When he was little, for homework, my son had to make a list of the vegetables he liked most. The top 3 positions in his sabzi roll of honour were awarded to bhindi and the fourth and fifth were left conspicuously blank. With a level of integrity that our national award committees would do well to emulate, he was not open to any suggestion or lobbying on behalf of any other vegetable. Clearly, it was bhindi or bust.
He isn’t alone. For most kids, most vegetables rank up there—with visits to the dentist, Monday tests, and hugs from unidentified oldies who smell of cabbage—as the least likely sources of pleasure. Somehow in this bleak landscape, bhindi manages to stand up and be counted, a proud if solitary representative of the entire universe of goodness that vegetables are supposed to signify.
As someone who adores all vegetables, even the gross smelly unlovable ones that exist on the periphery of most urban Indians’ vegetable baskets, I should find this attitude inexplicable. But, here’s the thing—I totally understand, because bhindi love is true love. No matter how much pui shaak and tendli and yam and pumpkin you can demolish, and how fast your heart beats for tinda and beetroot, a bowl of bhindi will always manage to put a smile on your face.
Of course, it’s ironic that most people (kids being front and centre of this movement) who can’t abide the entire genus of squishy vegetables (laukis, kaddus, tindas, toris, squashes etc) are the ones willing to give bhindi its own Padma Shri. Because under that demure crisp exterior, each bhindi pod contains the equivalent of a few lap pools of mucilage. (Mucilage is a fancy way of saying lacy, slimy mucousy disgusting stuff that coats everything and triggers the uncontrollable urge to heave up yesterday’s breakfast.)
Elsewhere in the world where bhindi (or okra as it is known) is eaten, this mucilage isn’t the deal breaker it seems to be in India. In fact, it’s this very quality that makes it the key ingredient of Louisiana gumbo, the iconic meat or shellfish stew, where it is used as a thickener. The Japanese boil the pods briefly and then slice them and serve with soya and grated ginger or bonito flakes; slime and all and all in all. The Lebanese also use it in a tomato-based stew where the sticky texture of the okra lends complexity to the recipe.
But with typical jugaad, Indians have developed many ways to eliminate what we hate so much: drying each pod completely before cooking, keeping the bhindi whole to not allow it to escape, coating the cut bhindi with besan or flour and frying it to eliminate it. Basically, the theory is that the addition of something acidic is supposed to stem the slime; and moisture during the initial cooking of the bhindi seems to exacerbate it. So the best way to eliminate it is to fry it before dousing with spices and/or a slightly acidic sauce or curry.
The squishiness of the bhindi thus safely kept at bay, there is no end to the number of ways it can be enjoyed. The version most popular with the under-12 set would be crisp bhindi, basically the closest that a vegetable cooked at home can come to the seductive allure of a packet of Kurkure. The bhindi is julienned, coated in a dry batter, deep fried, a dash of chaat masala is added and lo and behold!—exactly like the food group it seeks to emulate, no one can eat just one.
Another crowd-pleaser is the version where some cut bhindi is fried with either onions and/or garlic and spiced lightly with maybe a dash of amchur for some tang. Every family has their own preferred ways of cutting the vegetable—small roundels or slightly longer batons, cut on the diagonal or even the long juliennes; each cut alters the mouth feel and, to some extent, the taste of the vegetable. However, what stays constant is the yumminess of the bhindi, the textural contrast between the slightly crisp pan-fried exterior and the tenderness of the inside, delicately flavoured and spiced.
This basic bhindi can be dunked into some dahi to transform into a yummy raita and Parsis eat a version of this with fried eggs, (bheeda pe eeda). Another dish much beloved by North Indians keeps the bhindi whole, stuffed with a perfectly balanced melange of spices and pan-fried. Sindhis, meanwhile, cut up the bhindi, fry it and dunk it into a curry that is amongst the yummiest things in the world. There’s another fabulous dish that’s not as common: The bhindi is fried and then coated in a sauce made with a paste of mustard seeds and green chillies. Finished with a drizzle of mustard oil just before serving, this is uncommonly good.
But the bhindi that does a bhindi to the rest of the bhindi kingdom (i.e., beats them all hands down) in my book is vendakkai puli kulambu. As a bhindi lover, if you haven’t eaten this, you haven’t yet plumbed the depths of your feeling for the vegetable. Long batons of bhindi are lightly fried and then coated with this incredibly balanced, complex sauce made with tamarind, shallots, currypatta, mustard seeds, methi seeds, green chillies, red chillies, onions, tomatoes and sundry spices. The tartness and complexity in the sauce is a perfect counterpoint to the crisp-outside, tender-inside delicate bhindi and each mouthful is heaven.
So if for my homework assignment I had to write out MY bhindi roll of honour, here’s what it would look like: 1. Bhindi with tamarind and shallots. 2. Bhindi fried simply with garlic and spices. 3. Crisp bhindi with chaat masala.
As they say in my son’s school, there are no losers, only some that do better than others. And nowhere is this more true than the wonderful kingdom of bhindi.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.