Not as majestic as the cauliflower or as noble as the cabbage, and often disliked as much as brussels sprouts, okra has had a special place in my heart since I was a child.
Sitting on the kitchen bench of my family home in Sydney, I’d watch my mother prepare many feasts for her dinner parties, a weekly ritual in our Afghan household. The gatherings were called memoni, meaning a party celebrating food. The okra, also known as bamyeh in numerous Afghan languages, would always take prominence on the menu. Occasionally, she would cook okra stew with lamb, which gave the vegetarian dish even more significance for the Afghan guests, as meat is traditionally only for special occasions.
As my mother prepared her dish, she would recite many health benefits of the plant, elevating it to a far more superior vegetable than the rest. "It’s filled with valuable nutrients and it will also prevent blemishes and give you smooth and beautiful skin," she would say. Tough on the outside, tender on the inside, this little vegetable oozes its characteristic slime when cooked.
Commonly called lady’s fingers or gumbo, okra is a native of Africa, where it was apparently cultivated by the Egyptians before the time of Cleopatra. It was during the slave trade that it spread to many other parts of the world.
On a recent reporting assignment for SBS’s flagship current affairs program Dateline, I travelled to North Africa to cover the Arab uprising in the region. My journey would begin in Egypt, reputed to be the birthplace of okra. It was the day after Osama Bin Laden was killed and news networks around the world were scrambling to get reactions from the Arab world.
I was in Cairo to interview a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed El-Beltagy, about the repercussions of the Al-Qaeda leader’s death. My tight deadline meant no time to discover the magnificent and historic city, visit Cairo’s Egyptian Museum or even see the Great Sphinx and pyramids of Giza. This would be a 16-hour day followed by room service.
At midnight, when the material had finally been sent to Sydney, I was able to afford the luxury of eating. I scanned the room-service menu and among the array of Arab cuisine – the falafel, koushari (lentils, macaroni and chickpeas), hummus and tabouleh – were two dishes that took pride of place on the menu. The first was a sweet and sour okra dish and the other was one of my favourites, okra and lamb stew. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. I was greeted by a tall, slim waiter in traditional garb, carrying a tagine on a plastic tray. He smiled engagingly, displaying a mouth full of gold and discoloured teeth. He placed the slightly chipped tagine on the dining table before discreetly leaving me to my midnight feast. Removing the lid, I was enveloped by the stew’s aroma and quickly devoured the okra and lamb stew, relishing the memories of my mother’s home cooking and the delights of this comfort food.
We left Cairo at 5am the next morning, heading for El Salloum, the border crossing for Libya, where we would obtain visas for the rebel-held stronghold of Benghazi. With the NATO no-fly zone strictly enforced, this 20-hour drive was the only way of reaching the 'liberated’ city. Travelling fast, at 180 kilometres per hour, through the dusty inland roads of Egypt’s desert, we only stopped for fuel and to eat at the occasional roadside diner.
After five hours of driving, we spotted a square, characterless, half-finished, concrete building with rusting steel-rod reinforcements pointing skyward. Painted white, you could only distinguish the building as a diner by the cars and trucks parked outside, and the queue of people at the door.
Once inside, I was immediately struck by the cold starkness of the interior, with its floor-to-ceiling ceramic tiles in blue and white meeting the checkerboard-tiled floor in brown and grey. The chairs and tables continued in the same cold theme; the chairs were red plastic seats on metal frames and the round tables had floral plastic covers. I looked around at the assortment of hot food and cold drinks adorning the tables before picking up a discoloured menu, which looked like it had been around for decades, signifying to me that the food on offer had not changed in as long.
To my great delight, the little, green, spiky okra was an ingredient in most of the hot dishes. Breaded and fried, added to soups and stews, this chef certainly had an extensive repertoire of okra dishes. Okra with chicken, okra with tomatoes and rice, okra with everything; yes this was okra nirvana. My spirits were lifted and my heart leapt when, to my surprise, at the top of the menu was one of my favourite dishes: kidney and okra stew. But would it live up to the stew my mother dished up from her kitchen?
This meal did not disappoint. The meat was swimming in a tomato-based sauce and the stew was beautifully thick, with the okra adding to the rich texture of the dish. What’s more, the plate begged for every drop to be cleaned up with fresh local bread.
I encouraged my colleagues to engage in the local culinary delights of this exotic meal with me, but unfortunately they were comfortable sticking to the likes of foods they were more familiar with. Much to their bemusement, our Egyptian driver and I ordered a second helping, which we eagerly consumed in unison.
Over the past few years, my job as a video journalist has taken me to many parts of the world. In almost every country I have visited, I have found comfort in okra, as it has formed part of several signature dishes. One of my favourite destinations has always been India, where okra – or bhindi as it’s known there – is very popular.
Last year, I was sent to the Southern Tamil Nadu region, in Madurai, to do a report on female infanticide. Upon arriving there after a six-hour flight from Delhi (and two very tasteless, pre-packaged meals on the plane), I was eager to eat a decent meal.
Seated on a cushion on the concrete ground of an unobtrusive eatery, I watched the waiter bring out a variety of Tamil dishes. Suddenly, the little mud hut-turned-restaurant was filled with a distinct okra aroma and out came my dish. My translator explained that the food is traditionally eaten without cutlery and, instead, I had to use my right hand. Being left-handed, I was a little nervous, but willing to give it a go. I gripped my roti with my thumb and middle finger, and ripped off a piece. Then I scooped up a serving of okra curry, slowly bringing my mouth closer to my hand in an effort to avoid spillage. The combined flavours of the chilli, tamarind, curry leaves and okra melted in my mouth. Mission accomplished.