The One Ingredient That Turns Pretty Good Homemade Indian Food Into Amazing Homemade Indian Food

Slate's Culture Blog
April 17 2014 8:17 AM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Okra

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Bhindi masala, aka the best okra dish.

Chris Wade for Slate

I am glad that no one ever forced stewed okra on me during my childhood, because the stories I’ve heard from stewed-okra veterans have been traumatizing. Friends and colleagues have described memories of okra that was sulfurous and slimy and yet left a cottony feeling on their tongues and gums. (This is no coincidence: The okra plant is related to the cotton plant.)

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Many people will tell you that the best way to mitigate okra’s slime is to batter and deep-fry it. Naturally, deep-fried okra is good, just like deep-fried anything is good. But okra isn’t enough of a flavor powerhouse to make fried okra an exceptional dish. Sure, fried okra is great alongside fried catfish and hushpuppies, but it doesn’t hold its own in the pantheon of fried foods.

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The truth is, okra needs two main things to be outstanding: It needs to be de-slimed, and it needs assertive spices to augment its mildly peppery flavor. Only one dish nails both of these imperatives, and that dish is bhindi masala, the okra curry native to the Punjab region of India.

Making bhindi masala is actually a similar process to making eggplant caponata: First, you fry the seedy, misunderstood vegetable until it’s brown and fully tender. Then you make a tomato sauce—in this case, with lots of spices added. Finally, you fold everything together away from the heat. It seems like a well-integrated stew, but really the principal vegetable is cooked separately from the other ingredients in order to keep it from getting slimy or soggy. It’s like Les Paul’s foray into multitrack recording, “Lover”—different parts perfected separately and then combined into a cohesive whole.

If you were scarred by stewed okra as a child, you might be wary of overcooking your okra here. Don’t be. Counterintuitively, you want to cook it so long it’s just shy of burning. A long frying session will give the okra time to dry out as its liquid evaporates, and that dried out texture is what you want if you’re trying to avoid slime. Your okra’s not done until it looks wilted and deeply browned. (If you happen to have garbanzo flour on hand from that time you made chickpea fries a few weeks ago, give your okra a light coating of it before frying to promote browning. If not, no big deal; it’s not a mandatory step.)

Once your okra is adequately browned, you’re in the home stretch, but you still have to get the spice balance right in the tomato sauce. You’ll probably be able to acquire cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and garam masala pretty easily, but you’ll need to make a trip to an Indian grocery store (or the Internet) to pick up some amchoor powder. This spice, made of pulverized green mangoes, is, I’ve found, the single ingredient that makes the difference between pretty-good homemade Indian food and knockout homemade Indian food. Don’t skip it! (Or, if you must skip it, add some extra lemon juice as a partial substitute for the amchoor powder’s delightful tanginess.)

Bhindi Masala
Yield: 4 servings
Time: About 1¼ hours

½ cup grapeseed or canola oil
1 pound okra, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon chickpea flour (optional)
Salt
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste (or 1 inch fresh ginger and 3 garlic cloves, minced)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon amchoor (dried mango) powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
¼ teaspoon ground garam masala
Juice of ¼ lemon
Cooked basmati rice for serving (optional)
Chopped cilantro for garnish (optional)

1. Put the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Pat the okra dry with a paper towel, and toss the okra with the chickpea flour, if you’re using it. When the oil is hot, add the okra and cook, stirring occasionally, until very tender and deeply browned, 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a plate with a slotted spoon, and season with salt.

2. Add the onion to the skillet and season it with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s soft and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the ginger-garlic paste, then add the coriander, cumin, turmeric, amchoor powder, and cayenne pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and jalapeños and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to break down, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Stir in the garam masala and cook for 1 minute, then turn off the heat and stir in the okra and lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, over basmati rice and garnished with cilantro, if desired. (Leftover bhindi masala can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.)