Cooking Together

Cooking Together: Okra Suki Bhaji

Okra Suki Bhaji With Cherry Tomatoes, Scallions and Indian Spices 

By Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff 


Okra is native to West Africa and was brought to the United States by enslaved African people in the 1600s. It became a popular soul food in the South. However, the use of okra is not widespread in rest of the U.S.  Okra is believed to have come to India via the Middle East. In this tropical country, okra thrived and became a popular feature in many Indian menus with regional variations. 

Okra is colorful, dainty, nutritious and tasty when cooked right. Okra’s nutritional profile is very impressive. One cup of cooked okra contains 3 grams of protein, 147 mgs calcium and 1.18 mgs iron. These essential nutrients are often difficult to find in vegetables.

When cooked, okra has mucilaginous characteristics that work for or against a dish, depending on the recipe. For example, in a gumbo recipe, okra’s sliminess is essential to create a thick sauce. However, in many Indian recipes, the stickiness is not desirable. So, there are a number of techniques in Indian cuisine to remove the sliminess of okra, such as by deep frying in a batter, or by stuffing them with spices and flour or dry fruits, or by stir-frying as in this “suki bhaji”  (meaning cooked dry vegetables or cooked vegetables without a sauce) recipe. 

Many ethnic markets in San Francisco Bay Area sell okras year around. These okras are most likely imported from Mexico. Local and organic okras are available in Northern California from late July through September and can be easily found at farmers’ markets. When selecting okra, choose young, tender and firm pods. For this recipe, okras should not be washed, but instead pat-cleaned with a damp towel.

Ingredients:

20 to 24 young okra pods, wiped cleaned with moist kitchen towel 

10 to 12 cherry tomatoes, washed and rinsed 

3-4 scallions (green onions), outer skin removed and rinsed 

3-4 small sweet peppers such shashido or red gypsy peppers, washed and rinsed  

3 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil

½ teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds

½ each turmeric, cumin and coriander powder

1 teaspoon or less salt

1/8 to ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or just a few pinches for a less spicy version)

Juice of ½ lime or lemon (about one tablespoon)

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro or parsley leaves, after washing and removing stems

Purchase all vegetables in small sizes as they will be cut into similar small discs. 

Clean the vegetables as listed above. Cut off and discard the knobs and a bit of the pointy ends of the okra pods and slice them into ½” to 1/3” discs.  Remove stems of cherry tomatoes, if any.  Then cut them into ½” slices if they are big, or cut them into halves if they are small.  Cut off  ¼ ” root portions of scallions and discard them. Also, remove half of the green leaves of scallions and discard them or save them for a soup. Then cut the scallions’ white and green portions into small discs.  Remove the stems of the peppers. Cut the peppers into ½” slices and shake off some of their seeds. Set the cut-up vegetables aside.  

Next, over a moderate flame, heat the oil in a large frying pan (9” to 11” wide) so as not to overcrowd the vegetables. Add the mustard seeds and allow them to pop for 30 seconds. Then add the scallions and pepper slices and stir fry them for 2 or 3 minutes so that the scallions are a bit wilted. Add okra and sauté them for 3 to 4 minutes. Next, add the tomatoes and continue to stir fry the vegetables for additional 3 to 4 minutes so that the okras start to shrink and turn brown.  

Last, sprinkle the powder spices and salt. Stir fry the mixture for another minute to distribute the spices. Sprinkle the freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice and transfer the okra bhaji onto a serving platter. Garnish with cilantro or parsley and serve hot as a side entrée with cooked rice and a soup. Or, serve this dish hot, warm or at room temperature with crackers as an appetizer with a drink. 

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Note:  The amount of the vegetables used in the above recipe will make 3 to 4 small servings.  This dish is dense, so smaller portions are OK. If you want to enlarge the portions, double the ingredients but cook the vegetables in two batches so that they do not overcrowd while sautéing. 

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Recipe © Shanta Nimbark  Sacharoff, 2021

Shanta is a Sunset District resident and the author of “Cooking Together” and “Flavors of India,” both available at Other Avenues Food Co-op., Green Apple Book Store, Rainbow Grocery Co-op, and at local bookstores. Shanta writes recipes and articles on food and teaches cooking classes. You can  view Shanta’s recipe videos by clicking Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff’s YouTube videos. 

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