For a mere vegetable, okra has traveled well, out of western Africa to the far corners of the world. In the American South we know it mostly deep-fried or thrown into stews like gumbo, a recipe that owes a debt to the okra soup of Nigeria. Indians treat it similarly, as the centerpiece of their tomato-and-onion sauté bhindi masala. Somewhere in between, Middle Easterners add it to rich stews with lamb, roasting it first to purge its mucilaginous consistency. Cooking with okra becomes a question of what to do with this sliminess—keep the pods intact to diminish it, or slice them open to enjoy it.
For the Japanese, the sliminess is half the appeal—a consistency like tororo, grated nagaimo. They prepare it simply as a cold salad, mixed with soy sauce, wasabi, and mirin to form a viscous, sweet, and savory dish that goes well over gohan. Within the past few decades, cooks around the country have incorporated okra into the classic repertoire of tempura, nimono, and nukazuke, making okra seem very Japanese.
As it turns out, my grandfather, a commodities trader from Osaka, played a small part in all of this. Traveling in the 1930s to Dallas, Texas, he tried okra for the first time, returning to Japan with seeds to plant in his garden. His travel around the world created a cosmopolitan vegetable patch, and of all of these—cauliflower, lettuce, broccoli—okra was the most natural fit. His children grew up with the taste, relying on okra through the war, years before it would become popular in the rest of the country. When my dad moved to Texas for graduate school in the 1960s, his father’s advice to him was simple: The beauty of the South as he remembered it was fried chicken, grapefruit, and okra.
From Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art
1 pound okra
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 teaspoon prepared wasabi
Bring a pot of salted water to boil, add the okra, and boil for two minutes. Drain and run under cold water until the okra is completely cooled. In the meantime, mix together the soy sauce, mirin, and wasabi. When the okra is cool, trim the stems and then slice the okra diagonally into half-inch pieces. Right before serving, mix together the okra and the sauce, and then eat over rice or by itself.
Jeffrey Ozawa is a writer and cook living in Chicago. His blog, Gorumando, explores life’s pleasures through food.
(photos: Jaimie Lewis of Machins Choses)