Okra (or Lady's Finger in English speaking countries) rules my palate till date. I have great fondness for this vegetable and adore the textures it can lend to different kinds of preparations. From stir fries and stuffed preparations to soups, stews and gravies, everything is possible with okra. It can float in a bowl of lentils, like sambar, or shine on its own as crispy kurkuri bhindi.
Okra has a long and old history, one that has disputed origins in West Africa, Ethiopia and South Asia. In India, you will find okra in a restaurant's menu, usually as a masala coated Bhindi Do Pyaza or Bhindi Masala, and not as a dish that has soupy or flowy consistencies. Why? Most people can't look past the sliminess, mucilaginous nature, inherent in okra.
Okra, the vegetable
Okra shares its space with economically important members of the Malvaceae family, or the mallows, like cotton, cacao and durian. It's an inseparable part of the cuisine of India, and Southern United States where okra seeds travelled from Africa through the Trans Atlantic slave trade. The word okra is derived from the Igbo word, ọ́kụ̀rụ̀, that the Igbo people, an ethnic group of Nigeria speak. Okra is also referred as Gumbo in American vernacular or Louisiana creole, although gumbo is a term for soups or other dishes containing okra. Gumbo also originates from the African vernacular, the Umbundu (one of the many Bantu languages of Angola) word ochinggômbo precisely, and is also believed to be a "Portuguese corruption, quingombo, of the word quillobo, native name for the plant in the Congo and Angola area of Africa."
Although some geobotanists and food historians claim okra's origins in the "Abyssinian center of origin of cultivated plants," an area between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and some believe that it has origins in parts of India, I lean towards Manoshi Bhattacharya's write-up, A short history of how Indians came to eat bhindi for okra's connection with India. Bhattacharya says, "We have no evidence of our Harappans eating bhindi masala and so must assume that it was introduced later by the Arabs or African sailors. Strange, that the Spanish Moor traveler thought it novel enough to merit documentation a 100 years after the "lotus of the earth" tucked into his early Hyderabadi dahi bhindi."
Britishers, who ruled the Indian sub-continent for 300 years and owned many American colonies where Africans were enslaved, never developed a taste for bhindi, okra's Hindi name. Bhattacharya further writes, "Despite the close relations with their American colony, the British did not develop a taste for bhindi or, as they called them, lady’s fingers.
Those serving in British India often railed against the only two summer vegetables, bhindi and parwal, available in the early 1900s – "the tasteless garbage that garnishes the monsoon mourghee (fowl). It would have taken a very frustrated khansama who, forced by necessity, reduced his bhindi gosht to steamed mucilaginous bhindi atop the Sunday roast."
The variety of okra that grows in India is slender, with a darker green shade than its other counterparts. It has many regional names: Bhindi in Hindi, Bhendi in Odia and Marathi, Dherosh in Bengali, Bhinda in Gujarati, Bendekayi in Kannada and Tulu, Vendakka in Malayalam, Vendakai in Tamil and so on.
Dealing with the slime
A good source of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants, okra's benefits lay in its slime, the mucilage that contains soluble fiber when the pods of the plant are cooked. Cooking okra with an acidic agent such as tomatoes, sour curd, tamarind, etc. helps tackle the slime and renders a luscious soupy, almost gravy like texture in dishes. If you have shied from cooking okra in broths or stews thinking that it's going to be disgusting, you're perhaps not using the right accompaniment! Using starchy items such as rice flour or gram flour also helps bind the sliminess in okra and creates interesting textures while adding flavour to the dish.
If you have read my Roz ki Bhindi post, okra stir fry, you'd know the age old iron wok my mother has and how she has been churning out the crispiest okra from it for years. While crispy okra undoubtedly is easy to love, okra in a soup or gravy is usually frowned upon. Reason? The obvious mucilage.
The easiest way to get rid off the stickiness in okra is to lightly fry it. It doesn't always have to be crispy or batter coated or masala loaded to render something delicious. Gently fry the okra for about 10-15 minutes, and then add it to any gravy or sauce you have going on the side. Quick and easy, and a welcoming change from the same old bhindi fry!
