It’s Okra season, and to those who love these weirdly shaped green pods, this means tasty okra dishes.There are so many delicious ways to cook okra – from the southern deep fried corn crusted okra to the Gumbo soups, Turkish okra pickles, Middle Eastern okra stews with lamb, West Indies Okra and coconut soup or in Vietnamese shrimp and pineapple soup.
However, many people dislike okra because of its slimy texture, which is not okra’s fault, but the cook’s. If you put some effort in preparing the okra the right way, you’ll find out you can produce an exquisite dish that brings out the best in okra, without any of the sliminess mentioned.
This okra dish origin is from my Sephardic grandmother, who was born in Izmir. Her family moved to Turkey when the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492 (the very same year in which Columbus discovered America, with all its culinary treasures, such as tomatoes, potatoes and peppers.)
What is “Sephardic”, you might ask? Spain in Hebrew is “Sepharad” and so, those who fled Spain were therefore called “Sepharadim”. They have kept their Spanish language (called Ladino), as a way to keep communication going on between all the communities of those Sepharadim. Ladino later on absorbed words and terms from the languages of the countries where they have found refuge at. In the same manner, the Sephardic cooking traditions they have carried with them, were also slightly influenced by the cuisines of their adoptive countries. This is why in Turkey, they have used the Turkish term “Bamiya” for okra and added the Ladino “con tomate”, i.e. “with tomatoes”.
Sephardic cooks always prefer to put the emphasis on the ingredient itself, and use very little spices, if any. In this dish, the way the okra is prepared prior to cooking is what keeps it whole throughout the cooking and baking, and gives it a distinctive taste and texture. The long baking caramelizes the okra and the sauce – and the result is mouthwatering.
The dish is great warm or cold. It can be served as is, or with white rice, as an appetizer. It is also wonderful as a side dish for roasted chicken, grilled meat or fried fish.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Baking time: 3 1/2 hours
1.3 Lbs (600 grams) fresh young okra pods
4 Tbs olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 Tbs tomato paste
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1. Wash the okra and let dry on paper towels. With a sharp knife, carefully cut off the wider end in a cone shape, the way you would sharpen a pencil. Make sure not to cut all the way through to the seeds, as otherwise, the okra will lose its shape while cooking and the dish will become slimy.
2. Preheat the oven to 225F (110C). Heat the oil in a large wide and deep pot and add the garlic. Fry very lightly, just until the garlic warms up but does not change color.
3. Add the prepared okra pods, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Add water just up to the okra level. Mix gently.
4. Bring to the boil, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Cover the pot and cook and for 5 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.