OKRA – A STICKY BUSINESS
My mother receives a weekly shipment of fresh organic vegetables from a CSA (community supported agriculture). While some of these items are familiar to her, some are unknown and intimidating. Last week in her shipment was some okra and I received a call seeking information on how to prepare it.
Okra (Hibiscus esculentus), a member of the mallow family and a relative of cotton, is a native of Ethiopia. The 3- to 9-foot high okra plants produce tapered capsules ranging from 2½ to 8 inches in length. Larger, mature pods require a slightly longer cooking time. For best flavor, the pods should be less than 4-inches long. Residents of the Mediterranean prefer even smaller pods, about 1-inch. Okra is high in fiber, rich in vitamins A, B, and C and iron and calcium, and purportedly enhances blood flow.
Okra arrived in America in the early 1600s with the black slaves, but never received much attention outside the South where it is fried, stewed, steamed, and pickled. The word okra came from okuru in Igbo, a language of Nigeria. In England and India it is known as lady fingers. Its Bantu name (in central Africa) kingombo or ochinggomboo gave rise to the name of the famous dish, gumbo. The Ladino name for okra, bamia, and, the Arabic name, bamiya, also derived from the Bantu kingombo, indicating its African origins.
There is no specific mention of this plant in the ancient world, though some scholars claim that a few ambiguous Egyptian pyramid drawings are of okra. Its first verified appearance was in twelfth century CE Egypt. Shortly thereafter, the Moors introduced okra to Spain, where, as with other vegetables, it gained wide acceptance amongst Sephardim. The few other areas where okra accrued some degree of popularity was in the Levant, Balkans, India, and the American South. After tomatoes arrived from South America, they became the favorite Sephardic partner for okra, alone or as one of many vegetables in a stew. For a more substantial dish, meatballs are cooked with the sauce. In the Middle East, okra pods are sometimes pickled along with other vegetables in turshi. Dried okra is enjoyed through the winter.
Okra’s mucilaginous nature — very noticeable when overcooked — makes it unappetizing to many. However, soaking it in vinegar water or blanching in hot water lessens this attribute. Okra is often paired with tomatoes and lemon juice, as their acid tends to counteract the gooeyness. On the other hand, okra’s primary characteristic can be desirable in stews as a thickener. Some cooks insist on frying okra in a little oil until browned, about five minutes, before cooking to enhance the flavor. Middle Easterners historically tended to overcook their vegetables, resulting in rather wilted okra; many contemporary diners prefer their okra with some of the crispness intact.
Okra and chicken stews are popular summer Sabbath fare from India to Tunisia. Among Sephardim from Turkey and the Balkans, okra in tomato sauce was both everyday fare as well as a Sabbath dish from late spring through Sukkot. In some households, it is also common at the meal following the fast of Yom Kippur. Syrians feature okra flavored with tamarind on Rosh Hashanah and festive occasions. Persians cook okra in a lamb stew called yakhnat.
Although okra can be found year-round, the best supplies are from May to October. For best flavor, pods should be less than 4-inches long. If your fingernail does not easily go into the pod, it is too old. Store in a plastic bag at room temperature for no more than a day or two. Rinse just before cooking.
TO PREPARE: Gently scrub the okra to remove any fuzz. Trim the caps of the okra being careful not to cut into the flesh.
Soak every 1 pound (455 grams) whole okra in a mixture of 1 quart (1 liter) water and ¼ cup (60 ml) vinegar for 1 hour. Drain.
In the Greek method, spread 1 pound (455 grams) okra in a single layer on a baking sheet, sprinkle with ¼ cup (60 ml) vinegar, and dip the caps into kosher salt. Return the okra to the baking sheet and let stand in the sun or a warm place for 1 hour. Rinse under cold water and pat dry.
1 pound (455 grams) okra = 64 medium
= 13.5 ounces trimmed
= 3.8 cups
1 cup (240 ml) trimmed okra = 3.5 ounces/100 grams
Okra is one of those items that people either love or hate. Or more likely, unfamiliar with. Something about the slime and unique earthy-vegetal flavor turns some people off. Heirloom okra has a more intense flavor than most modern commercial types. Also large pods tend to be tough and woody. I happen to love it, although I don’t very often get the opportunity in New York City to find if fresh.
Here are a few okra dishes from okra-loving regions:
6 to 8 servings
2 pounds (7 cups) whole small okra, caps removed and sliced ½-inch thick
4 to 6 cups vegetable oil for deep-frying
1½ cups cornmeal (or 1 cup all-purpose flour and ½ cup cornmeal)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
3 to 4 lightly beaten eggs or ¾ cup buttermilk (or 2 eggs beaten with ¾ cup whole milk)
1. In a large pot or skillet, heat the oil to 370 degrees.
2. In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, pepper, cayenne, and garlic powder. Dip the okra in the eggs to coat, then dredge in the cornmeal mixture to coat well.
3. In about 3 batches, add the okra to the oil and fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes per batch. Remove and drain. Serve hot.
Sephardic Okra with Tomatoes (Bamia kon Domates) P
6 to 8 servings
2 quarts water mixed with ½ cup white or cider vinegar
2 pounds (7 cups) whole small okra, caps removed, or 20 ounces frozen
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups (24 ounces) peeled, seeded, and chopped plum tomatoes, or 6 ounces tomato paste dissolved in 2 cups water
About 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons granulated or brown sugar
Ground black pepper to taste
1. Soak the okra in the vinegar water for 1 hour. Drain and pat dry.
2. In a large skillet or saucepan, heat 3 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add the okra and sauté until golden, about 15 minutes. Remove the okra.
3. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, then the onions and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 15 minutes.
4. Add the lemon juice, sugar, and pepper. Return the okra, cover, and simmer over low heat until tender, about 30 minutes, or bake in a 375-degree oven, about 1 hour. Serve warm accompanied with rice or flat bread or at room temperature.
Sephardic Okra with Lemon (Bamia kon Limon): Substitute 1 cup water for the tomatoes and increase the lemon juice to ½ cup.
Sephardic Okra with Meatballs: Form 1 pound ground beef or lamb into ½-inch balls, brown in hot oil, remove the meatballs, add and fry the onions, then return the meatballs when returning the okra.
Balkan Okra with Dill: Omit the onions. In Step 4 when the okra is tender, add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill.
Ethiopian Okra with Tomatoes (Bamya Alicha): Omit the lemon juice and sugar. With the tomatoes, add 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger and ¾ teaspoon ground cardamom. After cooking the okra for 25 minutes, add 1 to 3 seeded and minced jalapeños and cook for 5 additional minutes.
Indian Okra with Tomatoes (Bindi Bhaji): With the lemon juice, add ½ teaspoon ground turmeric and, if desired, ¾ teaspoon dried chili flakes. If desired, reduce the tomatoes to 2 cups and substitute ¼ cup tamarind paste dissolved in 2 cups water for the lemon juice.
Iraqi Okra with Stuffed Dumplings (Kubba Bamiya): Increase the lemon juice to ¾ cup and water to 8 cups. Add 16 to 18 kubbah (stuffed dumplings made with a semolina shell; see page 000) when returning the okra and simmer until they rise to the surface, about 25 minutes.
Syrian Okra with Tomatoes (Bamia bil Benadora): With the tomatoes, add ¼ teaspoon ground allspice and 2 tablespoons tamarhindi (tamarind sauce) or 1 tablespoon apricot butter and 1 tablespoon prune butter. If desired, also add ¾ cup pitted prunes.
Syrian Okra with Tamarind (Bamia bil Tamarhindi): Omit the tomatoes and lemon juice and add ¼ cup tamarind paste dissolved in 2 cups water. If desired, after cooking the okra for 30 minutes, add 1 cup (4 ounces) dried apricots and 1 cup (6 ounces) pitted prunes and simmer for an additional 30 minutes.
Sephardic Chicken with Okra (Pollo kon Bamia) M
(4 to 6 servings)
1 pound (3½ cups) stemmed fresh okra or 10 ounces frozen
2 quarts water mixed with 2 tablespoons white or cider vinegar
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or 8 (3½ pounds total) chicken thighs, bone-in and with the skin on
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups chicken broth or water
4 medium (1 pound) tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
About 1 teaspoon table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt
Ground black pepper to taste
1. Soak the okra in the vinegar water for 30 minutes. Drain.
2. Rinse the chicken well and pat dry. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken — do not crowd the pan — and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken.
3. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons fat from the pot. Add the onion, then garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the broth, tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Return the chicken. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes.
4. Add the okra. Simmer until the chicken and okra are tender, about 30 minutes. Serve with rice or crusty bread.
Balkan Chicken with Okra (Pojo con Bambia): Reduce the broth or water to 1 cup and add 1 cup dry red wine with the okra.
Calcutta Chicken with Okra (Bamia Huta): With the tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons tamarhindi (tamarind paste), 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger, and ½ teaspoon ground turmeric. Just before serving, stir in 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint.
Greek Chicken with Okra (Poyo Frikasse con Bamyes): With the tomato, add 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Just before serving, stir in about 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.
Tunisian Chicken with Okra (Dajaaj bi Bamia/Ganaouia au Poulet): With the tomatoes, add ½ teaspoon ground turmeric and 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon ground coriander.
Calcutta Pickled Okra (Bamia Pickle) P
(About 2 cups)
This is a synthesis of Middle Eastern and Indian styles.
1½ cups cider or malt vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons table salt or 1/3 cup kosher salt
2 to 4 small green chilies (optional)
8 ounces (about 40 pods) small okra
4 teaspoons chopped cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
4 teaspoons minced garlic
4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1. In a large non-reactive pot, bring the vinegar, sugar, and salt to a simmer, stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar and salt dissolve. If using, add the chilies and simmer for 2 minutes. Let cool.
2. Remove the tops of the okra. Cut a 1-inch slit lengthwise along each okra pod. In a small bowl, combine the cilantro, garlic, and ginger. Stuff about ¼ teaspoon into each pod.
3. Into a large jar, pack the okra and, if using, chilies. Pour the vinegar mixture over top to cover. Close the jar and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours, then place in the refrigerator for 1 week.
(6 to 8 servings)
2 pounds (910 grams/7 cups/1.7 liters) whole small okra, soaked in vinegar water and drained
1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped (2 cups/500 ml/8 ounces/225 grams)
1 small (about ½ cup/120 ml) green bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups (2 pounds/910 grams) tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 cup (240 ml) water
1 to 3 teaspoons (5 t 15 ml) granulated or brown sugar
About ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) salt
Ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
Pinch ground cloves
1 bay leaf
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and bell pepper and sauté until softened (5 to 10 minutes). Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and 1 cup (240 ml) water and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft (about 15 minutes).
2. Add the okra, sugar, salt, pepper, chili powder, cloves, and bay leaf. Cover and simmer over low heat until tender (about 30 minutes) or bake in a 375-degree (190 C) oven (about 1 hour).
3. Uncover and cook until most of the liquid evaporates. Serve warm or at room temperature.