I love many soupy okra dishes, but this Odiya style Bhendi Khatta is my earliest memory of okra floating in a sour soup. In Odia, khatta literally means sour. Food preparations which are pronouncedly sour are also called khatta. Nomenclature in Odia cuisine is straightforward that way. There are other sour preparations as well such as kanji, charu and ambila, although these are usually tangy (combination of sweet, sour and tart) than utterly sour. While kanji, charu and ambila are light soupy in texture, a khatta can be soupy, thin gravy-like or a mushy like a chutney. So, kanji, charu and ambila can be thought as varieties of khatta but not the other way around.
To make a khatta, you either need the primary ingredient to be sour or you need a steady souring agent to lend sharp acidity to the primary ingredient. Consider the classic Odia tamata khatta, which is nothing but chopped tomatoes tempered with spices like pancha phutana and cooked into a mash or an oou khatta where crushed elephant apple pieces are boiled in water with salt and turmeric and then tempered with pancha phutana and dry red chilies.
But a khatta is not always dependent on the central ingredient to be sour. For example, this bhendi khatta or sour okra. To render sour notes to a dish, the Odia pantry relies on the following:
Unripe mango when in season
Dried mango kernels or ambula
Fermented rice water or torani
Fresh bamboo shoots or Karadi
Dried bamboo shoots or Hendua
Different types of local limes and oranges
When making a bhendi khatta, I prefer unripe mangoes, sour curd, tamarind or tomatoes, and depending on the availability and seasonality, I choose the souring agent. A paste or bata made with mustard seeds and garlic adds a nice punch to a sour okra preparation and is usually a constant in most of my okra dishes that have gravy.
During summer, raw mangoes and tomatoes are at their best, and I prefer them as souring agents for the bhendi khatta. While the raw mangoes are usually hard to get by in Whitehorse, homegrown local tomatoes are abundant. Serve with rice, dal and some salad on the side. Your summer day is all set, I promise!
While the mustard paste is key to the characteristic taste of this khatta, don't add a ton of it. You want a light kick from the mustard and let the tomatoes lend their sweet tart taste. This balance is the only thing needed for this recipe!
I can't recall how Ne and I became friends amidst the twenty odd students in the post graduation IT batch at college. Although, I precisely recall how I relished her lunch dabbas. Packed with extra chapatis, which would be layered, and even extra bhaji (vegetables in Marathi), her tiffin smelled of home. Until I met N, I used to think I eat at an extremely slow pace but she put my proclamation at rest! I can guarantee that most of the time, I'd have eaten half her bhaji while she would be at her fifth morsel. Don't ask about my dabba. That would have been over even sooner.
Of the many delicious things in Ne's lunchbox, her mom's bhendi chi bhaji has remained special in my memories. My mom rarely, almost never, added tomatoes or coconut to okra stir fry while Ne's mom always did. In my home tomatoes usually met okra in a gravy. And, here was this bhindi sabzi – okra stir fried separately turned soft with an onion-tomato masala, cooked with a tempering of cumin, mustard and curry leaves, sautéed with asafoetida, turmeric, green chilies and some dry masalas and topped with grated coconut and fresh coriander leaves in the end. I'm salivating already!
If you will ask about the dry masalas, Ne's mom will say "as per your choice." Saee Koranne-Khandekar says in her book, Pangat: A Feast – Food and Lore from Marathi Kitchens, that "every region and every community in Maharashtra adds a unique dimension to the basic concept of stuffed brinjals, bharli vaangi, to make it an entirely new dish. If you're from Pune, you'll add goda masala and if you're from Kolhapur, you'll add kaanda-lasun masala; if you're from the Konkan, you'll add coconut and if you're from Nagpur, you'll use peanuts or sesame seeds instead." Saee's explanation for bharli vaangi and N's mom's directions to use dry masalas as per your choice share an analogy.
While Ne's mom's recipe uses coconut, other variations of the Maharashtrian bhendi bhaji may use powdered peanuts or sesame seeds.
When I lived in Bombay, I had easy access to a variety of Marathi masalas, and any of those works well for this recipe. However, now that I live in Canada, and the only Marathi masala I sometimes make is Goda Masala, I prefer using simpler spice blends like coriander-cumin and a pinch of garam masala in the end. I also like to add ginger-garlic to this recipe at times.
Everything that lends a distinct character to this bhaji is the technique and the trinity of onion, tomatoes and coconut. You must fry the okra until it loses its sliminess as much as possible and prepare the masala in another pan on the side. Once, the okra is about to turn crisp, we stop and wait to add it to the masala that's getting ready.
