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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bhindi (Okra) Curry

I hate okra. You know that song - "Great green gobs of ..."?

Well, it always made me think of okra. It is slimy, gummy, gooey, green grossness.

I HATE okra.

But I like this curry. And it is made with okra.

Okra. There's a reason the soup that incorporates it as a mainstay is called "gumbo". "Mucilaginous" is the best, most polite way to describe okra. Mucilaginous. The very word has the ring of authenticity. That's got to be an onomatopoeia if ever there was one. Mucilaginous mucilaginous mucilaginous - I really HATE okra.

Poor okra has really gotten a bum rap all these years. Poor okra does not, after all, entirely deserve it's reputation as the slug of the vegetable world. It turns out that okra does not, in fact, HAVE to turn into something that exudes long strings of slime that something deep inside you knows will never never never EVER wash off.

It can do so, and easily does. But it doesn't HAVE to be that way. With a little tender loving care, you too can make unslimy, tasty okra dishes.

There are two ways to get around the sliminess of okra. One is to deep fry the little buggers so you sort of cauterize the wounds, causing them to cease their relentless gooey oozings. It works, there's no doubt, but it's really sort of an unnecessary step if you're going on to make a main dish with it anyway. Plus, I don't like deep-frying much. Plus plus, I can't shake the idea that deep frying okra somehow contaminates the oil permanently (as I typically use deep-frying oil at least 3 times before discarding). I'd have to be sure I was using the deep frying oil on it's last trip before the Long Goodbye if I were ever to risk deep-frying okra.

But that's just me.

The other is to pan fry the okra, sliced into little wheel-shapes, in a single layer, until they are brown and crispy. This does take some time, but it is time well-spent. So first I'm going to describe the technique, and then I'll put the actual recipe under that.

JUMP to the ACTUAL RECIPE if you don't want to read all about the technique.

The first way to fend off the oozies it to use the freshest, least mature okra pods you can find. If they're longer than 3", they're edging towards doddering okra senility. If they're longer than 4", AVOID AVOID AVOID! *SHUDDER*

So get the smallest, firmest pods. It's unfortunate but an awful lot of grocery-store okra is going to be, shall we say, "overdeveloped" for our purposes, but you can still make it work as long as you stay away from the biggest pods.

Wash your okra, then dry it THOROUGHLY. I toss it in a dishtowel and then lay it out on another, dry dishtowel to air dry. Yes, this takes some time, but it's time you spend doing other more useful and fun things. Like reading the 9 million free books I downloaded onto the e-reader my son gave me. YES!

When the okra is completely dry (I mean COMPLETELY dry, because any hint of wetness will bring on the oozies big time), cut it into wheel-shaped rounds, about 1/4" thick. Discard the stem end. Whether or not you discard the pointy end is purely a matter of - dare I say it, in connection with okra - aesthetics.

Yes, it will start to ooze while you're doing this. Your knife blade will collect a layer of goo with embedded okra seeds, and you will occasionally have to remove the odd piece of okra that has glued itself to the side of your knife. However, be of stout heart! Persevere in the face of adversity! Fear not! All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Heat a T or 2 of oil in the largest frying pan you have - because you want to fry these up in a single layer, as much as possible. Shallow is fine, as long as the surface area is as large as possible. (Alternatively, you can stir fry these in a wok at high temperature, which would probably go faster, but I don't have a wok at present so this is how to do it sans wok)

As the oil heats, I add cumin seeds first, then as they start to brown, drop in the mustard seeds (quantities are coming later, patience, gentle reader!), and as soon as the mustard seeds pop I drop in the curry leaves, which fry just long enough for me to pick up my already-cut-up okra slices and dump them right in the pan there. Stir around quickly to sear/seal the cut faces of the okra. Reduce heat to medium and settle in for the long haul.

I have never timed this but it's a strictly go-by-looks sort of operation anyway so I'm not sure timing would be of any real use. How fast the okra browns up and "crispens" is going to be a function of how hot "medium" actually is on your stove, what sort of pan you're using, the age of the okra (older okra will take longer to properly "cauterize" and may actually get tough if you go too fast), how willing you are to stand and stir, etc.

Since I am unwilling to stand and stir, I'm happy with the medium heat and checking the okra every once in awhile to give it a stir, flip it over, and generally patiently wait for it to get brown and crispy. DO NOT cover with a lid while this is going on, or you will be trapping steam = water = GOO.

Once the okra is all brown and nice and crispy (and it does take awhile), you can add in the onions, garlic, and other spices, and finish cooking.

OK. Now for


1/2 lb of okra
1/2 to 3/4 lb of diced potatoes (I actually julienned mine on my mandoline, which turned out roughly 2" long pieces of potato that looked sort of like short shoestring fries)
2 T oil
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp black mustard seed
about a half dozen curry leaves
1 med onion (to taste), diced
2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground red chili (NOT "chili powder")
1/4 tsp ground fenugreek
OPTIONAL - 1/2 tsp good quality curry powder (not any American grocery store stuff)
2 T cilantro, coarsely chopped

You can make this with just 1 lb of okra (no potatoes) if you wish.
  1. Wash and dry the okra, as above.
  2. While okra is drying, dice or julienne potatoes and fry with as little oil as possible until they are nearly done. This will only take a few minutes because the potatoes are cut small. Set aside.
  3. Heat oil in a large skillet
  4. Fry the cumin seed, then the mustard seed, then the curry leaves (as above).
  5. IMMEDIATELY add the okra, stir well
  6. Reduce to medium - NO LID! Stir well, and stir occasionally till okra turns brown and crispy
  7. Add onions, salt and garlic - stir 'til onions start to brown.
  8. Add turmeric, chili powder, fenugreek, and curry powder (if you are using it). If I'm using curry powder I will typically leave the turmeric out or cut it to 1/4 tsp.
  9. Add the (precooked) potatoes.
  10. Stir well to coat with spices as evenly as possible.
  11. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice or chapatti, puri, or naan.

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