“Ewwwww!” was my primal reaction to the thick gooey slime that covered my knife. All I had done was slice a few okras and it spewed more muck than imaginable. This was the revolting aftermath of a slug migration and surely not food. Okra is eschewed for more well-behaved vegetables; cucumbers, tomatoes even Brussels sprouts. It makes calf foot jelly look like an all time favorite. Clearly this is not a vegetable to present to guests unless you don’t want them to come back.
My initial reaction was juvenile and short lived but all too common even among worldly sophisticates. It is a vegetable that makes grown men cringe. According to psychologist Dr. Yolanda Martins of Flinders University the texture of a food, more than its source, is a major reason why some foods are rejected. The only ones immune are those who have been eating it from childhood.
Okra has a prestigious if somewhat convoluted history, believed to be indigenous to Western Africa where it slowly spread to other parts of the world. It was introduced to the United States during the slave trade and today African Americans are still the biggest consumers of gumbo, as okra is known in Swahili. What would good ol’ southern cooking be without it?
Far away, and by another name the Egyptians enjoy their bamya during the sultry summer days. The crop acclimatized well throughout the Levant and is an integral part of their cuisine, eaten with tomato sauce or added to meat stews. It has traveled to India, Pakistan and Malaysia where it has become integrated into the local cooking culture.
In Israel okra is a seasonal crop, available during the warmer months and appearing alongside watermelon and grapes. At the outdoor markets, they are sold in little plastic baskets like strawberries or dumped haphazardly in large piles for housewives to sift through. Deft hands quickly select only the smaller, less fibrous pods, skipping over bruised and discolored fruit.
They are intent and serious but when I ask for a recipe faces light up in animation, “If you don’t like the slime then fry them quickly in olive oil” says one. Another prefers to “boil in lemon juice or citric acid. After that you can store them in the freezer so you have bamya all year round”.
Okra’s viscosity is attributed to the water soluble polysaccharides molecules found in its cell walls. This characteristic can be enhanced or reduced by different methods of preparation. For some, frying and short cooking times keep the vegetable’s gooey consistency to acceptable levels. The more hardcore simmer them slowly with meat or vegetables, a method popular in Africa, Levant and America’s south to produce thick hearty soups and stews.
Like other species from the mallow family, such as hibiscus or mloukhia it is a drought resistant and grows best in subtropical climates. While it is grown mainly for its edible fruit, fibers have been extracted from the plant to produce paper and rope.
Recent scientific research has shown that okra reduces insulin sensitivity and may be beneficial for those suffering from diabetes. It is also an ingredient in beauty creams, with preliminary tests supporting claims that it has rejuvenating qualities on the skin.
Okra may have a long list of positive qualities, high in fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, but if it’s revolting these advantages go to waste. Fortunately, perceptions can be reshaped. Imagine a cookout with good friends and family, there’s fun bantering and laughter. Someone offers you okra and you taste it (since it would be rude to turn around and run) and it’s not that bad… The association with the vegetable changes into something pleasant. It can happen, all you have to do is take the first bite.
Okra Kubba, A Middle Eastern Gumbo Recipe
For the soup:
1 large onion, chopped
3/4 head of garlic, separated into cloves, peeled and cut into slices
4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or grated, peel discarded)
100 grams tomato paste (about 6 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
Juice of one lemon
1/4 cup mint leaves, chopped
1/4 cup celery leaves, chopped
3-4 tablespoons parley
1 tablespoon sugar
12 cups chicken broth
3 cups fresh or frozen okra, cleaned, tops removed and boiled for 2-3 minutes with citric acid to soften
300 grams ground meat (traditionally mince by hand)
½ onion, minced
25 grams (1/4 cup) finely chopped celery and mint leaves
Combine all the ingredients for the filling. Mix well.
2 cups semolina flour
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients until a pliable dough is formed.
The dough tends to dry out quickly so it best to do one cup at a time. When using uncooked meat it is easier to make the kubba when the dough is more on the soft side (although these tend to break more easily)
Fry onion only until translucent.
Add the tomato paste and spices and fry to release the flavor. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock and cook for about 40 minutes or until the tomatoes have blended into the stock. Add the sugar, lemon juice and herbs. Turn off the heat. Before the kubba are added, the okra are added to the soup so they don’t overcook. Taste and adjust spices, lemon juice and sugar.
Making the kubba
Take a piece of dough the size of a walnut, shape the dough into a ball and with your thumb make a hole for the stuffing. If the dough is soft just push the meat into it and roll the dough around it. For every piece of dough try stuffing with about the same volume of meat. The sides of the shell should be thin, as the dough will expand in the soup. A bowl of water is useful to dip your hands in to keep the dough from sticking. When the soup is boiling rapidly add the kubba. Cook for about 20 minutes or until the kubba begin to float. Remember the kubba will disintegrate if cooked too long. Uncooked stuffed kubba can be frozen. To freeze put a tray of kubba in the freezer until frozen to the touch. Take them out and put them in a freezer bag. Serve with rice.