Bamya – Okra Stew
Bamya (Greek bamies) are commonly known as okra, or – more poetically – lady’s fingers. They are a much-used food plant in Africa, but also play a major role in the cuisines of most parts of the former Ottoman empire: Turkey, Greece, the southern Balkans and the Near East. To many, they may be familiar from certain Indian curries, or as a key ingredient in gumbo, the ‘national dish’ of what used to be French Louisiana.
Okra are not always easy to find in the more ‘developed’ tourist resorts. This is partially due to the fact that they are often considered as peasant food in the Aegean, and thus associated with past poverty. Irrespective of this association, Okra is a very traditional food that is both healthy and very tasty at the same time: exactly what the discerning traveller is looking for! In Turkey they are a common crop and as is key in all Turkish cooking, the produce is fresh – in stark contrast to tinned okra which often turns up in Western Europe.
In a Turkish or Greek context, okra are mostly served in an easily prepared stir-fry, almost always sharing centre-stage with fresh tomatoes. Okra contain a somewhat sticky and interestingly tangy juice, which blends extraordinarily well with many other aromas and textures, adding a distinctive, but not overwhelming, flavour. In our Aegean version, cinnamon is used, as is so often the case in this part of the world, to deepen the complexity of the resulting flavours. Once you have mastered the recipe, you could try adding other spices, such as cardamon or rosemary.
Our base recipe is for a vegetarian version, but the traveller is as likely to encounter meaty options, usually with lamb or goat. In either form, okra make for a succulent starter or main course, full of rich Mediterranean flavours, with just a tiny added note of oriental mystery.
Ingredients (serves 4):
500g okra (Fresh. They are usually available in Mediterranean or oriental delicatessens. Frozen okra are a reasonable substitute, but avoid tinned or dried okra)
2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
1 green pepper, finely chopped (if you like it spicier, try with one or more chilli peppers, in the traditional Greek version neither are included)
1 small onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
Optional: 1-2 tablespoons tomato puree (especially if no tasty fresh tomatoes are available)
1 lemon, juiced
extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon
Optional: 500g lamb or lean goat (beef can also be used)
As with aubergines, there is some dispute as to whether the okra should be salted for some time before cooking. Some cooks prefer to cover the okra in salt or vinegar for an hour or so, before washing them thoroughly. The purpose of this is to reduce their characteristic stickiness and tangy flavour, characteristics which some people enjoy. If in doubt, try both ways and see which you prefer.
Wash the okra in lukewarm water, then cut off their stems and “heads”. Again, some cooks take great care not to cut the okra open at this stage, so as to preserve the tasty juices in their interior. Alternatively, collect any escaping juice and add it later, along with the tomatoes.
At the same time, fry the onion and garlic in the olive oil on a medium heat in a saucepan until the onions begin to turn transparent. Then add the tomatoes. Once the mixture has heated up again, stir in the peppers and let the whole lot sizzle away for 5 minutes or so. At this stage, add the okra and up to 300ml water – enough to add a significant amount of liquid, but not to turn the stir-fry into a soup. Season with lemon juice, salt, pepper and cinnamon while stirring, and turn the heat up slightly. Before the now deliciously aromatic mass has come to the boil, reduce to low or medium heat again, cover the saucepan and let the okra simmer for at least half an hour. If you prefer them softer, you can expand this to nearly an hour, making sure to add a little water if the ingredients threaten to boil too dry.
Bamya – Meaty options:
It’s very easy to conjure a carnivorous and more hearty dish by adding some meat. Vary the quantity depending how dominant an ingredient you want it to be. In Turkey and Greece, lamb is the traditional meat, followed (regionally) by goat. If meat is used, it should be added once the onions have turned near-transparent, then fried in bite size pieces until it has been cooked on all sides, at which stage the tomatoes are added and everything proceeds as above. If meat is used, more water will have to be added in order to keep the dish moist.
The vegetarian version of bamya can be served hot, as a starter, a light main course by itself or along with pilav – Turkish rice, or as a side dish, especially with grilled meats. Like many Turkish or Greek dishes, it benefits from reheating (the flavours become deeper and more intense), but can also be served cold, as a starter or snack. The lamb or goat version is a whole meal in itself, but works very well when accompanied by rice or a light salad.