I can tell you this much - it's not because these communities love slurping on gluey grub or chewing on kindling, though I have been told that gumbo should be, well..... gummy. That's probably an exception, but it's far likelier that they have figured out how to pick young, tender okra pods and the right way to handle them so they don't release torrents of slime into a curry, saute or stew.
I grew up eating piles and piles of okra, bendi (or more properly, kacang bendi in Malay) or ladies' fingers in stir fries, gulai, curries, sambal or as part of an ulam meal consisting of myriad vegetables, wild and cultivated, cooked and raw, and loved every single last one. My grandmother didn't have magic fingers, she just knew how to treat them with tender, loving care and bring out the best in them.
She taught mum and me to pick young pods by bending their tails. If the tails snap off without much effort, the pod will cook up tender and succulent. If the tails are unyielding, you will be chewing on the cooked pods until kingdom come. She also told us never to slice into a raw pod and always rolled them around a blisteringly hot dry pan or dunked into them boiling water until they turned a deeper green, before cutting into them. This simple step of lightly precooking them somehow staunches the flow of goo and transforms the okra into one of the most delicious vegetables I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
This style of okra sambal was my grandmother's favourite and it appeared on our dining table at least once a week. An alternative method is to slice the seared or blanched okra pods and stir fry them with a paste of chillies, onions, dried prawns and/or belacan. I prefer the fresher, zingier flavour of the raw sambal and the crunch of the very lightly cooked okra, as opposed to the oiled slicked and muskier flavour of the stir fried version. Both are delicious though, with steaming hot white rice.
I've said my piece, in defence of the much maligned and underappreciated okra. I can do no more to champion the cause of this underdog of the vegetable (fruit?) world except to share my grandmother's wonderful recipe. The delicious evidence would speak volumes more than anything I could write.
sambal bendi (okra sambal)
prep 20 mins cook 10 mins serves 4
400 g or about 20 okra (choose light green pods with pliant tails that snap easily)
4 - 5 tbsp sambal belacan
2 tbsp small dried prawns, washed, soaked until softened, squeezed dry, toasted and pounded (reserve some for garnish)
1/3 tsp sugar (or to taste)
Juice from 1- 2 calamansi limes (limau kasturi)
3 shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced
Wash and drain the uncut okra. Bring a pot of lighlty salted water to boil.
Cook the okra in the rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or until the pods turn a deeper shade of green.
Remove from pot and drain thoroughly. Trim off stalks and tails and transfer to serving dish or bowl.
Combine the sambal belacan, dried prawns, sugar and lime juice and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
Top the okra with sambal and garnish with sliced shallots and reserved pounded dried prawns. Serve immediately with white rice and fried fish or fried chicken.