Lately I've been making foods that I've never had before, allowing books like Shane Mitchell's Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World to guide me in my exploration of new flavors. Whenever life stresses me out, I retreat to the kitchen. If I had to express myself succinctly without delving into the current political climate in the US, I'd say the last few months have been really disturbing.
In cooking I seek solace and I always find it, the discovery of a new ingredient or the excitement of trying a new recipe never fails to provide me with a sense of meaning in a time of confusion. Having Indian-style spiced okra with Kenyan coconut rice on the same plate makes perfect sense for me right now. And yes, they are tasty together!
I love okra. In Malaysia, they are called lady's fingers. My husband, not so much. The problem for him lies in the sliminess. Fortunately, this guide by my Indian food blogger friend (read my interview with her here) offers several handy tips: make sure the okra and your hands are thoroughly dry before cutting, and that goes for the chopping board and knife as well. It worked.
In this recipe, the okra is sautéed quickly and lemon juice added towards the end, two factors that apparently also help cut the sliminess. The recipe comes from a Brahmin chef during the aforementioned book's author's travels in Rajasthan, and if it managed to change her mind about okra, I was sure it could do the same for my husband.
More often than not, an open mind is all it takes to make delicious food discoveries, especially from a cuisine new and foreign to us. And I've always believed that food tells stories and teaches us about different cultures.
"Food is a soft entry point to culture," Mitchell recently said in a podcast interview. This book, which collects tales from a decade's worth of travels on several continents, is her testament. Part travelogue, part photo essay, and part cookbook, the stories in the book offer an intimate look at "what life is like for people who are firmly rooted in their culture and landscape, in some of our most isolated or marginal communities, where keeping the food chain vital remains a daily chore," she wrote in the introduction.
Within the large pages beautifully illustrated with storytelling images by photographer James Fisher, we are invited to a wedding feast in Kenya and a meal with Sudanese refugees in a French encampment, just to name a few of the compelling profiles in the book that represent "a distinct tradition or practice not often witnessed by outsiders."
Mitchell regarded the recipes in the book as souvenirs of her long journey, and for readers like myself, they are windows to knowing and understanding distant communities. I'm not surprised to learn that we are more similar than we are different, all of us motivated by our fundamental need to make connections with people. That connection, it appears, can often be made through a shared meal.
I served the Indian spiced okra with a Kenyan coconut rice made with crushed spices that reminded me so much of the way coconut rice is prepared in Malaysia. We call it nasi lemak, meaning fat rice, and we like to eat it simply with a spicy chili paste (sambal) or more elaborately with meat and vegetable side dishes.
It's true that variety is the spice of life, and it's also true that variety comes from diversity. I hope we are curious, generous, and open enough to allow diversity to thrive.
You may also like this post on Asian food trends that caught my attention at the Winter Fancy Food Show. What's your most memorable food discovery? Leave me a comment below. Sign up for personalized email updates and let's connect on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest.
Indian Spiced Okra (Bhindi Masala)
Adapted from Far Afield by Shane Mitchell. Serves 2.
3/4 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 cups fresh okra, stems removed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 cup seeded and chopped tomato
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
In a pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add cumin seeds and lightly fry until they begin to pop. Stir in the garlic and onion and cook until they soften, about 3 minutes. Add the okra, turmeric, chilli powder, and garam masala and sautee until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the chopped tomato, cilantro leaves, and lemon juice until all the ingredients are blended. Season with salt to taste and serve with coconut rice.
Kenyan Coconut Rice
Adapted from Far Afield by Shane Mitchell. Serves 2.
2-inch piece of cinnamon bark
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
3 to 4 cardamom pods
2 to 3 star anise
1 cup basmati rice
1-1/2 cups coconut milk
Using a mortar and pestle or a spice blender, lightly crush the spices to release their oils. Set aside.
Rinse the rice until the water is clear, about 2 to 3 rinses, and drain thoroughly. In a saucepan, combine the rice with 1 cup of the coconut milk and stir gently to even out the rice. Place the spice mixture on top. Cover partially and cook over low heat until the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Then turn off the heat and add 1/2 cup of the coconut milk without stirring. Cover and let the mixture steam until the rice grains separate, 10 to 15 minutes. The rice should be quite dry and not sticky to the touch. With a spoon, carefully scrape off the spices on top and discard. Use a fork to fluff the rice. Serve immediately.