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Seasonal foods are a major feature in the culinary landscape of India. Summer months are noted for mangoes and mango related recipes, and the much-anticipated monsoon season, so cool after the hot summer months, brings with it a variety of rain-loving vegetables. Okra is my personal favorite treat of this season.
Okra is native to west Africa and was brought to the United States by African slaves in the 1600s. It has become a popular soul food in the south. Okra is believed to have come to India via the Middle East. It was introduced to other tropical areas of the world where it was easy to grow, and became a popular feature in many varied cuisines including Southern American, Middle Eastern, Brazilian, Chinese, and Indian.
Okra is colorful, dainty, nutritious, and tasty when cooked right. Okra’s nutritional profile is very impressive. One cup of cooked okra contains 3 grams of protein, 147 mgs calcium and 1.18 mgs iron. These essential nutrients are often difficult to find in vegetables.
When cooked, okra has mucilaginous characteristics that can work for or against a dish depending on the recipe.
For example, in southern American gumbo, okra’s “sliminess” is essential to create its classic thick sauce. However, in a stir-fried Indian sabji, the stickiness is not desirable.
While some people prefer okra for its gumbo-like qualities, I personally like to minimize the sliminess by employing various methods.
Here are a couple of examples of dry okra recipes from two very different parts of the world, interpreted my way.
When selecting okra, choose young, tender and firm green pods. For the recipes provided here okras should not be washed, but instead pat-cleaned with a wet kitchen towel.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager of Other Avenues, a health-food store.
Okra Bhaji with Green Onion and Peppers
30 pods of young tender okra, cleaned with a damp cloth, stems and tips removed and cut into four pieces, length wise
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
3 green onions (scallions) cut into half, lengthwise, including some green parts
1 semi-hot fresh pepper such as the Anaheim or Poblano pepper, cut into thin slices
l tomato, cut into small pieces
½ teaspoon each turmeric, coriander powder, and salt
Juice of ½ lime or lemon
Heat oil over moderate heat and add the cumin seeds. Allow them to brown for a minute and then add the onions and pepper slices. Stir fry for a few minutes and then add the tomato. Keep stirring until all the juice from the tomato evaporates.
Add the okra slices. Add the salt and the spices and continue to stir fry so that the okra is completely cooked using the juices of the vegetables. Use the stir-fry spoon to scrape up any bits that stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the lemon or lime juice and cook for a couple of minutes more until the juice evaporates. Serve hot with rice or any flat bread.
Creole Fried Okra
½ lb (about 30 pods) young, tender okra
1 large or 2 small eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup buttermilk or yogurt blended with 2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon each salt, onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, and paprika
A few pinches of cayenne pepper
1 cup vegetable oil (or enough to cover 1”of the bottom of a cast-iron frying pan)
¾ cup finely ground cornmeal
¼ cup unbleached white flour (or garbanzo flour for a gluten-free recipe)
Wipe the okra using a damp kitchen towel or napkin. Trim off the tips and base of each pod. Cut okra into ½-inch rounds or into four pieces lengthwise.
Mix the eggs, buttermilk, water, salt, and spices together in a bowl and add the okra pieces. Allow them to marinate for a few minutes.
Heat the oil in a skillet. On a platter or pie plate mix the cornmeal and flour together. (Apart from being gluten-free, the garbanzo flour gives the mixture a nice texture and upgrades the recipe nutritionally with the added protein.)
Place a handful of the marinated okra pieces into the cornmeal and flour mixture and toss until the okra is evenly coated. When the oil is very hot, transfer the okra to the skillet in small batches. Do not over–crowd; leave space for the okra pieces to swim while cooking. Turn them frequently using a slotted spoon until they are golden brown on all sides. As soon as they are done, remove them with the slotted spoon, allowing the dripping oil to drain back into the pan. Place the fried okra in a single layer onto a platter which has been lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Serve as a hot side dish with other saucy dishes, or as an appetizer with a dipping sauce, recipe to follow.
Zesty Creole Dipping Sauce:
1 cup sour cream or unflavored, unsweetened yogurt
A few tablespoons water
2 tablespoons minced scallion, green parts included
1 to 2 teaspoons minced jalapeno pepper (seeds removed if extra hotness not desired)
½ teaspoon hot Creole mustard
½ teaspoon salt
Whisk the sour cream or yogurt with water. Add the rest of the ingredients and taste to correct seasoning. Store in a glass jar and refrigerate until ready to serve.