The fastest way to make this bhaji is to have two pans going at the same time. Fry the okra in one and make the masala in the other. Once okra loses its mucilage, add it to the masala and cook further.
Bendekayi Kayirasa or Huli
You know how they tell you that colleagues can't be friends? It's not true or at least hasn't been for me. Most of my close friendships in my adult life were forged in workplaces and fortunately they're not water under the bridge today. Sh happens to be one such friend of mine, my then team lead, super woman, a hard core romantic and someone who always feels like family.
On a languid afternoon here in Canada, when I was on the verge of dozing off on the couch post a sumptuous homemade Kannadiga Oota (Kannada meal), reminiscing many lunch-out-today days in Bangalore exploring Uttara Kannada, Karwar, Kodava, Udipi, Mangalore, Maland, Mandya, Dakshina Kannada, and other regional cuisines, my mind lingered a bit more on the bendekayi huli, a tangy sweet spicy okra preparation from the Kannada cuisine.
I quickly text Sh in India, knowing well that the night owl would be up.
"Huli means sour in Kannada, no?"
There's no delay in her response. "Yes. Anything sour. How you'd say khatta in Hindi."
"I have seen some call the bhindi huli as bhindi sambar. Now I'm confused."
"Yes, if you make it with dal. Mostly tur dal. Else, just huli."
"I also add coconut and jaggery. Just the way some communities in Karnataka do. Is it still huli then?"
"Some will call this version kayirasa, Lopa. Kayi = coconut and rasa = gravy in Kannada."
I dwell on the rasa a bit, thinking of rasam and the rasa theory between our textual chat. Sh further tells me about Govinda Vaidya, a poet in Wodeyar king Kanteerva Narasa Rajendra Vijaye's court who described huli as tur dal cooked with vegetables having the sourness of tamarind, sweetness of jaggery and coconut. "
Many sources hold huli as a precursor to sambar, although the Thanjavur sambar story associated with Sambhaji and the Maharashtrian amti is a bough of its own, and there's no dearth to articles like this one that speak about the variety of sambars in South India and some like this one that explore the origins.
I like to think of both kayirasa and huli as mediums to add bursts of flavours, not as types of sambars necessarily, although you could add liquid dal and make them so. If you've ever been to a traditional Kannadiga festivity like a wedding, you must have tasted a kayirasa, referred as a gojju sometimes. A kayirasa or huli in a Kannada meal is akin to a rasam in a Tamil meal, a dish that boosts our taste buds, a flavour enhancer.
The name of this dish sums it up. It's okra cooked with coconut, jaggery and tamarind with spices like coriander, red chili and ginger. There's no podi, spice blend powder, a fresh paste of spices, tamarind and coconut that's added to the stir fried or boiling okra, and a hint of jaggery to balance everything.
Some don't prefer the boiled okra in this recipe. But let me tell you, don't take the 'boiling' too literally. Cut the okra in 1.5 to 2 inch pieces which will ensure less of the mucilage while boiling, and let it boil for about 5-7 minutes. That should be enough.
If you're still not convinced, stir fry the okra separately. Fine! But don't fry it crisp please. Fry it only till the slime subsides and then stop.
Bhendi Khatta with Tomatoes
200 gm okra
2 tsp mustard seeds or 2 tsp mustard powder
4-5 garlic pods or 1 tsp garlic paste
1 dry red chilies or 1/2 tsp red chili powder
1 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp pancha phutana (equal quantities of mustard, cumin, fenugreek, fennel and nigella seeds)
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 tomato, chopped
1-2 green chillies, chopped
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Soak mustard seeds with 2-3 garlic pods and 1 dry red chili in warm water and keep aside or mix mustard powder with garlic paste and red chili powder and keep aside. Chop the remaining garlic pods.
Wash and dry the okra with a kitchen towel. Chop into 1.5 long inches. Do not chop them fine. If you're using small okra, you may just chop off the tips and use the okra whole else cut them into 2-3 parts each at max.
Heat 1/2 tbsp oil in a pan and add the okra into it. Add some salt and sauté till the sliminess subsides. It will take about 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile make a paste of the ingredients in step one. If using raw mustard seeds and garlic pods, grind into a fine paste.
Remove the okra from the pan and keep aside. Add the remaining oil and temper with pancha phutana and chopped garlic pods. Add the tomatoes and green chilies and sauté. Add turmeric and mix to combine. Cover and cook for 5 minutes to soften the tomatoes.
