Read Time: Approximately a 5 Minute Read
Mom, I figured out a new way to make okra. You loved okra, it was one of those dishes that was ‘in your blood,’ it stood for everything North Indian about you. Lady fingers, bhindi, okra. However you want to call it. The names rather confused me, as a kid. Your fingers naturally became the measure of accuracy for the name lady fingers. Did my mother’s fingers, clearly the fingers of a lady, really look like the green vegetable tumbled into the white strainer? And the other name, the Punjabi name, bhindi.
Sounds oddly like bindi, the dot on your forehead. I still conjure up images of your big, red bindi. The big, red bindi on your forehead that maybe for you was more a significance of marriage or of fashion? I don’t know. I never did. But the images blur and mix, and marriage and food and symbols and green and red all become one in my mind, colliding.
I’d sit with you, on the faux-wood kitchen table, and you would bring over a white strainer full of freshly-washed green okra. The strainer dripped with big blobs of water, even though you tried to shake off as much water as possible in the sink. Most likely, I was with you at the Indian grocery store while you hand-picked each okra. Actually, come to think of it, I still snap off ends of okra like you did to check for their freshness. The soggy ones, the ones with tips that bent but didn’t snap, got tossed away into the pile for a less meticulous mother to choose for her family. The crisp ones went through your arms into the plastic bag. Destination: your kitchen.
Not everyone knows this, but okra becomes slimy when in contact with too much water. Because of this, I’d sit next to you and, white paper towel palmed in one hand, dry okra after okra after okra or finger after finger or bhindi after bhindi after bhindi. I’d squirm when the paper towel got so soggy from pulling so much water from the okra, but we made do somehow. It was a mantra that we entered. A deep chant, one that you composed and that you recited. This was your system.
Next, in the assembly line, you’d slice off tips of the okra. Again, one by one. The slicing was the next line in the mantra you so carefully brought from India and preserved. I wish our okra-time together was as smooth as transitioning from one line to another, like it is in a poem, in a mantra, in a short expression of emotion through words.
But I was often annoyed. At how much work preparing okra was. Annoyed at you because I knew you were using only .9% of your talent, of your smarts. I didn’t like the machine you turned into – I wanted to see more at the end of a long afternoon of preparing okra than just dinner. I wanted to see you soar higher, complement the okra with who you are, with your inner mantra.
It’s a conundrum for me. Because the beauty of you and your okra never went not noticed by me. After slicing the tips, your soft and gentle hands would horizontally slice each okra. Not too deep that the okra separates but deep enough to stuff it with spices. Sliced only in the thickest part of the okra, not from end to end. It was perfection, the hands of a surgeon. Your lady fingers would transform into multitudes, the bhindi then looking like a lady finger as you sliced.
Yes, mom, you had a preciseness about you that I just cannot replicate. I love it. You would never let me slice the okra but I’d watch, with eager eyes, wondering if I’d ever get that good at it like you.
Next you’d stuff the okra with masala. You never taught me the masala mix- but I can guess. A master blend of cumin, turmeric, black pepper, dried cilanthro. The usual.
“Beta,” you’d say, “bhindi takes so much oil to cook.”
You’d somehow, craftily, balance each sliced and stuffed okra, on a makeshift plate or surface, without spilling any of the spices. A clean transition from one harmony to another, from one pitch to another, in this now-complicated mantra of yours.
I’ve never actually made okra this way, since those times in your kitchen, because of how much oil you’d pour into the pan. No water, since it would make it slimy, and you’d just pour oil into the pan and sauté a big pan of okra until it was cooked. The mantra burned loudly through my nostrils at that stage….especially when the spices spilled out of the bhindi into the hot oil.
I wear bindi’s now, mom, and finally have become a lady and have lady’s fingers. Last week I came up with a new recipe, a new song, a new rhythm, a new mantra for okra. It involved the same drying, since that’s a meditation inofitself. But instead the okra was married to tomatoes, onions, potatoes and baked in tomato sauce instead of fried in oil.