Friday, March 08, 2013

sambal bendi (okra sambal)


Okra is a sadly misunderstood vegetable, the operative word being "misunderstood", because, as much as it is reviled by many, it is equally loved by Indian, Nyonya, Malay and Louisiana Cajun and Creole cooks. Did you ever wonder how a vegetable with a reputation for being as slimy as a snail trail, or as wooden as a Dutch clog, could possibly be loved by anyone in their right mind?




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.



14 comments:

  1. Hi Denise
    Okra is one of my favourite vege. They goes so well in curry, assam pedas and now...just lightly boil it goes well with the sambal and it is so inviting for a meal already. I love this. (In fact, I came across your blog from your delicious sambal udang. I have yet to try it. Will do...)

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    1. Hi Mel, isn't it surprising how many people DON"T like okra?? Because it really is a delicious vegetable, though cooked in such a simple way like this. Even as a child, I loved this dish. I hope you will try it soon and enjoy the results :)

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  2. oh my, its almost ages never cook okra, my hubby love it but I still doesn't know how to cook okra properly . Thanks for the tips, Denise

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    1. You're welcome Fitri - hope you try cooking some soon :)

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  3. Your Grandmother was SO right about snapping the tip off the okra to check for freshness. The tip about stirring the vegetable about in a very hot pan is new to me and a very welcome one. There are two or three other ways to minimize goo.... before you cut them ,make sure that there is no moisture from the washing of them and always cook okra in an uncovered pan/wok, as we do in India.(A friend adds a spraying of vinegar to them just before she removes them from the hob.
    Sambal belacan is a must buy on my shopping list,most certainly.
    Thanks, Denise.

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    1. LOL I just remembered, reading your comment, that okra pods actually grow.... 'upside down'. So, what I'm referring to as the "tail", really is the tip, as you more correctly say. It's been decades since I last saw an okra plant, so I actually forgot this small fact :)

      I suppose rolling the pods around in a very hot pan serves the same purpose as drying the pods, so it would seem like different approach, same end? Thanks for the tips, which are new to me.

      To be honest Usha, I have never tasted good sambal belacan out of a jar, but I do hope you get lucky ;)

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  4. Crunchy ladyfingers with sambal belacan and dried shrimp! Denise, you have a winning combintation... One of the dishes that I always order at any Nasi Padang stall...

    Superb shots! May I know which camera model and lens are you currently using? You always cook and shoot during the day? I always have problem getting good shots at night. Any advice?

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    1. Hi Alvin, yup, this dish is definitely a winner, and a keeper :)

      I'm currently using a Canon EOS 60D and two two lenses - my kit lens (Canon EFS 18 - 135 mm) for general shooting and my macro lens (Canon Macro EF 100 mm) for the close ups. The kit lens is my workhorse, nothing fancy, but it gets the job done well enough and works for most of my set ups. With creative editing though, I can get very decent shots out of it. In fact, to be honest, I think I'm a better photo editor, than a photographer. I LOVE my macro lens - the detail it captures is stunning, and produces beautiful shots even in iffy lighting, which is a huge plus for me, as I only use natural light.

      All those fancy lights and umbrellas are expensive and I really don't know how to use them. I do cook and shoot only during the day, by my balcony window (the brightest place in my apartment) because of this. My approach to photography, is very instinctive, with lots of trial and error. I generally move my camera around the setting of subject and props until I see something that I like through the viewfinder, then I click LOL I can't give you technical details because I don't know any, but I hope this helps. I also found this article on how to make a lighbox that's great if you can't shoot in natural light or can't afford fancy equipment.

      http://www.handmadeology.com/how-to-make-and-use-a-light-box-to-improve-your-product-photography/

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  5. Hi! I’m new follower of your blog and would like to invite you to join me at my weekly Clever Chicks Blog Hop:

    http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2013/03/clever-chicks-blog-hop-25-polka-dot.html



    I hope you can make it!



    Cheers,

    Kathy Shea Mormino

    The Chicken Chick

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    1. Hi Kathy. Many thanks for your kind invitation and for the follow. I will participate, if time allows. T

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  6. I love okra. Thanks for this great tip on how to handle them!

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    1. Hi bibik, isn't it one of the most delicious vegetables around?! I feel a bit pained each time someone grimaces when when I say "okra" LOL You're welcome - I hope you find it helpful the next time you cook okra :)

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