When Katsuji Tanabe’s family visits from Mexico, he makes a point to serve boiled peanuts. The Chopped champion and executive chef of A’Verde Cocina and Tequila Library in Cary, North Carolina, views the dish as a vessel for the “Southern charm of the area.” Tanabe himself came to the regional roadside staple late in life, having grown up in Mexico City with Japanese and Mexican parents. He immigrated to the United States at age eighteen and worked his way through California, Chicago, and New York before settling in the South as “culinary innovator” of LM Restaurants. While filming Top Chef in Charleston, South Carolina, years ago, Tanabe and his fellow contestants stopped at a boiled peanuts stall, giving him his first taste of the savory snack.
“As a chef, the food in the area around you inspires you. I always thought of peanuts as crunchy, but these were good,” he says. “I talked to the vendors about how they prepare them and tried to make them more gourmet and chef-y. It became an obsession.”
He added lime, hot sauce, and chiles from his Mexican heritage, plus soy and Worcestershire sauces to nod to his Japanese background. Though the spice list is fairly long, the method—toss everything into a pressure cooker—couldn’t be simpler. “The peanut is the perfect vehicle to carry these flavors because it soaks in everything,” he says. “It’s a very easy, approachable dish. It’s given me a sense of pride living in the South.”