This Brazilian Salad Will Make You Love Okra
Many years ago, I declared that okra was the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables. It gets no respect. I have long celebrated my love of the slimy pod and delight in finding many ways to serve it to the gurning-faced okra haters. One of my great points of culinary pride is that I got my okra-averse mother to eat it on occasion. She wasn't a complete convert, but she'd at least let it pass her lips. I realize that okra's slipperiness is a mouthfeel that is a no-go for many, and I respect that. However, that very mucilaginous property is the reason why the pod is prized in many areas of the world.
In parts of West Africa where the culinary paradigm is a soupy stew served over or with a starch, okra is known for thickening a sauce. In some places, the pod generates virtual ropes of liquid that are a part of the delight that many take in the sauce. In some cases, even I will admit to being a bit daunted; I always soldier on and am usually delighted in the end. In brief, I pride myself on being quite the okra booster.
In the world's menus, okra is also served in a multiplicity of ways that either eliminate the slip or make a creative use of it. Think of India's bhindi bhaji with tomatoes and curry spices, or the okra that appears in khoresh bamieh, a Persian lamb-and-okra stew, or the simple okra stews called bamia that turn up in Greece. I will always remember the chef Suvir Saran's sublime fried okra that could convince even the most ardent naysayer (the chef served the dish at his Manhattan restaurants Dévi and Véda and they were the talk of the town). Imagine my delight at discovering Brazil's salada de quiabo.
I don't remember my actual first taste, but I suspect that it was in one of the restaurants upstairs at Mercado Modelo in the Brazilian city of Salvador, where in the 1980s you could snag a window seat and look out at the bay while sipping a caipirinha or two and sampling a variety of traditional dishes. The okra salad was a surprise, as I'd never before seen my favorite pod served cold and dressed with a vinaigrette. It was a revelation, but shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, okra, if young and tender, can be eaten raw.
The dish was a simple one of blanched okra served on salad greens and topped with a slightly spicy vinaigrette. The okra was slightly crunchy and what slip there was became a part of the dressing. It was cool, crisp and delightful. I've served it to friends and have as a result recruited more than one into the international okra mafia of which I am a proud member.
Get the Salad Recipe
This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.
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