Okra is not a universally beloved vegetable in the US, primarily due to its reputation for becoming slimy when cooked. This was not an idea I’d encountered before coming to the US. It is eaten all over India but no one seems to complain about this quality. This is not because Indians like slimy vegetables but because in the ways that most Indian cuisines prepare it it doesn’t turn slimy. This is the case in this fairly simple recipe as well. The key is to keep it away from moisture. Dry the pods thoroughly after washing them; slice them with a dry knife on a dry cutting board after they are completely dry and you’ll barely see anything mucilaginous at this point; after that cook them quickly and add a bit of acid (mango powder in this case) and any slime that develops while it is cooking will dissipate. Read on for more detail and photographic corroboration.
But first a quick note on terminology: okra is bhindi in Hindi—and it is by this name that it is known all across north India—but its English name in India is not okra but ladyfinger. This is doubtless a colonial leftover—I’m not sure if this is still the term for it in the UK as well.
- Bhindi/Okra, 1 lb, sliced thinly into rings, discarding tops and tips of the pods.
- One large onion, cut in half and sliced thinly.
- Turmeric/haldi, 1/2 tspn.
- Freshly ground black pepper, 1 tspn.
- Sugar, 1/2 tspn.
- Amchur/mango powder, 1/2 tspn.
- Salt to taste.
- Garam Masala, one pinch.
- Oil, 2-3 tblspns, preferably pungent mustard oil.
Preparation (see illustrated guide below)
- Heat the oil over high heat and add the sliced okra (they should sizzle as they hit the pan).
- Stir-fry the okra for a few minutes until it starts browning.
- Add the onions and salt and mix in thoroughly.
- Once the onions start softening add everything else except the garam masala and mix in thoroughly. If any slimy webs have developed you’ll see them magically disappear as soon as the amchur is mixed in.
- Reduce the heat to medium and cook till done (basically until the onions are completely translucent and much shrunken).
- Garnish with the garam masala and serve with dal and rice or chapatis.
- I cannot stress the importance of keeping the okra dry as you slice it.
- You need a fair bit of oil here because it’s also important to coat the okra in hot oil when it first goes in. Mustard oil has a very high smoke point which is partly why it’s preferred; the other reason is that pungent mustard oil adds a welcome sharpness to the end result as it clings to the okra.
- You can do much the same without slicing the okra quite as thin, and indeed on very lazy occasions I just cut the pods in half. I do think, however, that the dish is better the thinner you slice the okra.
- When buying okra look for pods that aren’t blemished, that aren’t soft but seem to have some spring and snap to them. It’s most easily tested by pushing at the tips (which is why many South Asian groceries have signs in the veg section urging people not to break the tips of the bhindi).
- I don’t actually use garam masala but what Bengalis call “bhaja moshla”—literally fried masala. It’s not a commercial product and if you don’t want to fuss with making it a good garam masala is an acceptable substitute—just don’t be too liberal with it: a small pinch sprinkled over the top right before you take it off the heat will be enough.