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There's More To Okra Than Frying

Okra, I clearly recall, was the first vegetable that I learned to cut. I remember it so well not because I loved it — although I did — but because of the slime. The mucilage that was excreted from the unassuming little pod was almost enough to turn me off my favorite vegetable. Almost. Luckily for me, my grandmother intervened and showed me how to cut okra so that I could get rid of the offending slime along the way.

Alas, my deep-frying began to catch up with my thighs, and ... Thus began my quest to find a way to cook okra that was healthy and heart-friendly without being, simply put, gross. Don't get me wrong, I can eat it in a curry, but I really have this thing about the slime. And I know I'm not alone.

She made a few simple rules for me to follow: First, use tender, small pods (the large ones are hard as wood and cannot be eaten, slime or no slime). Second, rinse and thoroughly dry the okra. Next, she recommended that I cut off the tops and bottoms. I have no scientific evidence to support her assertion that this reduces the slime, but when grandmothers — especially ones who cook like a dream — assert anything, grandchildren listen.

The next part, cutting the okra into pieces, does in fact release the slime. But she taught me to keep a small towel on the side and to religiously wipe my knife after each cut. This keeps the slime on the towel and away from the okra, so when you cook it, it is considerably less slimy.

I have to admit, the slime has its uses. In some of my favorite dishes, such as Southern American gumbo, all that slime comes in handy as a thickener. African slaves are said to have brought okra with them to the South. Alternatively, gumbo is also made with file, ground dried sassafras leaves that thicken the broth.

In India, okra also is used as a thickener in certain curries. Of course, no one there calls it okra; it is called lady's finger.

My grandmother's final and most crucial tip was to cook okra on high heat, which I translated into: If you want to have great-tasting okra, deep-fry it on high heat.

So I grew up frying a lot of okra. I sliced it into thin rounds and pan-fried it with spices, onions, tomatoes and a lot of oil. I julienned it, coated it with a mix of chickpea flour, ground roasted cumin, salt, pepper, cayenne and ground coriander and deep-fried it. The texture was crunchy, the spices added depth, and there was zero slime to deal with.

Alas, my deep-frying began to catch up with my thighs, and I wondered if my okra-eating days were over. Thus began my quest to find a way to cook okra that was healthy and heart-friendly without being, simply put, gross. Don't get me wrong, I can eat it in a curry, but I really have this thing about the slime. And I know I'm not alone.

I began to question my assumption: While Grandma had said to cook it on high heat, she never said to cook it only on the stovetop in super-hot oil. So when I started roasting vegetables in the oven at very high heat, I wondered if okra might be a candidate.

For my roasting experiment, I selected tender pods, as Grandma advised. A long time ago, I tasted okra "chips" that had the top cap and the bottom left untouched, so I decided not to chop them off. I rinsed the okra and let it air-dry for a few hours. Then I felt guilty about not listening to granny's advice, and off went the tops and bottoms of the okra. Then I marinated it in a little oil, salt and pepper. I roasted it in a 415-degree oven for about 40 minutes (tossing it around every 15 minutes or so to ensure that it browned evenly on all sides). It tasted, well ... good, but the earth did not move. It needed something more.

It was then I turned to chaat masala, the love-of-my-life spice mix. Simply translated, chaat means "to lick," and my contention is that this spice blend makes everything lickably good. Chaat masala sells for a dollar and change at most Indian grocers and is my favorite condiment. I sprinkled some on the roasted okra, and it took the dish from simple to spectacular. I made another batch and sprinkled it with my fennel-red chili spice rub. I think my grandmother would be proud that I have enlarged my okra world.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Monica Bhide