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Discovering a Mississippi Masala featuring okra

November 11, 2010

Once upon a time I wrote these words: “When I grow up, I want to be a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance.”
As of my last birthday (gift to self) I can check that off the bucket list.
According to their web-site, “The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.” This October, I went to the SFA’s yearly symposium in Oxford, where I just about documented, studied, and celebrated myself into yet another waist size.
Prior to the Symposium, the SFA sponsored two special dinners that showcased the theme of the weekend, “The Global South,” prepared by guest chefs - an Indian from NYC and a Panamanian from New Orleans. Two decisions had to be made. I had been working in Oxford all day, and I was tired from the long day, but hungry – and curious. First, I had to choose between the least pathetic: sitting alone in a hotel room eating high-priced room service while watching Food Network - or sitting alone at a fine restaurant, eating a four-course meal prepared by someone who has actually been on the Food Network. Okay, that wasn’t so hard. The next decision would have been more difficult had I not exercised my gift of procrastination: I was too late to get a reservation at the Panamanian offering. The restaurant serving the Indian meal, called “Mississippi Masala,” said they could squeeze me in at the oyster bar.
Chef Suvir Saran, author of American Masala and chef/owner of the restaurant Devi in NYC was the guest chef at the Snackbar in Oxford. His first course - the Devi Okra Salad - was ultimately my favorite of the night. Thin strips of red onion and tomato, flavored with toasted cumin, cilantro and chaat masala (a mysterious Indian spice mixture), were tossed with long, thin strips of okra that had been fried into crispy goodness. Okra can be divisive – people tend to fall one side or the other of an okra fence. Battered and fried is the only way to go for many, while some actually eat it boiled and claim to enjoy it. The buzz of the weekend conversation, this okra drew a crowd to the fried side of the fence (even sans batter) and made those raw veggies taste great.
The middle two courses were variations on a theme: Southern peanut embraced by Indian spices. Peanut-fried shrimp on a bed of spicy peanut slaw were followed by peanut-fried chicken thighs perched on a pillow of potato and a concoction of tomato and red onion. The oyster shucker at the bar was pretty busy, so without conversation to slow me down, these plates were cleaned up pretty fast.
Dessert was tricky. Coconut was in the description, and I don’t do coconut. The Magic-Peanut Bar Sundae sounded amazing, save those little white flakes of ick. Thankfully the nice people at the Snackbar let me swap it for a plum cobbler, despite the divergence from the Masala theme. During our chat after the meal, I was surprised and relieved to hear that Chef Suvir had an aversion to coconut, too! However, his distaste was narrowed to a particular variety, for specific reasons that I have since forgotten. I was trying not to think too much about COCONUT during this extended discussion, lest I begin to gag in front of the famous chef. My abhorrence of coconut knows no bounds.
The day ended well – I was pleased with my dinner choices, the chef complimented my shirt, and I was excited about the start of our meetings the next day. Stay tuned for more Symposium tales of collard and cracklin’ tamales, yam biscuits, and the taco that tasted back.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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