My mother still owns that iron kadhai (wok), the one that's perhaps older than me. It's marred with time and gotten better, charring and frying things like a master. Amidst what emerged from that heirloom kitchen utensil, crisp okra (and medu vadas) was my favourite. It sat steady on the gas stove as the vegetable was tossed around, not too many times but enough to ensure appropriate mixing of all ingredients and avoid unwanted roasting. The sound of okra cooking in that kadhai was a constant assuring background noise that accompanied me as I played or studied, always in the lookout to get a taste of the hot bhendi bhaja (okra stir fry in Odia).
Growing up, I never knew this long slender green vegetable as okra; I knew it as lady's finger, the common English name popular in India. I remember it fondly being served as a crusty stir fry with the usual dal and rice, wrapped in rotis or parathas in my lunchbox with an extra serving in the side compartment, and floating in kanjis and sambars that mother made in summer.
I don't know what mother did, but she always made the best okra and every dish had the okra cut in different shapes. Sometimes long and split and stuffed with masala, sometimes medium or diagonally cut for stir fries and sometimes more than an inch long or almost whole, tossed and added to gravies.
Some people tell me they don't like okra—I don't quite understand how! I've a simple reasoning. If you don't enjoy eating okra, you've perhaps not cooked it right, until now.
Okra/Lady's Finger or bhindi as it's called in Hindi is cooked in many different ways in India. This is one of the simplest ways of making it, especially in North India. Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, parts of Gujarat are a few places I can think where this style of making okra is an everyday kitchen affair. My mother, hailing from Odisha, also cooks it this way minus the lime or amchur. I often cook food that is a reflection of my childhood memories, and this version of okra adds a new dimension of sourness while travelling the usual road of spices and oil. And so, the addition of amchur or dried raw mango, a spice that I have relied time and again for a lovely tart taste and acetic smell.
Okra happens to be one of my favourite vegetables, and I admire how well it can be variated to create dishes that taste so good. Make this easy stir fry and serve with rice or flatbreads along with simple legumes and sides as chutneys.
While buying okra, look for tender young and smaller pods. If you can break or bend the ends of an okra, it's usually a good sign of it being fresh.
To cook okra, ensure that you wash and dry it well before cooking. To dry, I suggest using a paper towel or dish cloth and wrapping the okra in it, briefly rub all between the towel or cloth and then let them air-dry for a bit. If the okra is wet, it'll turn soggy and sticky as you cook.
If you want to make crispy okra, don't cover the pan while cooking. Start with high heat, and reduce the heat as needed during the cooking process. At no point should you cover the pan if the intention is crisply done okra.
500 - 700 gm bhindi/okra
3 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chili powder
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
3/4 tsp amchur or half of a lime
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Wipe each Okra with a damp cloth and leave to air-dry. This should take about 10 to 15 minutes. or Fill a big bowl of water and dip all the Okra in it. Take out and lay on a paper towel to air-dry for 10-15 minutes. Note: The Okra should not be moist before you begin cooking. Else, it's likely to get slimy and sticky.
Dice the okra about 1-inch in size.
Pour oil into a frying pan or kadhai and keep on medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add cumin seeds. When they crackle, add the diced okra and stir for about 5 minutes.
Add turmeric, red chili and asafoetida, and stir for 2-3 minutes. Next add the cumin and coriander powder and stir to combine.
Next, you need to keep stirring the okra, leaving it to cook on its own in between. You can finish other errands in the kitchen while the okra gets stir fried. Keep an eye and gently stir it in between!
In about 15 to 20 minutes, the okra should start turning brown. Turn the heat down slightly if the okra sticks to the pan and add a few drops of oil. Add the amchur or squeeze the lime, add salt and give everything a gentle stir. Cook until crisp and then turn off the heat.