That Shishito Pepper In Your Fancy Ramen May Have Come From A Refugee Farmer In Nashville

Jul 5, 2017

In back of East Nashville's Two Ten Jack restaurant, chef and owner Jess Benefield lowers a basket of small peppers into a vat of hot oil. They sizzle for about 90 seconds, blistering and lightening to the color of green tea.

"So we drop them in the fryer for about 90 seconds," she says. "You want them to blister but still have a lot of crisp."

These are shishitos, a Japanese pepper with just the right balance of sweetness and spiciness, says Benefield. Most — but not all of them — are mild.

"We say, like every one out of 10 is hot. When you get a hot one, it's kind of super-crazy hot."

A great appetizer to go along with a steaming bowl of ramen soup. Benefield serves them with a Caesar-like dressing and croutons.

"It's just a lot of fun and creamy," she says. "And it's kind of a roulette, too, which is a lot of fun."

Diners never know for sure whether they're going to bite into a hot one or not, which is one reason this is among the most popular items at Two Ten Jack, a cozy, rustic-looking noodle house tucked in the rear of a trendy shopping center.

Chef Jess Benefield shows how shishito peppers are fried to create a popular appetizer at Two Ten Jack restaurant in East Nashville.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

But keeping shishitos on the menu has been work. It's possible to find them in Asian supermarkets and to order them from restaurant supply companies. But Benefield says those sources aren't always dependable. Or the peppers are low-quality. Or they may have been shipped halfway around the world.

"So anything that we can get that's similar here, and that people are familiar with growing — It makes a lot of sense," says Benefield.

Nashville's flourishing food scene has meant an explosion of styles and flavors. But finding the ingredients for those creative dishes is often a challenge for chefs.

One program, though, is connecting hip restaurants with a group that has firsthand experience growing those crops normally found abroad — refugees.

Just 12 miles down the road, in South Nashville, a community garden has been set up on the remnant of a church baseball field.

This is where Chandra Poudel is tending his plot. He's taking part in a program called Growing Together that's now in its third season. Organized by the Nashville Food Project, the program encourages refugees living in the city to go back into farming.

Chandra Poudel and translator Siddi Rimal, who is also a refugee from Bhutan, examine his crops in the Growing Together community garden.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Poudel grew up in Bhutan but was forced out in the 1990s by an ethnic purge. For two decades after that, he lived in a refugee camp in Nepal. Then, that country's government shut the camps down, forcing him to resettle in Nashville four years ago.

Farming is the only profession he's ever known.

"Being a farmer is the best thing to me," he says through a translator. "And I like working, you know. Just whatever the work I have here, I just enjoy working here."

Poudel strolls along his rows, pointing out the crops. His plot is vibrant and well-thought out.

Some are plants he grew in Bhutan. He says he tended just over 5 acres there on a farm that turned out potatoes by the ton.

Other crops are entirely new to him, including some destined for Two Ten Jack. Last year, the garden agreed to supply the restaurant with a steady stream of ingredients — including Japanese essentials like shishitos, daikon radishes and a leafy green called komatsuna.

Poudel is pleased with how this year's crop is going.

"Shishito pepper," he points out. "Very good!"

This produce is organic and grown to Two Ten Jack's specifications. The restaurant even provided the seeds to get just the variety of shishito it wanted.

The growers also raise food for their own use and to sell at a local farmer's market, says Lauren Bailey, the Growing Together program's manager.

"It's a mix of trying to highlight things that they know how to grow really well and things that might be new to them that Nashville and American customers might be more used to."

A Japanese pumpkin ripens on the vine in the Growing Together garden.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Bailey says there are similar programs in other cities, including a thriving CSA farmed by refugees in the Atlanta area.

Nashville's program is still in its early stages. There are eight farmers, each of whom gets 1,200 to 2,400 square feet. That's smaller than a tennis court and, Bailey admits, not enough land for farmers to earn a living.

Growing Together would like to acquire more space, but as it stands, she says, participants do get a chance to work, practice English, earn a little money and build confidence.

"We're able to sort of highlight a skill they bring to the United States and … give restaurants access to locally grown food."

By producing the flavors found thousands of miles away, they hope to close the gap between Nashville and abroad.

Because the names of plants vary across languages, organizers of the Growing Together garden often use flashcards to communicate with farmers.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN