I love Indian food. And when my family got me a DNA test from Ancestry.com for my birthday a few years ago, imagine my surprise to find out that I came up 1% Indian. So, when a student of mine, let’s call him Neel, was going to visit his grandparents in India over our winter break, he asked what I would like him to bring back for me. I said, “Your grandmother’s recipe for garam masala (a mix of spices, with no one set recipe, so I was looking for a genuine family recipe).”
When he got to his grandparents’ home, he asked his grandmother for her recipe, explaining why he wanted it. She was so excited to pass the recipe along, she made him escort her to the local market to purchase all of the spices that I would need to make it. But it doesn’t end there. Timing is everything: We were in the just-post-9-11-high-alert security mode. Neel hadn’t bothered to shave while he was in India, and had grown a full beard. He had a stop-over in Paris, and when he was going back through customs to get on his flight to the US, he was pulled out of line and interrogated because he looked suspicious. The interrogators opened his bag and out spilled a dozen or so little unmarked packets of seeds and powders. All of the powders were opened and tasted. Guess what? None of them were drugs or explosives! They were the spices I would never get to use, one of them a very hot ground red pepper. Karma.
My passion for Indian food did not wane. One night, we were out at an Indian restaurant and we ordered the full dinners that came with an assortment of sides. I particularly loved the vegetable and asked what it was. I was told it was bhindi. When I got home I looked up bhindi and found out it was okra! Okra generally made me gag – the slimy texture just got stuck in my throat. But this was dry and crispy and delicious. I looked up a recipe and started making it at home, tweaking and tweaking until I came up with the recipe that follows. It is an easy recipe to make, but there is one must-have ingredient that you may need to get from an Asian market: asafetida powder.
People say that you can substitute garlic and onion for the powder, but I think it changes not only the flavor complex, but the texture of the dish. When I didn’t use the asafetida, the okra didn’t crisp up as nicely. It’s pretty inexpensive, so try and add it to your spice rack!
Bhindi Masala (Indian style okra)
- 3 T ghee, for frying (if you don’t have ghee, you can use any oil)
- 3-4 cups of okra, cut cross-wise
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 1” piece of ginger, grated
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted
- 1 t fennel seeds, toasted
- ½ t red chili powder
- ½ t turmeric powder
- ½ t asafetida powder
- ½ C water
- Grind the toasted whole spices together and combine with the powdered spices.
- Heat about 1 ½ T of the ghee in a heavy skillet. When it is melted, add the okra and stir until it is fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan.
- Put the remaining ghee in the pan and when it is melted, add the ground spices and fry them until they are fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the ginger and garlic, and stir around for a minute until that is also fragrant.
- Pour in the water and scrape everything up off the bottom of the pan. The spices will thicken the water. Add the okra back to the pan and toss to coat. I usually cook this a little longer, stirring constantly until it is at the dryness I want. I don’t like this overly sauce-y, but that is my personal taste.