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Ravenna community gardener Pam Okano stays connected to her culture by growing her own fresh vegetables

In celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, we are hosting a series of profiles and stories to amplify and honor people, businesses, organizations, and projects connected to the history of Seattle’s AANHPI community.

What is your ethnicity and generation in the United States?

“I am Japanese American, I am Sansei- my grandparents came to this country. I grew up on Bainbridge Island.”

How long have you/your family been gardening at your P-Patch?

“I started gardening at Ravenna in 1982, the year after it opened. I used to be up at a P-Patch that no longer exists on NE 75th St., a little south of Picardo. I used to walk up there; I didn’t have a car at the time. Ravenna is in easy walking distance to our house so when that opened, I signed up for it.”

How does growing food help you maintain a connection to your heritage?

“My mom was a farm girl. Her family had a farm on the Olympic Peninsula. She and her sister, my aunt, would help around the farm there. At that time, they raised chickens and they also had cows and a small vegetable garden, enough for the family. I asked her once, ‘what did you do during the great depression?’ and she said it didn’t really affect her that much. I think it is because they were pretty much self-sufficient out there.

“We’ve been going to Japan a lot until recently. One of the things that the Japanese really value is having really fresh food because Japanese people don’t put a heck of a lot of seasoning or sauces on their food. They are very seasonal. I mean, you can’t get some dishes that are usually served in winter – even though they have the ingredients – in the middle of summer because that just wouldn’t be right! Having very fresh vegetables is a big deal in Japan.”

Is there a vegetable/plant you like to grow that connects you to your family heritage?

“I’ve discovered a Japanese seed company that has a lot of Asian vegetable seeds. I like to grow snow peas and shungiku, which is an edible chrysanthemum, often put in sukiyaki [a Japanese hot pot recipe]. It costs a fortune to buy, so I’m happy to grow my own! Japanese spinach is nostalgic for me. There is always a joke about how American kids don’t like spinach, but Japanese kids love spinach because it’s not overcooked it’s just blanched. You stick it in the boiling water for no more than a minute and it is still a bit crunchy. I’m going to have a good spinach crop this year for the first time because the weather has been so great! Japanese people also have a dish were they put peas and a few other seasonings in rice. I don’t like to make that dish with frozen peas, I like to make it when I get peas fresh from the garden.

“Also eggplant, and lately we’ve been growing something similar to shishito peppers. They have a little heat to them but not a lot. You can stir-fry them with some miso and soy sauce and they are really good that way. And with eggplants, there is a way you can slice up the eggplant and broil them with a miso mixture on top. It’s called eggplant dengaku and it’s very good!”