Okra is one my favorite vegetables (I think botanically okra is a fruit.) I like okra so much that when I was in boarding school, my friend and I once nearly wiped out a huge okra patch our school manager had planted. We would pluck the tender okra off the plant throughout the day, and eat like french fries. We were finally “apprehended”, but were let go on grounds that at least we were eating healthy food.
Okra can be a very “sticky” vegetable to cook. If not handled well, the dish can be very gummy and slimy. Which was one of the prime reasons why my wife didn’t like okra till she came to India. On the other hand if okra is cooked in lot of oil (which I have seen in certain parts of India), the dish becomes very heavy on the palate.
Picking good okra is also key to make a good dish. Mature okra can be very tough and fibrous. Young okra, about two-three inches in length, emerald green in color and minimal spine are the best ones. There are two tricks to know if okra is good -
1. Catch the okra in your hand, and apply pressure on the tip of the okra with your thumb. If the tip snaps off easily with a small sound it is a good one. If you are buying produce in North India, it is acceptable to snap the ends of okra before you buy. But in South India the shopkeepers will glare at you.
2. When you cut okra (with a good sharp knife) the knife should cut through the ends with a resistance slightly harder than butter.
If the okra you buy does not meet both these criteria, than the chances that you have a stringy okra is pretty high. Also when chopping okra using a sharp knife is advisable. Clean cut firm okra pieces tend to ooze less slime than bruised ones.
I cut very thin slivers along the length of the okra, rather than cutting into rounds. It helps to cook the okra very fast without having to sweat in the pan. I like the taste of okra and the heat of the jalapenos to dominate, so I use minimal dry spices. I also add some potatoes to bring crunch to the dish.
To make stir-fried okra -
1. one pound of okra – cut into very thin slivers
2. two medium sized potatoes – diced into less than 1/4 inch cubes
3. three or four red jalapenos – I use red to provide contrast to the green, and also it is easy to identify them.
4. half cup fine chopped red onions
5. 1 teaspoon chopped ginger
6. 1/2 turmeric powder
7. 1/4 teaspoon of cumin
8. salt to taste
9. crushed black pepper
Heat a frying pan (a non-stick pan helps) with two teaspoons of oil. Add the potatoes, black pepper and stir fry on medium heat for about five minutes, till the edges of the potatoes begin to get golden brown.
Add ginger and onions, cook till they turn soft. Add chopped red jalapenos and cook for one more minute.
Add turmeric and cumin, and one teaspoon of oil if needed. Saute for about 30 seconds on low heat.
Stir in sliced okra and salt to taste.
Mix everything, and cook on low-medium heat. Do not cover the frying pan. Moisture will make the okra slimy.
Stir once or twice to evenly distribute the heat. The okra should be done in three to five minutes.
The dish is an excellent accompaniment with Indian flatbreads – chappati’s or rotis. It can be also served a second dish if serving with rice.