Okra is a vegetable I love and somehow get to eat very, very infrequently. It’s not a dominant ingredient in many cuisines and doesn’t make a presence very often on a menu - and when it does, it isn’t always the way I like it. It’s one of those vegetables that needs a bit of care to shine, I feel, and the ways my mother used to make it remain my favourite. This recipe is one of my all-time favourites and she didn’t make it all that often, given that this one is a bit time-consuming to prepare. But it is definitely worth giving it a try: the okras here are stuffed with a spicy, garlic-cumin powder and then gently pan-fried until done, so they retain their texture and don’t become sticky and glibbery.
You’ll find okra in an Asian or Indian supermarket and they usually come pre-packed. Try to get hold of smaller ones, not longer than about 7 or 8 centimetres, these are more tender and cook faster than the larger, fatter okra. To clean, wash them as you would any other vegetable, but make sure to dry them very throughly before cutting because any moisture on the outside that comes in contact with the insides creates sticky white threads that make handling them very difficult. Spread the wet okra on a kitchen towel and gently rub them with your hands to dry and leave them spread out for a bit to allow all the moisture to evaporate. As I mentioned earlier, this is a dish with intense flavours so I like serving it with some daal on the side or something mild, so the clash in tastes isn’t too intense. Its delicious with both rice or rotis as a side.
400 - 500 gm okra, washed and throughly dried
2 tablespoons ghee or sunflower oil
For the filling:
1 small pod of garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon ground chili, depending on how spicy you like it
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon water
Cut the heads and tails off of the okra pods. Lay each pod flat and using the sharp edge of your knife, slit it completely through the middle from the top to a centimetre from the bottom. (See the images below for how this should look). Place the slit okra in a large plate.
To prepare the filling, combine all the ingredients except the water in a small mixer and grind until you have a fine powder. Add the water and grid again to create a mixture that just holds together - it shouldn’t become a paste. Transfer into a small bowl.
Holding an okra pod in one hand, take a pinch of the spice filling with the other and press it into the slit, distributing it from top to bottom. You should have an even layer of the mixture all down the inside (see images below). Repeat this for all the okra, stacking the filled ones back in the plate. If there’s any of the spice mix left over, either distribute it between the okra or save it for when they’re cooking.
Heat the ghee or oil a large heavy-bottomed pan on a medium flame. Once warm, add the okra a handful at a time and using a large spatula, gently turn them around to coat evenly with the ghee or oil. Add any remaining spice mix to the pan. After 5 minutes, lower the heat and cook, turning occasionally until done, about 12 to 15 minutes. Give the okra a taste after about 10 minutes to check the progress, it should be completely cooked through but still have a bit of bite when it's done. If needed, add more salt, stir through once and remove into a bowl. Serve hot, with rice or rotis and daal.
Serves 4 as a side
Prep time: 20 - 25 minutes Cook time: 15 - 20 minutes
Images: Vatsala Murthy