Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ode to Okra

"Is it okay if I finish the last of the okra?"  Miles says in his most polite trying-to-be-the-boy-with-manners voice.  "No fair!  You had seconds already.  I want the last of the okra!" his 5 year old brother, Isaac, squawks.  Sound like a dream universe?  Welcome to my reality. I don't want to brag (yeah, okay, maybe I do!) but my children not only eat their vegetables, they fight over them too.  And there are few vegetables as fine as okra to argue over.

Okra is a much maligned vegetable.  It has a bad rap as slimy and hairy - it is neither - it is majestic and unique!  Call it lady's fingers, gumbo, vendaka or bhindi, okra is one of the Bailey family's favourite foods.  We have bhindi several times a week - in fact, during our time in India it has probably been our main green vegetable.  We never have leftovers and the boys have definitely been known to argue over who gets the last bhindi in the bowl.  

Bhindi is in all the markets here and appears to have no season (although we haven't been here for a full year so we don't know if it is available all year round) making it a good go-to vegetable. In Vancouver we buy okra on Main Street in Little India or in Chinatown, it can occasionally be spotted in other "asian" and "mediterranean" stores around town, but rarely in a supermarket so you have to look to find it.

For the uninitiated, okra are beautiful green ridged fruit or seed-pods, about 5 - 15 centimeters long, smaller are usually better since they can get too fibrous as they get larger. When sliced crosswise okra produces little pentagonal disks - hence the name 'bhindi' which means 'dot' in Hindi - filled with edible soft seeds.  Okra is a good source of vitamin A, C and several of the B vitamins, as well as potassium, protein and dietary fibre. There is a myth that bhindi (and mushrooms) should not be washed or they will absorb water and become slimy.  Not so!  Don't soak them, but a wash is just fine.  You can eat the whole pod but some people cut off the top part that attaches the pod to the stem.  

The texture of okra depends entirely on the technique with which you choose to cook it.  If you leave the okra whole, deep or shallow frying in hot oil produces crisp-on-the-outside-tender-juciness-on-the-inside.  If you cut the bhindi crosswise into rings and fry them, they get crispy-crunchy and caramelized like fried shallots.  You can roast them in the oven tossed in a little oil and salt to achieve a similar effect as long as you use a fairly high temperature and lay them on a sheet in a single layer.  Okra's bad reputation comes from the texture of the pods if you use moisture to cook them: if the heat is too low or you have too many in the pan, the moisture in the okra comes out and they stew in their own juices instead of caramelizing.  You can braise or stew okra and avoid the mucilaginous texture if you add something slightly acidic like tomatoes or citrus to the mix.  Sambar is a good example of this (see previous post). Or you can use that texture to your advantage to thicken and add body to a soup or stew.  We are partial to fried, very well-spiced bhindi, either left whole or cut into rings.

The following recipe is an adaptation of Fish Fry.  We were filming at a cardamom estate near Munnar last weekend (more on that in another post), owned by the eminently hospitable Rajindran and Suma.  Rajindran is "pure veg" which in India means that he eats no meat, fish or eggs but does eat dairy.  His lovely wife, Suma, was not vegetarian when they married but has become one in deference to her husband's lifestyle choice.  Because Suma grew up eating fish and meat, she was taught how to cook these foods Keralan style.  Her bhindi dish uses the same spicing and technique as a typical Keralan Fish Fry, substituting bhindi where there would otherwise be karimeen.  Her 'Chicken' Fry is made with cauliflower, but that's a whole other recipe for another time.

Bhindi 'Fish' Fry recipe

500 g okra

1 t turmeric

1 t ground black pepper

2 t red chili powder

1 t salt

1 t crushed garlic

1 t minced ginger

1t lime juice or vinegar

oil for shallow frying (coconut oil in Kerala but canola, sunflower or peanut would be fine)

Wash the okra and cut several 3-4 cm lengthwise slits into the pods, keeping both ends intact.  Mix up the spices and make into a paste by adding the garlic, ginger and lime juice. Rub the paste all over the okra making sure that the spice blend gets into the slits.  Let sit for 20-30 minutes.  Place about 2 cm of oil in a shallow pan and heat until just beginning to smoke. Add a few okra at a time and fry until nearly crisp and almost black.  Remove and drain on paper. Continue frying until all the pods have been cooked.  Serve with rice and other curries as a part of an Indian meal.

There are a lot of myths out there about what children will and won't eat. From what I can tell, a lot of what kids are willing to eat (or not) is predicated on their community's expectations of what they will like.  Our boys eat chillies, blue cheese, olives, pickles, garlic, jelly fish and most vegetables.  I don't think it ever occurred to Rob or to me that they wouldn't like those things (although judging from the reactions we get all over the world, they should not like them) so we ate them and expected the boys to eat them too.  No special meals, no extra dishes "just for the kids", but also no filling up on only those things that you prefer.

Now if only I could get my boys to argue over who gets to clean up their room!  Hmmm.  Taking a page from my own book, if I expect that my kids will want to clean their room, will they? I'll have to get back to you on that...

No comments: