Stir-fried bhindi (okra) & potato

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.

9 comments

  1. Sara

    This looks fantastic! I didn’t used to think I liked okra, but Indian food is definitely what changed my mind…now I love it! :)

    • Sharmila

      Thank you Sara. You should try this version. It’s an easy recipe to try and the payoff is totally worth it for the time it takes to make it.

  2. Christina Wood

    Delicious! I just made it this afternoon. I didn’t have amchur powder, so I used a splash of lime juice I had on hand. Out of curiosity did your mother use maple syrup and soy sauce in this recipe or were those your own additions? Those made it for me :)

    • Sharmila

      Hi Christina, I’m so happy to hear you liked this! Thanks very much for stopping by to let me know.
      The maple syrup and soy were my additions. Mom had easy access to soy back in India, but not maple syrup. This is how it ended up in the recipe. Fenugreek seeds can be bitterish and while I like that, I thought this dish needed some balance. I’d read somewhere that maple syrup uses fenugreek for flavouring/colour. Plus this one time I forgot to use a non-stick pan and needed to deglaze everything somehow. I used a mixture of soy and maple syrup as a solution to all of the above. I loved how it all worked and so kept it in. :)

      • Christina Wood

        Interesting comment about the fenugreek. My husband started making maple syrup a couple of years ago (only enough for our family of five for a couple of months) and all he does is boil the sap from the tree. I knew that some commercial maple syrups weren’t pure, but I didn’t realize that fenugreek was used for flavouring. Interesting to learn!

        Like I said before, your dish was delicious. I will enjoy it by myself, since my children and husband all detest okra!

        • Sharmila

          I googled this again. Apparently it is used to make imitation maple syrup.
          How great that your husband makes you your own syrup. The real thing has no need for fenugreek.
          Bon appetit!

  3. Priti

    I love okra and can’t wait to try this! I have cooked it several times in several different ways but this addition of soy-maple seems really interesting, next time I get okra this is what I am going to make.

    Interesting story too…I’ve given my mom many such surprises by falling in love with many veggies while dining at friends or relatives home. :)

    Is that a Lodge cast iron pan? I’ve just ordered my very first one, do you have any tips or suggestions for using it.

    • Sharmila

      Tell me about it. :) I think ultimately moms are happy that you start eating things no matter how you started liking it.
      Yes, that is a Lodge cast iron pan, though a smaller one. I Have another large one i cook in and love it. They heat up evenly and are a treat to cook on. They are fairly heavy and do require hand cleaning. Well, in reality you are supposed to not use soap and should wipe it down, using a scouring pad if anything is stuck. The patina that forms is supposed to season the pan and give you a non stick surface. But I can’t wrap my head around not scrubbing a pan clean. So I do clean mine and then I season it with some oil and heat it on the stovetop. Mine is holding up great so far. I bought it three years ago.

      • Priti

        Ya! I can’t think of not washing a pan just like you….thanks a lot for the tip, I feel more confident about using my cast iron skillet now. :)