Some days I think I should just channel all my energy into redeeming the tarnished reputations of maligned and misunderstood vegetables. So many perfectly good vegetables get routinely shunned at the grocery store for no good reason.
At the top of this list would be the poor okra, which people seem to hate for no other reason than its propensity to exude a clear and copious mucilage when sliced, a sliminess that’s often further aggravated in cooked dishes. I know that the word mucilage can’t really help win it many fans, but if people were just to keep an open mind, I think they’d find that okra is, in fact, incredibly delicious.
Thankfully, okra is far from universally hated. It plays a prominent role in many cuisines of the American South, for one thing and, of course, is widely and wildly beloved in India, where it’s eaten in almost all corners of the country.
The issue of the sliminess of okra is a complicated one. I can remember being a child and hating the sticky, clingy texture of cooked okra. But as I grew up and ate more of it, I came to love the binding quality of the sauce of okra-based dishes. The “slime” of okra does essentially what cornstarch or flour does when added to a liquid—it adds body, it holds the dish together. And if you open your palate to it, the slick sensation of well-cooked okra can actually be salve-like and soothing, a nice foil to any spices you’ve cooked it with.
But the transition doesn’t happen overnight—one doesn’t simply go from shunning okra to feasting with relish on sautés and quick braises of okra. I remember, from my own youth, my mother making a dish of extremely thin slices of okra fried with onions and tossed with spices—her version of the popular north Indian staple bhindi do pyaaza; okra with two onions. In her rendition, the okra was always crisp and golden, with just a flash of green showing through the exterior burnish. It still tasted fully like okra but without any of the sliminess I usually associated with it.
Though my mother cooked the onions and the okra together, this is a feat best saved for when you’ve mastered the ins and outs of okra cookery—it can be quite a trick to cook the two ingredients together and still have them turn out crisp. For the most part, if you try to cook them together, the onions, weeping moisture, will end up giving you something like a ragout. Not bad, but not what we’re going for here. For the novice okra cook (I include myself in this group), I recommend cooking the two separately and then tossing them together. It is a bit labor-intensive but it ensures that you end up with a beautiful bowl full of crisp onions and okra.
A note on amchur: The vast majority of okra recipes on the Internet always start with some primer on how to work around the vegetable’s famous sliminess. Suggestions vary from rinsing in vinegar, to keeping slicing to a minimum, to grilling or frying the okra. We’re resorting to the last of these—frying does a lot to deal with the sliminess of okra. But there’s a little-known fact about okra that Indian cooks are intimately familiar with—that okra loves acidity. Often this trick is deployed in dishes where the sliminess of okra is in full effect—so the acid doesn’t prevent the sliminess from showing up; instead it makes it palatable by wedding it to sharpness. In Indian kitchens this acidity usually shows up in the form of amchur, or mango powder, an ingredient that’s used far too infrequently in American kitchens. Amchur has a lovely acid zing that beautifully complements the earthy, vegetal taste of okra. And because it’s used in the form of a dry powder, it won’t take that crisp edge off your fried okra. If, for some reason, you can’t get a hold of amchur, you can certainly use powdered sumac instead.
CRISP BHINDI DO PYAAZA Serves 3–4 as a side dish
1 lb okra, rinsed
2 medium yellow onions
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp amchur
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro
PREPARATION Cut the tops off the okra pods. Cut the okra into 1/2-inch pieces and set aside
Peel the onion and cut them in half through the root. Cut off the root and shoot ends of both halves of the onion and then cut into thin slices through the root.
In a large wok or kadhai, heat half the oil over high heat till it begins to smoke. Add the sliced onions and scatter them so that they aren’t piled too high on top of each other and are spread as thinly as possible over the bottom of the pan. If need be, cook the onions in two batches.
For the first 3–4 minutes, stir the onions frequently so that they begin to soften and take on just a shade of color.
Once they have begun to color, though, stir them less frequently, allowing them to sit undisturbed for a minute or two before stirring them, allowing them to caramelize on one side.
When all the onions are slightly tinged with dark brown, you can begin stirring them again frequently, moving them often so that they color evenly and don’t burn. Cook till the onions are crisp and an even, walnut brown. The total cooking time for the onions shouldn’t exceed 10–15 minutes, depending on your pan and the strength of your burner.
When the onions are crisp and brown, remove them with a slotted spoon to a bowl lined with paper towels.
Return the pan to the heat and add the rest of the oil to it. When it just begins to smoke, add the okra and fry, stirring frequently, to keep the pieces from sticking together, until the okra is crisp and caramelized with still a hint of green, about 7–10 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the okra from the pan, draining it well and putting it in the paper towel–lined bowl with the fried onions.
Remove the paper towels and sprinkle the onions and okra with salt, black pepper, and amchur. Toss well to combine before checking for seasoning and adjusting as necessary.
Serve immediately, topped with a scattering of chopped cilantro.