Okra. Bhendi. Bhindi. A much loved vegetable in India but looked upon with distaste in the US. I could not get just why for the longest time. A friend, who was also at the cook together I hosted in December, had once remarked that okra was one vegetable that she detested. I remember offering her some bhendichi bhaji when she had dropped by and we were in the middle of a late dinner. She was thrilled with the roti but I could see her body stiffen and her mind freeze when she put a piece of bhendi in her mouth. She chewed on it slowly, relaxed visibly and said, "That was the best piece of okra I have ever had in my life!" She had only eaten slimy okra before.
I had no idea that what I take for granted about okra, is apparently not the norm for many of my friends. Until I came across Marc's Okra without the slime! So before we move on, here's a quick primer on selecting and preparing okra.
- Choose young and tender okra that are smaller in size. If in doubt, try bending the tail end of the pod. It should snap readily and cleanly. Use this to get a feel for young okra and do it quickly. Don't practice on too many okra pods otherwise you will not be welcome at the grocer's again!
- Wash and dry each pod completely.
- Use a dry cutting board and a dry knife.
- As the okra is chopped, you will see some mucilage collecting on the knife. Keep a paper towel handy and wipe the knife as often as possible.
- Cook the okra with slightly more oil than normal and on high heat. My theory is that high heat seals the outer edges preventing further oozing.
- Do not cover the pan while cooking as moisture undoes what you have worked hard to avoid.
Because of years of negative conditioning towards okra, I was not very keen on featuring Okra Kichadi on the menu. Then I tried it. It took bhendi to a new level. Seriously! There was no way I was not sharing it with my friends and if I could dispel some myths about the slimy okra in the bargain, I figured this would be well worth it on all fronts!
Okra Kichadi: Fried Okra in a Coconut and Mustard Sauce
From Ammini Ramachandran's Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts.
Okra, the quintessential ingredient in gumbo, has a tendency to become slimy when cooked. In this mildly spiced curry, diced okra is panfried before being added to the sauce, which prevents it from turning slimy. It is spiced mainly with mustard seeds. This curry delicately balances the heat of the sambar and spicy pickles that are typically served along with it.
- 2 cups okra, chopped along its cross-section (about 1lb whole okra yields this much)
- 2 cups freshly grated coconut or half a packet of frozen coconut, thawed
- 1 tbsp mustard seeds
- 3 or 4 Thai green chillies or serrano peppers
- 1 cup plain yogurt (I use about 2 cups homemade fat-free plain yogurt)
- 2-3 tbsp oil (Ammini's recipe suggests 1/2 tbsp)
- salt to taste
- For seasoning
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 dried red chilli, broken into two pieces
- 12-15 fresh curry leaves
- Heat 2-3 tbsp oil in a large saucepan.
- Add chopped okra and cook on medium-high until the okra is a slightly browned at the edges.
Toss it about periodically so that it does not burn. Do not cover the saucepan. Typically, this takes about 10-15 minutes depending on high you are. In altitude, of course!
- While the okra is cooking, blend the coconut, 1 tbsp mustard seeds, Thai green chillies and yogurt into a thick purée.
- When the okra is done, transfer it to a bowl and set aside. Do not cover.
For those of you who are wondering...there were 32 pods in about 1 lb of okra. Yes, I counted them. He looked at the bowl and said: That's one pound worth? Only that much? I'm hoping it's finally registered why we need more than 10.
- Next, prepare the tempered oil for the seasoning. Add 1 tbsp oil to the saucepan and when hot, add mustard seeds.
- When the mustard seeds start popping, add the dried red chilli and curry leaves. Do not allow the red chilli to burn. Turn the heat down if necessary or take the saucepan off the stove.
- Pour the coconut-yogurt mixture into the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce simmers.
- Add salt
- Gently stir in the okra.
- Cover and set aside for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
- Serve immediately with hot steamed rice
The okra kichadi is a sensual mix of flavors from few ingredients. It is so delectable that it is hard to tell that the saucepan it was cooked in was ever used at all. It's literally licked clean!
- Since I don't get good quality fresh coconut, I buy frozen coconut. The best I have had is the one that says "Product of Kerala". No prizes for guessing that! The last time I made this, I bought Colombian grated coconut that was naturally so sweet that it was hard to believe that no sugar was added to the product. I thaw the coconut in the refrigerator and cut the packet in half using my kitchen shears. I use one half for curries like okra kichadi and save the other half for coconut chutney or fish curry. I generally use the second half within 1 day of thawing.
- Ammini's recipe suggests blending the coconut with green chillies and mustard first, and then stirring in the yogurt. Since my blender groans while grinding coconut with little or no water, I add yogurt while blending. I use 2 cups of yogurt because we like the sauce to be a little runny and we like to smother and drown our rice in it.
- The okra can get slightly slimy when covered towards the end of the process. I have found that if I cook it till it is crispier and more brown, the return of the slime can be averted.
- I like to add 1 tsp of urad dal to the tempered oil. Medha loves these crunchies in her okra kichadi.
Ammini classifies Okra Kichadi as a popular curry:
Whether it is a wedding or a religious holiday or a birthday, the recipes in this section are the standard fare at any sadya (feast).At a traditional sadya, there are no fancy table settings or beautiful vases of fresh-cut flowers, and there is no particular main course. The perfection of the dishes is more important than the presentation itself. They come just as they are, served on a large banana leaf spread on a clean floor or a simple table, with rice in the center accompanied by several vegetable dishes, both wet and dry, and several different accompaniments. And as you begin to relish the meal, so many different flavors are blended on the palate that each bite tastes different and better than the one before. Food's greatest glory is in its infinite variety of textures and flavors.
Adapted from Ammini Ramachandran's Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts