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That first recipe - stuffed okra

"They could be classed with Chinese artichokes for beauty of form. In flavour and texture they do not come quite so high."

Jane Grigson

I will come to Madhur Jaffrey's recipe eventually, but first of all a bit about okra itself.

I have eaten this vegetable just once in my life I think and I think that was in an Indian restaurant. I found it repulsive. And there are many who consider it in the same way. The extremity of this position is found in a quote from the late Robin Williams. A bit over the top perhaps, but almost not.

"Okra is the closest thing to nylon I've ever eaten. It's like they bred cotton with a green bean. Okra, tastes like snot. The more you cook it, the more it turns into string.

Robin Williams

That's what I remember about it - slimy. As Charmaine Solomon noted in her Asian Encyclopedia it's one of those foods that people either love or hate, and it seems that most of us white people fall into the hate category.

"Sadly, the stickiness and sliminess of okra has made it a vegetable with limited appeal to the Anglo-Saxon palate. Other cultures view it differently."

Stephanie Alexander

Mind you if you class Americans as Anglo-Saxon in origin, you might have to think again, because there - at least in the south it is much loved. There they call both it and the dish it is known for as gumbo. But then again it is a dish from the south because it was brought over from Africa with the slaves. Or the Arab traders who brought them. Actually nobody seems to be quite sure where okra actually originated, but most seem to agree that it was the Arabs who were responsible for its spread.

But it is rather beautiful - from flower to pod. Bert Greene waxes quite lyrical about the beauty of the flower, which he follows with a nice bit of history.

"The blossom of the Hibiscus esculentus (which precedes the pod) is exceedingly showy. Pale yellow at dawn, this flower turns golden as the sun rises, its petals flaring wider and wider until it reveals a slash of crimson at the heart - usually as the moment the sun sets. For this reason, ancient Arab physicians called okra pods 'sun vessels'. They believed the ripening seeds contained therapeutic properties that once consumed, floated through a man's body forever. This notion, shared by many primitive peoples, caused okra to be highly prized in their diet." Bert Greene

I'm not sure the flower is quite as showy as he says but it is rather lovely and so are the pods.

There seem to be two basic ways of tackling this particular vegetable.

Nobody seems to deny the sliminess of the okra although many use rather more polite words like gummy, silky, glutinous. And those who have made a virtue of this gelatinous quality, turn it into various kinds of stews:

"Those of us who would happily eat okra (and corn) to our hearts’ content would point out that you can, in fact, make a virtue of okra’s gumminess by using it to soothe and thicken all kinds of soups, stews, gumbos and curries." Yotam Ottolenghi

This is the approach taken by the Americans and the Mediterraneans.

"At least in America the lady's finger found a perfect partner in the tomato. These two now form the basic elements of the chicken and seafood gumbos of the southern states, as they do also of Mediterranean dishes. The word has been extended from the pod, to cover the whole stew because it is characterised by the jellied smoothness that the juice of gumbo adds to the sauce. In other words, gumbo is the defining ingredient." Jane Grigson

The Asians on the other hand seem to prefer to fry the vegetable in some way. Which brings us to our first recipe Stuffed okra - Bhari Hui Bhindi

In this dish the okra are stuffed with a spicy mix and then fried. And I have seen other authors comment that the quick fried dishes of okra are indeed delicious. Not sure I'm going to give this one a try though, pretty though it is.

The success of this dish seems to rest on the spice mixture and before I stop for today I will end with a few more quotes from Madhur Jaffrey from her introduction to this book on how Indians use spices.

"From childhood onwards, an Indian is exposed to more combinations of flavours and seasonings than perhaps anyone else is the world ...

The Indian genius lies to only in squeezing several flavours out of the same spice by roasting it, grinding it or popping it whole into hot oil ... but in commingling roasted cumins seeds wth mint, ginger and garlic with green chillies - to create a vast spectrum of tastes. It is this total mastery over seasonings that makes Indian foods quite unique ...

For maximum effect, the spices needed to be not only expertly blended but expertly cooked as well."

Maybe the love of spices is what so attracts the British to Indian food. British food tends to be bland - well subtle and delicate perhaps. The natural flavours of the basic food are allowed to shine through without much tampering. Which I love. But the spices of India, the sheer colour and life of the sub-continent was something so opposite to the British experience that the British fell in love.

Not with okra though!


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