Okra, Ladies Fingers, Bamia.
I like these weird little vegetables. Whenever I go to the Persian restaurant – Alounak in Bayswater London, I always order the bamia with lamb.
I am just going to take a second or two to wax lyrical about Alounak. This place is the place to go for Persian food. What is Persian food? Well I am no expert but they serve delicious stews, amazing flat bread that they cook in an oven that looks like an ancient urn – using a funky pillow type contraption to stick the flattened dough to the concave wall and rice. Steaming piles of aromatic FLUFFY rice. The decoration is so odd, don’t be put off by it – even the little fountain that spews steam every now and then and has disco lights. Between you and me, it’s my firm conviction that when the place looks too good – the food is likely to be mediocre. Or if the food is good, well, chances are you can’t afford it unless you are Posh and Beck. And they don’t exactly chow down do they? The irony!
Back to okra.
I saw some at the market in Athens. On the pricey side at €4.99 a kg. But it was selling. I recently made an okra dish using frozen okra from Green Valley (the fantastic Arabic Supermarket off Edgeware Road, London). It was a recipe from Ottolenghi’s new book. But I thought I could do better.
So I asked the woman who bought okra after me how she prepares it.
- You trim off the top and then use a paring knife to trim the mushroom part of the “hat”. Make sure not to pierce the body because you will have to deal with stickiness when raw and slime when cooked!
- Then you drizzle vinegar all over them and leave them in the sun for half an hour. (She doesn’t know why she does it but that is what her mother taught her.)
- Then rinse thoroughly and dry on paper towel.
- Heat some oil in a frying pan and fry the okra in batches, letting them brown a little on the ribs.
- Remove and drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt.
- Meanwhile, chop up some onion and fry in olive oil. When soft, add a couple of chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar and water. Reduce to half and adjust seasoning (about 15 minutes).
- Tip in the okra and serve with parsley and rice.
A dawdle right?
Oh…you could not be more wrong!
Trimming 800g of these little suckers took me 2 hours! Which is fine, my mother is watching the baby today, it’s too hot to go down town (Athens), I have an i-pod – I can take some time to shift into low low gear and clean some okra. Except that these little monsters are covered in this fuzzy hairs and every now and then, one of those little hairs pierces your finger and feels like a splinter. Curses!
Then my mother came and sat on a chair opposite me and started heckling me! “What are you doing that for? Just cut the top part off and that is enough!”
Well the lady at the market said….(of course this stranger is now an automatic expert in my mind! Look, she had grey hair and looked extremely knowledgeable on the subject!)
I faltered a bit then and went and googled “how do you clean okra?” Apparently people don’t, they just top and tail them and dump them in a stew or fry them. But what about the slime people???
Ok, my method according to the silver haired lady is extremely time consuming but I just finished cooking and that is one tasty dish. My toddler and mother concur with my findings.
I will run the risk now of infuriating the lady at the market, whom I will probably never lay eyes on again, but….
…crispy fried okra on its own, just sprinkled with a little salt is perfect just like that! Next time I will serve that with drinks as a snack (instead of edamame or nuts) and maybe find a dip for them as well.