Saturday, September 05, 2009

Of Okras and Paw Paws - The South Rises in Oakland (Plus a Tamarind Okra Recipe)

There has been a bit of a southern renaissance in Oakland, or at least my awareness of the southerneness that has shaped the city's tastes and politics has been kicked up a notch.

There are at least two gourmet "soul" food restaurants now in Oakland with others on the way. Oakland has always been home to more neighborhood places and several renown barbecue stands. (My family has always been partial to Everett and Jones, but Flint's is good, too.) Today, walking to the farmer's market from my car I noticed the Latin American tapas place had closed and was being replaced by another upscale Southern food restaurant. Across from the market I saw the French crepe place had morphed into a soul fusion cafe.

The farmer's market at the Grand Lake/Lakeshore Splashpad Park had several stands brimming over with green pint baskets of fresh and succulent okra, a staple of southern cooking, as well as in Indian and other Southeast Asian cuisines. But I also saw a basket full of paw paws, a fruit much like the cherimoya or custard apple that ranges through the south to parts of the Midwest. I have read of paw paws in food histories as well as seen fiction and non-fiction references but it was my first time face to fruit. These specimens (sorry I didn't take a photo) were the size and shape of small russet potatoes with a greenish yellow skin turning brown in spots. It was almost funny with stands full of such exotica as homemade goat cheese, Afghan delicacies, and variety after variety of Asian greens, that it was the humble paw paw that captured my imagination.

It also got me thinking about Oakland and it's ties to the American South. I don't want to get too scholarly here (nor do too much research), but it was the Depression and WWII war-effort employment that brought African-Americans and others from the South to Oakland. The powers that be were aghast at the what this influx of mostly Democrat voters would do to their Republican (and white) bastions of power in the city. One result was a change in the city government in Oakland, with a strong council and city manager and a weak mayor.

There is so much more to say about this topic, but I don't have the inclination to do the research right now. In the meantime, please enjoy my okra with tamarind sauce. The okra came from a Central Valley farm stand my husband stopped by earlier this week. The recipe is more Thai or Indian than Southern, but it was the okra that started me thinking about the debt this city owes its transplanted Southern roots. In a way it fits in with this post, because it owes much to all the different ethnic influences that thrive here in Oakland.

Tamarind Okra
Serves 2

2 Tbs. canola oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 small bird's eye or similar chiles, chopped (seeded if desired)
2-3 cups okra, in 1/2" thick slices
2 tsp. tamarind paste or concentrate
1/2 cup or more water
1 tsp. sugar (or to taste)
1/2 tsp. fish sauce (Thai or Vietnamese style)

Heat oil in a fry or saute pan over medium heat. Saute onion until light brown, add garlic and peppers, saute until garlic is beginning to turn golden. Add okra and saute until okra is beginning to soften. In a separate bowl combine tamarind, water, sugar and fish sauce, stir well to combine, then add to the pan with the okra. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the okra is cooked through and the sauce has thickened. (Add more water if necessary.)

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