As a child, I always grew up on food, in which, “Bhindi” (=Okra) was quite a regular visitor. Reasons? Well there are plenty…It’s a safe veggie for Diabetes (my Dad was diabetic), they grew profoundly in our Kitchen garden and therefore very easily sourced, easy to cook, easy to digest (except for those tiny white seedy-balls!!!), simple, tender, low-calorie, nutritious and a no-fancy-gimmick vegetable!
My father headed an Industrial township and I got to live in government bungalows with my family in the northern plains of India — one’s that had a lovely lawn in the front, and a huge kitchen garden at the backyard. Maa (as I call my Mom) loves gardening and finds great happiness growing her own garden vegetables in raised, sculpted plant beds. Of course our lawn was also lush green with colorful seasonal flowering plants in abundance. But the kitchen garden was Maa’s favorite. With the help of our gardener, and over a few months each year, she would grow and raise almost all kinds of herbs, veggies, a few spices and fruits that you’d see in a grocery store. We had more than a generous supply of veggies all year long. Maa took great pride in that and would donate and share the enormous produce very frequently with friends, neighbors and the poor.
Okra being perennial plant that’s well adapted to the Indian climate, is generally very easy to cultivate and also produces a large number of those tender, sleek and slender seed-pods that we call “Lady’s Fingers“. They’re also among the world’s most resilient and sturdy plants, that is heat and drought resistant — the reason why you see Okra grow in a spectrum of weather conditions across Asia, Africa, Mediterranean and the Americas. And while Maa raised plants, Dad, I and my little brother were responsible for harvesting her crops.
And with harvesting, came those innumerable tips and tricks of veggie and fruit picking. Did you know Okra is a relative of Hibiscus? O yes, they are…those bright gorgeous white petals with a deep purple base are indeed cousins of the exotically tropical Hibiscus. I am not a botanist, not did I take keen interest in the lessons from my 4 lbs high school Botany book. However, the “tell me more why and how” chats with our expert gardener, little handy tips from my parents, and having had the opportunity to observe the plants up close and everything about them, cultivated in me a strong sense of Gardening, Horticulture and Olericulture — well, at least I knew all about those more than hundred plants that we grew around our Bungalow then. This ‘practically acquired knowledge’ was imbibed down deep in me — so much so, that I ended up tutoring my Mr. Man (after we met) almost everywhere, on all kinds of trees, plants, bushes and shrubs that we saw on our way during a trip or during our hikes! And he says with sarcasm, “O, how I wish you paid a little more attention to your Botany classes…the world just missed a great Botanist!”. And this would be a “bell” for me to shut up and hold back my “science of plant kingdom”!
Every morning as a child, I’d be up from bed, rub my eyes, brush my teeth and with a slipper on, would run straight out into my kitchen garden for a quick check on the vegetables and fruits. Especially Okra. Okra grows quickly in summer. A single plant lives for a little over 2 years (perennial), however, Maa would have new fresh plants grow each year in the soil beds during spring time. The pollinated flowers fast germinate into “fingery” seed pods. And once you see the seed-pods, you must keep an eye on them. The pods and our “vegetable” is in fact a fruit. And while these green velvety, long and thin fruits must grow up a little before they can be consumed, Okras can speedily turn woody, fibrous, and hard, if not plucked within a week of their birth. The fruit quickly “gets old” and looses elasticity of it’s fruit walls. This creates a great tension and upon a slight touch, causes the fruit-capsule walls to curl back — this generates a forced explosion and shooting of seeds, scattering them as far from the plant as possible — one very efficient way of seed dispersal, just like we see in Balsams. More power to Mother Nature! Though I like to eat okra, but do not quite like picking them from their plants. The “hairs” on okra would occasionally become “stiff” and almost sting fingers or irritate the skin (kind of the plant’s defense mechanism to protect animals like me from eating/plucking away ripe pods before dispersal of seeds!) — and I don’t like how the fruit smells either! But ready to cook ‘n’ eat pods are bright green, firm and yet tender. You should be able to easily snap the pointed tip of the Okra — this was a trick I was taught to test if the Okra was ready and that it wasn’t too ripe and old to eat. If the tip didn’t snap easily and completely, then the veggie wasn’t good enough, and meant that I missed to pluck it in time.
My little girl J doesn’t like a food if its too chewy. She loves okra, because the mucilage eases in quick swallowing without much effort! 😉 My hubby-man loves his “Bhindi’s” too — the classic reason he says for his love is because during his childhood, his Dad called him “Dharosh” (Bengali name for Okra), each time he was mad at him and generally to describe him! In Bengali, if you were to call someone “Dharosh“, you’re speculating that the person is stupid, silly and doesn’t understand a thing — and this is generally used for children in a more light-hearted and “pretend serious” way. Anyway, I’ve never found okra’s looking silly or any aspect or a common element between the vegetable and my Mr. Man!
Here’s one beautiful Okra recipe I love to make. I believe in seasoning veggies to enhance their flavor and natural taste, and not over loading them with overpowering spices. I follow dum pukht method and slow cook okra here in a sealed pot/pan, to secure in the aroma and taste. It’s easy and delightful!
- 1 lb or 1/2 kg Okra (Bhindi or Lady’s Fingers)
- 1 tsp Garlic powder (or paste)
- 1/2 tbsp Black peppercorns (sabut Kaali Mirch) — my measuring spoon held about a 100 peppercorns. Yes, I counted them and it was fun! (or 1tbsp ground black pepper)
- 2 tbsp light Olive oil
- Salt to taste
- Was the Okra and pat them dry. Trim the ends and cut into no-too-thin circular wheels.
- Coarsely crush the peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. Use your other hand to slightly cove the mortar as you grind — you don’t want those little ones to escape and fly off!
- Heat oil in a pan or cooking pot (that has a lid).
- Once the oil is hot, carefully add the okra pieces and fry for about 3 minutes on medium-high heat. Constantly stir and turn them during this time to avoid scorching and burning the vegetable. This step gets rid of some of the mucilage and helps making the okra dry and not stick together. (Add a little more oil if you feel the okra is beginning to stick and burn at the bottom.)
- Throw in the garlic powder, crushed peppercorns and adjust salt. Give a quick stir to mix them.
- Place a tight fitting lid. Cover cook on low-medium heat for about 7 minutes or until done. Half way through this time, you may take off the lid for a few seconds to stir once and then place the lid back.
- After 7 minutes or after the okra is just done, switch off the stove and let the cooked okra still sit inside your sealed pan/pot with the lid.
- Serve it steaming hot with Naan or any bread of your choice, or with rice. Enjoy and have a great meal!
Adjust the amount of peppercorns you use to suit the spice levels to your taste. I like how the natural flavors ooze out, but you can pep it up a bit if you love more spice. You may also use a small chopped Onion if you like. If using onions, fry them first in oil before adding okra. Follow the rest of the steps as mentioned in the method. Additionally, you could also use a couple pinches of Indian Garam Masala powder towards the end, to finish the dish!