Okra has been a longtime nemesis. I can’t get past the slime. So many times the slime dominates okra’s other qualities as well as whatever other dishes its added to. Battered and fried works for me. But what ingredient doesn’t taste great battered and fried? The sub-Saharan climate works well for okra. Even in semi-arid Cape Verde it thrived. Thus, for the past year and a half I’ve tried to overcome my dislike for this veggie. I made pickled okra. Each pickle came out of the jar trailing a string of slime. I added okra to soups and stews. It’s viscosity is a nice thickener but also adds a slimy mouth feel. I slow roasted okra in the oven with a little olive oil. Finished with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt, the okra was delicious and slime free. Here in Benin, okra is plentiful but I don’t have an oven for slow roasting vegetables. Back to the drawing board.
I looked to the local preparation in Benin for inspiration. Huge mistake. Pulverized into a thin, slimy sauce that most closely resembles snot in consistency and color, it is eaten with pâte (a bland cornmeal-based porridge that solidifies into the shape of whatever vessel it is stored in). I’ve eaten it three times. My first foray into this local delicacy took place at a lunch stall during my first week of training. I didn’t know what I was ordering. I forced the snot sauce down to be polite. Several weeks later our host mother cooked this sauce. Especially for us, she said. Again, I forced it down. The third time Jen and I were at a funeral banquet. I put a little snot sauce on each bite of food hoping the pâte would cover its yuck factor. It didn’t. I will avoid this sauce for the rest of my time in Benin.
Okra is cheap and one of very few vegetables that is consistently available in our town. For the first three months I passed it each day in the market and never once considered buying any. Then I came across a recipe for okra in At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, a cookbook I recently purchased. I decided to give okra another chance.
I went to the market and asked a vendor for 100 CFA (20 cents) of okra. She put more than a pound of crisp, small, freshly picked okra into a bag. Oops, no way we’ll eat a pound of okra, I thought. I went home, washed and sliced the okra leaving a thick string of okra-snot on my knife and cutting board. I thought about throwing the okra in the garbage. Instead I continued to follow the recipe. The final product was a big surprise. Dark brown and slightly crunchy on the outside, and almost creamy on the inside, the okra had a great consistency. Cumin seeds, salt and a finishing squeeze of lime gave it a bright, flavorful taste. And no sliminess. I’ve made this recipe a half dozen times in the past month and everyone who has tried the finished product says the same thing: I usually don’t like okra but this is really good. I agree.
Okra with Cumin, Onions and Lemon Juice from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey:
1 lb. okra^
1 red onion^ or some shallots
1½ T cumin seeds^^
½ C olive oil^^
1 lemon or lime^
dash cayenne pepper^
- Slice off top and tip of okra; discard. Then slice horizontally into pieces about ¼ – ½ inch thick.
- Add oil to pan and turn to medium high. When hot, add cumin seeds. Add okra and toss to coat with oil. Let cook for 5 – 8 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes, until okra starts to brown all over.
- Add chopped onion and cook for another 3 – 5 minutes until okra is well browned. It should now be a little less than half its initial volume.
- Season with salt, pepper, cayenne and lemon juice.
^ Ingredient purchased in our town and used by locals on a daily basis.
^^ Ingredient purchased at supermarkets in Porto Novo or Cotonou that cater to wealthier Beninese and foreigners.
^^^ Ingredient sent courtesy of friends and families in care packages.
^^^^ From our garden.