Saturday, October 24, 2009

The best Okra you will ever eat: Here’s how to cook it

Originally uploaded by यश
Growing up, the only vegetable I would eat was okra. A very common perennial plant growing in the tropics, there was never any shortage of okra in the market. Okra pods resemble hot chilli peppers in shape. They are elongated, starting broad on the stem side, and tapering at the end. They have a soft textured skin and are slimy inside. The slime, also called mucilage, deters most people from even trying to cook okra let alone eat it. But all the credit for me loving okra so much, goes to my mom’s recipe.

Many have even tried, and failed at cooking okra like my mom does. They cannot be blamed though, because such a complicated preparation cannot be perfected in one try. Luckily for me, years of observing her cook okra at least 5 times a week has made me an expert in the field. The process of cooking okra involves selecting the right produce, choosing the right spices, and using the correct technique.

When purchasing this vegetable, depending on the region, okra may be called by a different name. In Hindi, my native language, okra goes by ‘bhindi’. Other languages in southern Asia, use a variant of ‘bhindi’. In English speaking countries outside USA or North America, it is known as ‘lady’s finger’. In parts of US it is also known as ‘Gumbo’; a corruption of the word quingombo. The name okra originated from West Africa. It was during the slave trafficking days that okra first reached the new world.

Getting okra or ‘lady’s finger’ in frozen packs should be avoided. The plant grows easily in difficult conditions and resists most pests and diseases. So, a backyard vegetable garden serves as the perfect source for okra. Alternatively buy it fresh, preferably from a lot where it is possible to select the okra pods individually. Look for slim and long okra, not the short and fat ones. An easy way to judge fresh okra from the lot: try to snap the thin end between the index finger and the thumb. It should snap and break off; not feel mushy and bend. I was the only one in the house who could eat okra 5 times a week, so my mom never had to worry about the quantity. But because okra shrinks when fried, I would advise to buy a little more than the estimated quantity.
Besides the purchasing process, the spice selection carries much importance. However, with eating out and microwave food becoming the norm, one would be lucky to find even salt in the kitchen. My mom has a round stainless steel container which is like a treasure chest of spices; but here, only 5 spices are needed. The recipe calls for cumin and mustard seeds, chilli powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder and salt. Cumin, natively from the Middle East to East India, can be used powdered or as whole seeds. Cumin seeds have some essential oil content which gives them a warm earthy smell. Cumin seeds are brown in color and oblong in shape. Kind of like fennel or caraway seeds. Mustard seeds, the black or brown kind, do not have any aroma but have a distinct flavor.

Chilli powder is a hot red powder made from cayenne pepper or other kinds of dried hot peppers. Depending on the kind of pepper used to make it, chilli powder varies in hotness. Like all hot peppers, chilli powder also contains a strong irritant called capsaicin. Capsaicin causes burning and irritation when it comes in contact with skin. So better use a spoon to add the chilli powder. Coriander powder: another spice that comes from a plant’s seeds. The powder gives the food a pleasant aroma and texture. The turmeric powder as the name suggests comes from the root of the turmeric plant—a close relative of ginger. Turmeric powder adds a slightly bitter and hot flavor to the food.

Once the okra and the other ingredients have been selected, the preparation may begin. The okra needs to be cut in thin long slices; not in round cross sections that look like flowers. Either of the following two techniques could be used. Hold the okra in one hand and with a paring knife, slit the okra in half, then quarters and so on until you get slices which are only about a half centimeter thick. Slices should be about two inches long. This method works best for people comfortable with cutting the vegetables in their hands. Those scared of holding their thumb against the knife blade can use this other method that involves a chopping board and a santoku knife. I prefer santoku over a chef’s knife because the straight blade of the santoku does not require much wrist motion when chopping vegetables. With a slicing motion, split the okra in long halves on a chopping board. Then with a chopping motion, cut the halves into thin long slices. Rinse and repeat. Both these methods do take quite a while so be patient; It will be worth it.

Just like the one night, I insisted that mom cook okra for me and my cousin. Being exhausted, she refused; yelling at us about how long it takes just to cut the okra! Young, stupid and persistent as I was, I decided me and my cousin were going to cut the okra for her. After we were done, she took over to cook that okra.

So, let us get on with the cooking. For frying the okra, an Asian style round bottom ‘wok’ works best. In a pinch, a pot will also work. Oil splatters much too easily from a shallow pan. Pour generous quantity of peanut oil, or vegetable oil in the wok. Then add the cumin and mustard seeds. The other spices however, are held off until the end. Turn the flame on high. Once the seeds start splattering, gently slide the okra slices in to the wok. The water of the okra will make the oil splatter like fireworks. Keep hands away to avoid the hot oil. Once the crackling subsides, check the oil level. Add more if it seems inadequate. Do not put in any spices yet or they will just burn in the heat and leave a bad taste. Keep stirring the okra. Fry them till they turn dark and crisp. The closer they get to being done, the more vigorously they should be stirred. Be attentive, because it does not take the thin okra slices very long to go from crisp to burnt.

Once crisp, take the wok off the heat. Scoop the okra out of the oil with a perforated spatula, and put them in a bowl where all the spices will be mixed. Toss the okra so the spices coat the okra evenly, and serve while they are still hot. Preparing this okra dish early and reheating it in the microwave takes away from the experience. The okra will be the most crisp when hot. Many people who had never tried this preparation before, say it tastes like chips. Maybe so, but to me, this, served with hot mom-made rotis topped with butter makes a hearty, satisfying meal.

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