Open and add the mustard-garlic-chili paste and mix for about 20-30 seconds. Add the okra and mix to combine. Add water depending on how much gravy you want. For 200 gms of okra, it will be somewhere around 1/2 cup or a bit more. Let it come to a boil and then allow to simmer for 5-7 minutes before turning off the heat.
If using raw mango, grind 3-4 slices of raw mango with 1/2 inch ginger, 1/4 tsp cumin and 1 green chili. Use this paste instead of or along with the mustard paste.
If using sour curd, whisk the curd with a little besan (gramflour) and add it to the pan instead of the water and keep stirring. You may cook the okra with the mustard paste or not use the mustard paste at all.
Curry leaves along with pancha phutana and dry red chili in the tempering will add a nice aroma in both these versions.
If using karadi (dry bamboo shoots), soak it for a few minutes to soften. Add it to the pan when you add tomatoes.
Maharashtrian Style Bhindi Bhaji
500 gm okra/lady's finger, chopped thin
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
2 tbsp oil
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
5-7 curry leaves
1 green chili chopped (optional)
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste or roughly pounded (optional)
1 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp asafoetida or heeng
1 + 1/2 tsp any Marathi Masala like Goda Masala, Kaanda-Lasun Masala, Koli Masala etc. or 1 tsp coriander powder, 1/2 tsp cumin powder, 1 tsp red chili powder and 1/4 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt, or to taste
2 tbsp grated coconut
freshly chopped cilantro
Heat a pan or kadhai on medium heat, and add 1 tbsp oil. Once the oil is hot, add okra. Sauté for a few seconds, and then let the okra simmer on medium to low heat. Stir in between while you chop the onions and tomatoes.
Once the okra begin to turn crisp, their edges will start browning, remove from the pan and keep aside. In the same pan, add the remaining oil, and then add cumin and mustard seeds. Just when they crackle, add the curry leaves. Stir and add the onion.
Sauté and let the onions turn pink. Add ginger-garlic if using, and continue sautéing until the onions turn brownish. Add turmeric, asafoetida and green chili if using, and stir to combine.
If not using any Marathi masala, add the coriander, cumin and chili powders and cook the masala for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the tomatoes and continue stirring. Let the tomatoes turn soggy and tender. Smash and mix to combine everything and let the mixture simmer till you see oil oozing on the sides. Add the garam masala or the Marathi masala and salt, and give a good mix.
Add the fried okra to the onion tomato masala and stir to combine. Adjust salt if needed and increase the heat slightly. Cook on medium to high flame for 4-5 minutes so that the okra gets crispier. Top with coconut and fresh cilantro. Mix and switch off the heat and serve hot!
Bendekayi Kayirasa or Huli
500 - 700 gms okra or lady's finger, washed, dried and cut into 1.5 to 2 inches
1 tbsp oil (coconut or any other as you may wish) Konkani community in Karnataka typically makes it with coconut oil
For the spice paste: 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds 2 tbsp coriander seeds 1 tbsp mustard seeds 4-5 whole dried red chilies 1/2 cup grated coconut 1 tsp turmeric powder lime sized ball of tamarind, seeds removed
For tempering: 1/2 inch ginger chopped a pinch of red chili powder
2 tsp salt or to taste
small cube or jaggery or 2-3 tsp jaggery powder or according to taste
In a pan, heat 1/2 tbsp oil and add fenugreek, coriander and mustard seeds. Let them sputter and then add the whole dried red chilies. Stir and let the chilies puff up. Add the grated coconut, turmeric and some salt and stir again. Just when the coconut starts changing its colour, switch off the heat. Set the pan aside to cool down.
In a pot, heat water and then add the okra along with some salt. Let the okra boil for 5-7 minutes or until it's half done. Or Stir fry the okra just so much that it loses its sliminess.
Make a paste of the roasted spices and coconut by adding some water if needed and then add it to the okra. Mix well so that the paste coats the okra. Cover and cook for the next 10 minutes. You may add water if you want a thinner gravy.
In a tadka pan or a single-egg fry pan, heat remaining oil, and add ginger and red chili powder. Swirl the pan and as the chili powder turns deeper in colour, pour the tempering into the okra cooking with the coconut spice paste. Stir to combine and let the mixture simmer.
Add jaggery and mix again. Taste and adjust salt as needed. Switch off once done. Serve with hot rice or rotis.