By: Samantha Fore
While many consider them far apart, the traditions of the American South and South Asia have commonalities that ought to be embraced—especially around the dinner table. As I grew up in North Carolina, I grew accustomed to beautiful meals created with the bounty of produce from our region, from freshly plucked green beans to plump, shiny red tomatoes. My mother worked those ingredients into our meals around the table, imparting a Southern sweetness into our traditional recipes.
We ate remarkably well while I was growing up—my siblings and I had a number of dishes to choose from each night. Even as my siblings went off to college, my mother would create meals with whatever fresh produce she could find, bookending our table with an array of curries that would make even the most seasoned diner green with envy. As the last to leave the nest, I reaped the benefits of these beautiful meals, ones that remained unappreciated until home became a visit versus a permanent address.
Whenever my brother was home, without fail, tempered okra would be on the table. My mother would seek out the tender young pods, often not more than two-inches long, to create a beautiful, green, curry-spiced stir fry that I still crave today. There’s something to be said for creating dishes ubiquitous in the homeland [Sri Lanka] with produce considered a staple in the American South, but sure enough, our cuisines and traditions share roots not only in their produces of choice, but also in their desire to show love with food— to enhance familial bonds with what’s passed around our tables. Our spices, even though we use them in different quantities, recipes, and applications, are shared across cultures and continents, and have been for centuries.
Perhaps it was in my mother’s methods, perhaps it was in her preparation, but after eating her tempered okra I could never relate to the horror stories of it being slimy or unappetizing. My meals were just the opposite. The okra had just the right amount of crunch, while its tenderness gave way to the flavors of North Carolina’s summer and sunshine. The exterior was coated with a thin layer of tomato, onion, and spice—just enough zip, just enough spice, yet not overbearing on the vegetable itself. We served it on a bed of piping hot rice alongside an array of proteins and vegetables—a pumped up meat and three (or six, really) suitable for insatiable appetites.
Yet, despite this array of flavors, textures, and heat, the freshness of our regional bounty was such a highlight. I’d like to think it heavily influences how I approach my ingredients, even today, because even though the world around me has changed, I still retreat into the comforts of home cooking for inspiration. The Souths that my heart considers home aren’t far apart at all, even though they may seem that way to an untrained eye, mind, or diner, but all questions can be forgotten with a few bites around a well-filled table.
- 1 pound small fresh okra
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil or neutral cooking oil
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 sprig fresh curry leaves (about 10 leaves)
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 to 3 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, ground
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, ground
- 1½ teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 medium tomato, diced
- Trim tips and stems off okra, and cut pieces along a diagonal bias. (Try to use pieces no larger than 2 inches. This recipe works best with young okra, as it is most tender.)
- In a sauté pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add mustard seeds; cook, stirring constantly, until bubbles appear around seeds and they begin to pop. Add onion and curry leaves; cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add garlic; cook, stirring constantly, until onion is just translucent, about 2 minutes. Add salt, cumin, coriander, pepper, and turmeric; stir to combine. Add tomatoes, and toss to coat. Reduce heat to medium.
- Add okra, and toss to combine. Cook, uncovered, for 3 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook 3 to 5 minutes more. Uncover and check for tenderness. Cook, uncovered, until desired tenderness is achieved. (Once okra is fork-tender it is done.) Add additional salt to taste, if needed.
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