Yakhnit Bamia: Okra & Tomato Stew
I think that okra gets a bad rap. After all, it’s like the red violin of seed pods, wending it’s way across the continents through periods of political strife, drought, and social uprising, to find a place in the heart and on the plates of culturally and geographically diverse peoples around the world.
I think I fell in love with the idea of okra before I ever ate it. It started with the poignant and romanticized stories of African slaves carrying the seeds across the ocean in their hair. The ships were filthy and riddled with disease, and just as many people perished during the crossings as those who made it into their new land to a dismal future of hardship and punishing labour. However, somehow, by some stroke of faith or stalwart genetics, those little seeds survived long enough for their few remaining human caretakers to plant them into safe soil, and so begun the cultivation of okra into the Americas. Two hundred years pass by and ‘gumbo’ has become one of the hallmark dishes of the American south. Isn’t it touching the way that our cultural stories are as often told on the table as around it?
Although many of us think of Creole cooking when we ponder what to do with a bag of okra, those little green jewels have certainly travelled around the world in 80 dishes. Obviously okra is common in many African dishes, as that’s the region where it is believed to have originated from. However, okra is also a frequent flyer through Middle Eastern, Caribbean, East & South East Asian, and more recently even Japanese kitchens.
But why not? With a nutty and just slightly sweet flavor, okra lends itself as well to homestyle soups and stews as it does to spicy curries or addictive fried pub foods. Oh yes, indeed, fried okra is a thing of beauty. But then again, so is baked okra, stewed and braised okra, stuffed okra, pickled okra…..the list goes on. Depending on how okra is prepared it can be crunchy and crisp, meaty and firm, or soft and gelatinous – giving gumbo that characteristic gelatinous body that anti okra eaters use cornstarch to achieve.
When I look at those fuzzy elongated pods, I can’t help thinking that okra has a strong sense of personal identity. It seems so proud and staid, weathering the tests of time, climate, and often questionable food preparation, constantly adapting to new palates and surroundings. It makes sense that, outside of the Americas, okra is often referred to as ‘Ladies’ Fingers’, because that elegant strength and longevity are the qualities I admire most in many of the women that I care for and respect.
Buying ‘good’ okra is easy enough. Look for relatively small seed pods of about 3-4 inches long, because the older and more mature pods tend to be tough and slightly woody. The okra should be firm fleshed with very little -if any- discoloration on the body, however a subtle ring of greenish brown under the stem end is fine. It means your okra have been sitting for a short time since they were picked, but they certainly haven’t started to rot.
By this point it’s probably pretty clear that I like okra in whatever culinary inception it may have, but a Lebanese dish of stewed okra and tomatoes is one of those healthful and yet comforting meals that I just can’t seem to get enough of. The arabic name for okra is ‘bamia’ (or bamii, bamya, bamyi, bameh….etc), and ‘yakhnit’ just means, well, stew. So many people find Middle Eastern food to be daunting or unfamiliar, but if you look at the ingredient list for this dish, there’s a whole lot of pantry staples that you likely already have and regularly use. I mean, c’mon, there’s NOTHING suspicious about canned tomatoes and chickpeas, is there? And okra, well, cut it in half and you have pretty little green snowflake flowers with delicately nutty seeds. They’re not poisonous, I promise.
Yakhnit Bamia (okra stew) is quite similar to Loubi, a Lebanese green bean and tomato stew, which also happens to be one of Mike’s favorites. I made a promise to you all about a month ago that I would start posting more vegetarian & vegan recipes, and you should have heard the furor in our kitchen that day (“I WILL NOT EAT TOFU YOU CAN’T MAKE ME I WANT *MEAT* IF I WANTED TO BE A VEGETARIAN I’D BE A VEGETARIAN AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME IF I WANT TO EAT RIBS I’M GOING TO EAT RIBS AND STOP TRYING TO TRICK ME INTO EATING TOFU BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE IT I’M NEVER GOING TO LIKE IT AND YOU SHOULD JUST STOP TRYING -”). It’s safe to say that only one of us liked this idea. However, if Mike has a weak spot (and I make it my business to find -and exploit- all of his weak spots) it would be Lebanese food. The best way to hush him up before he starts complaining about militant vegetarians is to tell him that I’m making Lebanese food for dinner, and omit the whole…er….vegan aspect altogether. He’s happy, I’m happy, and I keep my promise to the cows. See? Win, win, win.
Yakhnit Bamia: Okra & Tomato Stew
- 1 lb fresh okra
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 large can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp hot red pepper flakes
- 1 medium can (19 oz) chickpeas
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1/2 small bunch parsley (1/4 cup chopped)
- salt and pepper to taste
Start by preparing the okra. Trim the stem end of your okra pods off at the base, and then use a small sharp knife to pare away the tough greenish brown ring at the top of the pod.
Okra is really one of those polarizing food stuffs, where people either love it or hate it. In my experience, most of the people who despise okra are really reacting to the mucilaginous discharge from the seed pods, otherwise known as “that nasty, slimy, slug trail of goo”. The only way to fully eliminate the G-factor from okra is to dry it out or seal the pods through high heat frying. Neither of which appeals to me. However, you can mitigate some of the goo-be-gone by soaking the prepared pods in a vinegary solution before hand.
Put the okra into a large shallow dish and pour the vinegar overtop. Toss the okra around in the liquid and let it sit, stirring it around occasionally to make sure that every last bit gets an antiseptic bath, for about a half hour or so.
Chop the onion into a relatively small dice and mince the garlic cloves.
Warm the oil in a large heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven which is set over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and let them sweat out, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes when the fry is fragrant and the onions are translucent, add the tomato paste and stir it around for another minute or so to cook out the raw tomato taste.
Pour in the entire can of diced tomatoes, watery juices and all. Add the cumin, cinnamon, allspice and pepper flakes, and stir it to combine. Let this mixture cook down, uncovered, for about 10-15 minutes or until the tomatoes have started to break down.
Now then, the okra is probably starting to feel testy and neglected. I can understand why, mind you. Considering what the okra haters of the world have to say about the poor fruit (yes, technically the pods ARE considered a fruit), it’s enough to give any slimy pod a bit of a persecution complex.
Drain the vinegar off from the okra and give it a good rinse and pat dry. Chop the okra up into large chunks. For a 4″ okra this usually means cutting it into thirds.
Drain and rinse the can of chickpeas. Add the beans, okra, and 1/3 cup of water to the tomato mixture.
Reduce the heat to medium low and cover the pot. Let the stew simmer away for 20 – 25 minutes or until the okra is tender and cooked through. Season the stew with salt and pepper to taste.
Discard the stems from the parsley. Finely chop the parsley leaves (there will be about 1/4 cup in total) and stir it in, along with a hearty tablespoon of lemon juice or slightly less than the juice of half a lemon, right before serving.
Yakhnit Bamia can be served warm or at room temperature. When it’s warm, the best way to eat it is ladled over a buttery rice pilaf. After the stew cools it’s just as good served on it’s own and scooped up with soft, fresh pita bread.
I’m a bit smug right now. I can’t help it. I feel very virtuous every time that I make a vegetarian dish which Mike likes so much that he forgets to complain. This time, not only was he too busy hoovering to start a meat deprivation whinge-fest, but after bamia for dinner one day and lunch the next, he turned to me and said, “What do you MEAN all the okra’s gone? I only had it TWICE!” Thank you, okra. You did it again.