One of my goals is to try every single vegetable and fruit at Bestwin, a local grocery store that has tons of ethnic food spanning India to Japan to Thailand. I oftentimes have no clue what they are, nor what to do with them, so it will definitely be a challenge. I stopped by this week and noticed okra was on sale, so I picked some up to start my cuisine challenge. Thankfully I also had 2 cookbooks in my trunk so I quickly looked for an appealing recipe with okra and made sure to get all the ingredients.
Okra is native to Africa but is used in Middle Eastern, Indian and African cuisine. While okra is commonly served with tomato, I adapted a Syrian Jewish sweet and sour recipe with okra, prunes and apricots in a tamarind sauce from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck (the original recipe has also been posted here by the Jewish Book Council). There is some tomato paste as well, so the classic tomato flavour is there as well. I thought the sauce was fabulous with the sweet apricots and prunes, with the sour tang from the tamarind. The bit of tomato pasta also added a bit of homeliness to the dish. The sauce worked well with the delicious okra.
The sweet and sour sauce took a while to prepare but the long cooking meant there was no need for any additional sugar as the sweetest was entirely from the fruits. I served this with a bed of rice as a meal, but I think next time I’d love to add a bean like chickpeas to the mixture. It can also be served as a side dish to an elaborate meal.
I was a bit worried about the okra after reading about its acquired tasted and its gooey characteristics if opened, but I didn’t have any problems. The try to minimize any mucilaginous texture, quickly spray with water when washing and quickly pan-fry them with a bit of oil. Keeping them intact while cooking is also important, and shaking the pan instead of stirring helps. A few of my larger okra where a bit tough and stringy, so I should have heeded Dweck’s advice to purchase the smallest okra possible. When I was in Turkey, they were each an inch or two long and I hear in Syria they are even smaller. Here in Canada, they were much longer but still good. Frozen baby okra could also be an option.
To be fair, I don’t normally travel with cookbooks in my trunk, but I was enroute from buying them. I couldn’t be more happy with my purchases. This was the second recipe I have tried from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck, and I was not disappointed (the first was Eggs Scrambled with Rhubarb). Aromas of Aleppo is a unique cookbook featuring Jewish Syrian cuisine.
As the last Jews left Aleppo in 1997 and took their cuisine with them, this makes the cookbook a treasure trove of historical dishes. Dweck is keeping the Syrian Jewish culinary traditions alive through recipes pulled together from the expatriated community, a project which began over 30 years ago. Syrian Jews separate themselves from other Sephardic Jews through their flavourful dishes, with their unique uses of tamarind, cherries, and spices such as allspice, cinnamon, saffron and cardamom. What’s not to love?
Okra With Prunes and Apricots in a Tamarind Sauce (Bamia b’Mishmosh)
1 pound fresh small okra, stems or trimmed, or frozen Egyptian baby okra (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons tamarind paste, soaked and then strained
1 cup water
Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup pitted prunes
3 cups rice, cooked
1. In a medium sauce pan, gently saute the okra in the vegetable oil over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add garlic and saute until the okra is lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes. To prevent the okra from emitting its characteristic starchy, mucilaginous liquid, do not stir with a spoon, shake the pot occasionally as it cooks.
3. Dollop the tomato and tamarind pastes over the okra. Add 1 cup of water, the lemon juice, and salt. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, then add the apricots and prunes. Cook for 30 minutes more until okra is crisp, tender not mushy.
4. Serve immediately, perhaps over rice.
Serves 4-6 as a main (or 8-10 as a side).