Up to about the age of six, I was a super picky eater. I’ve chronicled my hatred of fish before but that was just the tip of the food-berg. As far as I was concerned there was an embargo on radish, squash, pumpkin, any kind of gourd, string beans, even okra. Even back then, my little mind could not fathom my distaste for okra. I thought it was the cutest vegetable ever (in India we call them lady’s fingers how cute is that?). I loved the flavour of the vegetable my mother made. I mean it had potatoes. I’ll eat pretty much anything with potatoes. And yet, I couldn’t stand to eat it. I’d separate out the potatoes from the okra. My younger sister was easily distracted and excelled at slipping the pieces of okra into her plate when she wasn’t looking.
Then one day I found myself in Vadodara, visiting my dad who was working on a consulting gig up there. My sister had the chicken pox and had stayed back with my aunt which meant my mama’s gimlet eye was fixed on me at meal times. My dad had been put up in this spacious white guest house along with a few other consultants. Since the guest house came complete with its own cook, there was nothing for mom to do at meal times other than serve herself, and watch me eat my vegetables.
That trip brought me up against a few home truths. Until then, I had basically considered that my bratty kid sister had been put on this planet with the sole purpose of irritating me. I now realized how much of my picky food dealings had gone unnoticed thanks to her. One hot afternoon, Raman the cook deftly spooned a few spoonfuls of green slivers into my plate. The vegetable was unrecognizable. Looking closer I realized in alarm that the green was okra, just cut differently from the discs I was so familiar with. My mom sat at the table across from me, tearing pieces of her chapati and starting to eat. She narrowed her eyes and nodded at my plate. I knew she took our food etiquette pretty seriously and I would pay dearly if I insulted someone else’s cooking by not eating it. I looked around but there was nowhere to run.
I gingerly doused my chapati in as much pickle as I could stand, wrapped it around a solitary sliver of bhindi and put it in my mouth, hoping not to gag. As I chewed a couple of times, I slowly realised something else. This stuff was gooood.
I may have licked that plate clean if I wasn’t watching my manners. As I ate I realised it wasn’t the vegetable I hated, it was the degree of done-ness that was my mom’s method. A degree of done-ness aided and abetted by her way of cooking it. Also, I objected to how slimy okra can be. Both of those things were non-issues in the vegetable I was devouring. My mom watched in wonder as I asked for a second helping and not one to let the grass grow under her feet, she promptly asked the cook how he cooked his okra.
He told her a couple of things. Always make sure the vegetable is completely dry. This cuts down on the slimy-ness. Also, cutting the vegetable longitudinally as opposed to in discs can help it crisp up better. So from then on, one of my jobs was always to wipe each individual bhindi dry. It also started my love affair with this vegetable. I can now eat it pretty much cut in any fashion. But I still prefer fresh over frozen. I will still wipe down each individual piece. I will cut each one longitudinally if I’m going to use it in any kind of stir fry.
What follows isn’t Raman’s recipe. It is a riff on what my mom used to make. It is super quick and easy, even with the wiping of the okra. I like to cook my okra until the sliver can no longer hold its shape. You can cook it less if you want to. Okra being okra never quite loses its crunch until you cook it a long time. This whole thing takes about 20 to 25 minutes. You can make this with frozen okra, but expect a lot more mush with the additional water.
Stir-fried okra and potatoes
Makes 2-3 servings
Fresh Okra (bhindi) – 1 pound
Potatoes – 2, medium
Mustard seeds – 2 tsp
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Fenugreek seeds – 2 tsp
Curry leaves – 4
Red chilli powder – 2 tsp
Amchur powder – a pinch
Maple syrup – 1 tsp
Soy sauce – 2 tsp
Salt to taste
Oil for frying
– Wash and dry the okra and cut into quarters longitudinally.
– Cut the potatoes into sticks of about similar size, as if for fries.
– In a non-stick pan, pour a couple of turns of oil. When it shimmers, temper with the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek and curry leaves.
– When the seeds start to sputter, toss in the potatoes and stir to coat. Cook the potatoes for ten minutes or so.
– Add the cut okra. Add the chilli powder, amchur and salt and mix everything thoroughly. Allow to cook with intermittent stirring. Allow the vegetables to start to crisp up .
– Mix the soy and maple syrup together and pour into the pan. Toss vegetables to coat.
– Cook until okra starts to lose shape, about 20 minutes or so.
Serve with chapatis or rice.