to sauté the okra fast, adding in the oil, shallots, and garlic midway through so they don’t burn in the hot pan. “It’s a quick, aggressive, sauté. I’m not cooking this one hundred percent,” Tanabe says. “Food should not be perfect. The imperfections are what make it special.”

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