Sunday, April 6, 2008

Okra Around The World

From the Guest Poster (Neen's Dad): Okra. Not quite comfort food, but familiar, associated with family meals when I was growing up. In Alabama and Georgia, it was cut into rounds, breaded and fried crispy -- and I have discovered with pleasure that the same preparation is regularly available as a "side" in many a Texas barbecue joint.

The okra pod contains a delicious ooze around the seeds, a substance that thickens stews and gives them a distinct tang. In Louisiana okra figures in many a "gumbo" dish, married with seafood and onions and tomatoes, spiced with gumbo filé (powdered sassafras). And in the cooking of the deep South, gumbo rounds appear in side dishes in combination with tomato or corn.

Only when I learned practical, everyday market French in West Africa did I discover that gumbo is in fact the word the French use for "okra." Gumbo regularly figures in West African stews; the most challenging is the "sauce gumbo" served to accompany foutu, a heavy paste of pounded yam or pounded plantain banana. Many a North American faces difficulties with sauce gumbo, not because of its particular taste but rather because of its extraordinary texture. The Baoulé, Agni, Senefou and other peoples of French-speaking West Africa love lots of gumbo in their sauces. To the uninitiated, shoveling gumbo sauce felt like scooping up mucous secretions.

In her cookbook Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking Julie Sahni acknowledges that difficulty:

"Okra is a delicious vegetable, but it turns viscous and slimy when comes in contact with moisture."

Reading that, I flashed on "vicious" instead of "viscous" and got a disconcerting image of enraged okra pods. So I couldn't resist her recipe. As part of the inaugural Indian style meal for our visit to Neen and D, I had to try Braised Okra with Tomatoes, Onions and Spices.

(for 4 persons)

1/2 cup light vegetable oil
1 pound okra, trimmed and left whole
3 cups finally chopped onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons grated or crushed fresh ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 cups finely chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt, or to taste (use a lesser quantity if you're obliged to substitute regular finely ground salt)

1 cup hot water
3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

The trick to the cooking technique is to trim the okra at either end but leave them intact so that the interior ooze does not escape, other than for an occasional accident late in the cooking process. That way you will have all of that flavor captured inside the pods. I suggest that you choose the youngest, tenderest okra pods and avoid the larger ones, which can be gnarly and almost woody. This time of year in Washington DC the okra in upscale markets is imported from Chile at hair-raising prices, so I felt entirely justified in picking and choosing my pods.

1. Heat 1/4 cup of the oil over medium-high heat in a large heavy skillet or heavy cooking pot. When the oil is very hot, add the okra in a single layer and fry without stirring for 1 minute. Continue cooking for 3 or 4 minutes more, tossing and turning the okra until it is lightly browned. Remove the okra from the pan and set aside -- preferably on newspaper so that it can lose some of its oil coating.

2. Measure out the spices. We prefer to toast whole cumin seeds in a dry, very hot frying pan, moving them constantly so they don't burn, then crush them in a mortar and pestle. You may combine the cumin, coriander, fennel, cayenne pepper and turmeric. Keep the garlic and ginger separate.

3. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of oil to the same pan as before, along with the onion. Cook the onion until light golden (about 5 minutes, says Sahni). Add garlic and ginger to the onion and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns caramel brown. (Or until you think it has gotten as brown as it's going to get.)

4. Add the cumin, coriander, fennel, cayenne pepper and turmeric. Stir for a few seconds and then add the tomatoes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring for 3 minutes or until mixture thickens and becomes pulpy. Add the okra, salt and 1 cup hot water. Stir to mix and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook, covered, until the okra is cooked (about 20 minutes) and the sauce is thick. Stir in a little of the chopped coriander leaves and garnish with what's left.

We found that with these proportions the dish was tasty but quite mild. You could up the spicing significantly (especially the cayenne pepper) or serve it alongside a sharp chutney.

Neen's Insertion: I thought I didn't like Okra (too slimy) until I went to Mali to do research for my BA thesis, and realized that I strongly associate the flavor with my childhood in West Africa. I had never made the association before because, as a kid, I would eat around the Okra -- I didn't realize how critical the flavor was to many staple dishes. That, and the fact that Okra is also a culinary cornerstone in the South-East, where my Dad's side of the family is from, almost lands it a place in the family scrapbook. (A JOKE). We'd like to submit this post to Weekend Herb Blogging. If you'd like to participate, read the rules for Weekend Herb Blogging, then send your entry to whomever is hosting by 3:00 on Sunday, Utah time.


Kalyn said...

Okra is something I haven't eaten too much, but I do like it in gumbo, and this sounds very tasty.

giz said...

It's the viscous and slimy part that always kinda threw me off and being from the north - waaaay north - we just don't get enough exposure to it. I must conquer this fear.

Laurie Constantino said...

We always have a glut of okra in September, so I'm always collecting okra recipes. This sounds like a good one. Yum.

Lisa said...

I've never cooked with orka before, but this sounds like something I would enjoy. Thanks for the cooking tips.