One curious difficulty in defining local food comes from the fact that many of the fruits and vegetables we grow at home—even those so commonplace they seem to be a part of the region's very lore—aren't even native to North Carolina.
Consider the varieties of heirloom tomatoes now available at farmers markets. Commonly mistaken as being of Italian origin, the tomato originally grew wild in the Andes of South America. But centuries later, thick, ripe summer tomatoes seem about as Southern as Duke's mayo—a staple of area cuisine for so long, it's hard to imagine local menus without them.
Thanks to the ingenuity of area farmers and the adventurousness of chefs, the food we consider local continues to expand, seemingly without bounds. Exotic ingredients can be grown in our agricultural backyard and cooked by those looking for new tastes.
Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm, for example, says he and his wife, Betsy, were the first to sell ginger at the Carrboro Farmers' Market. They were early adopters of the Spanish padrón and Japanese shishito peppers, too. Now, these trendy, tricky peppers are served whole and blistered with sea salt in Triangle restaurants, their mostly mild flavors packing a perfect hint of heat.
Hitt also grows baby fennel—bulbous roots with flowering stems, which grow wild and waver along Mediterranean shores—exclusively for Scott Howell of Nana's and Nanasteak in Durham. He'll soon grow broccoli leaf—in Italian, spigarello—for Gabe Barker at Carrboro's buzzing new pizza place, Pizzeria Mercato.
The Peregrine market stand, meanwhile, "has become a regular stop for all the transplanted new Mexicans for green chili and poblano," says Hitt. And those new to the area from the Caribbean have been surprised and delighted to learn that callaloo, a green common in Jamaican and African cuisine, is one of Hitt's latest offerings.
Indeed, as a state with one of the country's fastest growing immigrant populations, defining what constitutes local North Carolina produce is a task in need of constant updating. At Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, just outside of Chapel Hill on Jones Ferry Road, countless exotic items are on offer from the refugees who run the land. Karen refugee farmers from Burma rooted their families in the Triangle and began growing their native crops, which have slowly become familiar to the rest of us. The list includes long beans, for instance, loosely coiled green beans that can stretch beyond two feet; you can find those on the menu at Chapel Hill's Lantern.
Likewise, Transplanting Traditions has cultivated three types of basil; chayote (an almost fruity squash also found in Latin American cuisine); bitter gourds (a common special at Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe); galangal root (a more pungent, woodsy cousin to ginger that's used in Thai and Malaysian curries); sesame, lemongrass, and, yes, even rice. Tri Sa, a Burmese refugee with three daughters, immigrated to the United States in 2007 and started working at Transplanting Traditions when it launched in 2010. She's now a regular at Carrboro's Wednesday market.
Though canning and pickling are robust Southern traditions, they also offer ways to use such regionally novel ingredients. April McGreger, the founder of area preserves-and-pickles empire (see page 87) Farmer's Daughter, is a whiz at determining what products will hold up best to fermentation and pickling. She buys ají amarillo and ají dulce, peppers native to Peru, from Transplanting Traditions for relishes. And while her kraut experiments typically use more customary ingredients, like collards and cabbage, she prefers the sturdy Korean radish over the more popular daikon for her kimchi.
"Korean radish is much bigger and usually denser and crisper," says McGreger, who buys hers from Four Leaf Farms for her radish kimchi and slightly sweet soy-and-jalapeño pickles. "I want to get one-and-a-half-inch cubes, which is impossible with daikon that are only one and a half inches in diameter."
At Dashi, Durham's downtown ramen shop and izakaya, chef Billy Cotter sources a slew of ingredients specific to Japanese cuisine but grown by area farms. King Oyster and shiitake mushrooms, delicacies from Durham's Woodfruit, bob in ramen broth. Four Leaf Farms grows his shiso leaf, a satiny, bright green plant native to Asia. The leaf sports hints of anise that seem to cleanse your palate with each bite.
Desserts and drinks are becoming popular ways to explore these new natives, too. Beers at Ponysaurus often use a German rye, sourced from Pittsboro's Farm Boy Farms. Phoebe Lawless of Scratch takes the blossoms and pink, celery-like stems of angelica to make syrups for pies. The root, common in Eastern Europe and Asia, gives her treats a touch of anise and mint, even some floral notes. At nearby Parlour, Vanessa Mazuz distills only the stems for a medicinal, earthy syrup she mixes with seltzer. And at East Durham Pie Company, Ali Rudel is developing a pie with roselle, a West African hibiscus, which she buys from Waterdog Farms.
New-to-us ingredients such as these offer both a boon and challenge to the classic comforts of Southern cuisine, helping to redefine the local palate by providing it with unexpected flavors. Whether planted by an immigrant for a taste of home or grown as part of a farmer-chef experiment, they epitomize the necessity of a healthy food system, where what people want and what people grow exist in a state of constantly evolving equilibrium.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Root Grafts"