Vazha-vazha, the onomatopoeic word in Tamil for slimy, is the best way to describe bhindi, lady’s finger or okra. As a beginner cook, I was first warned about this unpleasant side effect of the vegetable—and the ways to overcome it.
The mucilage in bhindi holds together and gives body to dishes like sambhar and stews but is a bane when you are trying to make a dry preparation like a subzi. It is also the reason for the health benefits that bhindi offers—and why drinking okra water is a thing.
Bhindi slime is made up of a mixture of polysaccharides, which are long chains of carbohydrate molecules. If you think they are nothing more than a nuisance for cooks, you are in for a surprise. These are one of the reasons we should all be eating more bhindi. Mucilage has been proven to have anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-ulcer, hypoglycaemic (reducing blood sugar) and cholesterol-reducing effects, just to list a few health benefits. It is also known to aid the detoxification process in the liver. Mucilage finds immense uses in the food and pharmaceutical industry as an emulsifier, texture improver, thickener, binder, gelling agent, sustained-release agent and much more. Food technology is increasingly looking at using mucilage from okra to prepare non-toxic food films to coat produce.
Okra water is a new trend. It involves soaking a few slit okras in a glass of water overnight and drinking the water in the morning. While no scientific research has proven the benefits of drinking okra water, given that the mucilage itself has several proven health benefits, it could be a good idea to start the day with this simple remedy, especially for diabetics. According to a 2021 article published in the journal Plants, “the viscous nature of okra mucilage can greatly increase inhibition of both in vitro glucose trapping in the cell and the absorption of sugar from the intestine”.
Let us move on from the slimy aspect of okra to the crispier side of things. There is nothing slimy whatsoever about kurkuri bhindi, which occupies place of pride on many Indian restaurant menus. Bhindi is cut into juliennes, tossed in a mix of ground spices and gram flour and deep-fried until golden and crisp. I also like to add a bit of rice flour along with gram flour for extra crunch. At home, bhindi is sliced thinly and deep-fried until well caramelised to a dark brown colour. Bhindi fried to this colour takes on a different taste with slightly charred notes. This bhindi is added to dahi (yogurt) to make vendakka thayir pacchidi (bhindi raita).
My favourite crisp kind of bhindi is vendakka vathal, a sun-dried and fried preparation that is intensely umami in flavour. Thickly sliced bhindi is marinated in a mix of dahi and salt for one-two days. The slices are drained, and sun-dried for a few days until dry and crisp. They can be stored in airtight containers for a year or more. The required quantity is removed and deep- fried in oil like “fryyums” and eaten with dal-rice, or can be used to make a tamarind-based vathal kuzhambu.
Bhindi subzis in different varieties, such as alu-bhindi, bhindi-do-pyaza, vendakka poriyal, bhindi masala, are all house favourites around the country. I recently tried a bhindi and bell pepper salad at a friend’s party and it made me wonder why we don’t look beyond subzis when it comes to cooking bhindi at home. I enjoyed recreating a cross between a salad and stir-fry. Even if you skip the dressing and just season it with salt, pepper and lemon juice, I promise it will taste delicious.
A new kind of green salad
250g tender okra
1 green capsicum
2 green chillies
1 tbsp coconut oil
For the dressing
2-3 sprigs curry leaves
2-3 garlic cloves
1 green chilli
1 tsp tamarind paste
Quarter tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp grated jaggery
1 tbsp coconut oil
Half tsp salt
Wash and dry the okra well with a kitchen towel. Top and tail the okra. Slit in half lengthwise. Cut the capsicum into similar thin juliennes. Slit the green chillies in half lengthwise.
In a pan, heat half the oil and fry the chillies and okra on high heat, stirring constantly for four-five minutes, until the okra turns bright green and is nearly cooked. Remove to a dish and keep aside. Heat the remaining oil and stir-fry the capsicum similarly for two-three minutes. Remove the stir-fried vegetables to a bowl. In a small mixer, combine all the ingredients for the dressing and blend until thick and creamy. Drizzle over the vegetables. Serve immediately.
Air-fried bhindi raita
2 tsp oil
Half tsp salt
1 cup yogurt
2 tsp oil
A pinch of black mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal
1 dried red chilli
Wash and dry the bhindi well. Cut into thin slices. Toss the slices in oil. Preheat the air fryer at 200 degrees Celsius. Transfer the bhindi to the air- fryer basket and bake at 200 degrees for 8-10 minutes until crisp and brown. Whisk the yogurt with the salt and add the crisp bhindi pieces to it.
For the tempering, heat 2 tsp oil in a tempering pan. Add the mustard seeds, urad dal and dried red chilli. Once the mustard seeds splutter and urad dal turns golden brown, transfer the tempering over the raita. Serve immediately.
If you do not have an air fryer, shallow-fry in a cast-iron pan until the bhindi is dark brown in colour.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of the newly released book This Handmade Life—7 Skills To Enhance And Transform Your Everyday Life.