When I moved to Israel and saw people's enthusiasm for okra, I figured it must be a Sephardi vegetable.

bamia okra food 248 88 (photo credit: )
bamia okra food 248 88
(photo credit: )
When my husband's cousin Ahuva was visiting us, we suggested going to an Indian restaurant. She had never tasted Indian food and was not eager to go. Then she heard that okra was on the menu, and that changed everything. At the restaurant we feasted on spicy okra with basmati rice, and from that moment she felt that Indian food had much in common with her family's Yemenite cooking. Many Middle Eastern-born members of my husband's family are equally passionate about bamia, the word for okra in Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi. I had never heard of it during my very Ashkenazi childhood in Washington DC. When I moved to Israel and saw people's enthusiasm for okra, I figured it must be a Sephardi vegetable. I was not far from the truth. Okra is said to have originated in Africa and is loved by Jews with roots in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and most of the Mideast, as well as those from India. In the US, Louisianans have long had a liking for the finger-shaped vegetable, which was brought there by African slaves. But in many regions of the world, okra did not gain wide acceptance. This is probably due to the sticky liquid that okra can exude during cooking. To prevent this, I try to avoid getting the okra very wet. I never soak it in water; rather, I rinse it very quickly just before cooking it. Generally, I cook it whole rather than sliced so its juices don't come out. To trim it, I cut off the cap carefully without piercing the interior. I don't usually boil okra in water, as this can make it gooey. Instead, I saute it, then I add just a little liquid to the pan if necessary, so the okra won't dry out while it finishes cooking. If I'm adding it to a meat stew, I cook it until just tender but not overcooked. Cooks have different opinions on okra preparation. At a produce market the other day, I noticed a Filipino man eagerly choosing okra. He told me that okra is popular in the Philippines, where it is known as ladies' fingers. He likes his okra boiled and sprinkled with fish sauce (which tastes like soy sauce with anchovies). He selects okra pods that are as small as possible, about 7.5 cm. or less, the way I learned to choose them in Israel. When an American woman joined us at the okra bin and began putting the longer pods in her bag, I asked if she wasn't concerned they would be stringy. She smiled and said they would be fine the way she cooks them sliced and sauteed in oil with onion and garlic. It's true that relatively larger okra are often sliced before being sauteed, stewed or added to Louisiana's famous spicy soup, gumbo. Yet the longer the pods are, the greater the chance that the okra is mature rather than young, and that it will be tough and fibrous. If you cut into an okra pod and it's really hard, it will not become tender; that's why selecting short, slim okra pods is a better bet. Avoid soft, wet ones; choose okra that is firm but not hard. Like many cooks in the Mideast, I like okra cooked with onions, garlic and tomatoes, and finished with fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves. Indian cooks also prepare okra this way, often with the addition of hot peppers and sometimes cumin and ground coriander seed. To sample some okra specialties, you might like to know that Kan Zaman restaurant in Arrabe (near Karmiel) is having an okra festival through the end of August, with such dishes as lamb with okra and fried okra with tomatoes and garlic. If you haven't cooked okra yet this year, remember that the season is short and it's best to get some by the end of the month. You can keep it about three days in a paper bag in the refrigerator. After the fresh okra season is over, you can prepare the recipes below using frozen okra pods. OKRA IN TOMATO GARLIC SAUCE Okra makes a satisfying vegetarian entree, thanks to its meaty texture. It's also a tasty appetizer or accompaniment for grilled chicken or braised meat. To turn this dish into an easy main course, add tofu cubes or sauteed chicken, following the notes below. Makes 4 servings 4 900 gr. okra 4 3 or 4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 4 1 large onion, chopped 4 6 large garlic cloves, minced 4 1⁄2 large hot pepper, minced 4 2⁄3 cup chopped fresh cilantro 4 900 gr. ripe tomatoes, diced, or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and diced 4 1⁄2 tsp. ground coriander 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper Cut off okra stems and caps. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, deep skillet or saute pan. Add onion, garlic, hot pepper and 1⁄3 cup fresh coriander. Saute over medium heat, stirring often, until onions begin to turn golden. Add okra and saute, stirring, 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, ground coriander, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium-low heat 20 to 30 minutes or until tender. Stir in remaining 1 or 2 tablespoons oil and remaining fresh coriander and remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or lukewarm. Tofu with okra in tomato garlic sauce: Add 350 to 450 gr. medium or firm tofu, cut in cubes, to the okra for the last 5 minutes of its cooking time. Chicken with Okra in Tomato Garlic Sauce: Cut 350 to 450 gr. boneless skinless chicken in strips and sprinkle lightly with ground coriander or ground cumin. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet and saute chicken lightly in batches until lightly browned. Remove from skillet and add to okra after it has simmered with the tomatoes for 10 minutes. Omit the final amount of olive oil added to the cooked okra. EGYPTIAN-JEWISH OKRA SALAD Even for salads, I don't cook okra in lots of water; it tastes better sauteed, then cooked slowly with a little water. It needs only a simple dressing, like this one of lemon juice, garlic and coriander seed and leaves. Makes 4 servings: 4 450 gr. fresh, small, tender okra, rinsed and patted dry 4 Salt and freshly ground black pepper 4 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 4 1⁄4 cup chopped red onion 4 2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice 4 1 medium garlic clove, very finely minced 4 1⁄4 tsp. ground coriander, or to taste 4 Cayenne pepper to taste 4 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander Trim okra caps. In a large saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil. Add okra and saute 2 minutes over medium heat, stirring lightly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add 3 or 4 tablespoons water, cover and cook over low heat, shaking pan occasionally and adding water only if needed, about 7 minutes or until just tender. Remove okra gently to a shallow serving dish. Add onion and mix gently. In a bowl combine remaining tablespoon oil, lemon juice, garlic, ground coriander, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Pour dressing over okra. Sprinkle with fresh coriander. Serve at room temperature or cold. n Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.