How do you cook your okra? Making connections in the supermarket
How do you cook your okra?
Who would have thought that this simple question, asked in a supermarket would create international connections?
Although this time of year I buy most of my produce at local farmers' markets, I did find myself in the produce section of my favorite supermarket last week. My favorite supermarket is Market Basket in Somerville, MA. I like it because it is not a super big chain, and I'm trying to shop local more and more.
But what I like most about it is that I often feel like I am shopping at the United Nations. There are people of zillions of ethnic groups, speaking lots of different languages, many that I can't even identify. The ones I can recognize include Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Spanish and sometimes English. I know that people from Somalia, Cape Verde, Nigeria, and India shop there.
One of my favorite aisles to go down is the rice aisle. I love seeing people of many different skin tones buying the same product, and often having empassioned conversations about which kind of rice to buy and what size to buy. There are 25 pound bags, and maybe even 50 pound bags.
I've been fascinated by food cognates since I was a young girl. The Chinese restaurants in my predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn had the following on their menus:
Soups - Wonton (kreplach) Soup
That would start me on a conversation with my mother about other dumplings in other cultures - and then on to a comparison of things such as ravioli and pierogies, blintzes, crepes, manicotti and paliscinta. We then moved on to ground corn based foods such as mamaliga, polenta and grits. And of course, the varied uses of rice in different cultures.
But none of this has anything to do with how to cook okra. I don't recall eating okra in my youth. I remember hearing about it - a good crossword puzzle word, and knowing that it was an ingredient in gumbo, but I don't recall an opportunity to taste it, and certainly not to cook it.
So as I was buying my mushrooms, I was intrigued by an African American man buying okra.
"How do you cook your okra?" I asked him. And he smiled and told me that he boils it and mashes it. It sounded easy, but not super appealing to me. He was telling me that his family made it that way. And as we were having a conversation, an Indian man came over to us and told us that "Boiling okra is no good. It has no taste that way."
So I had to ask him "How do you cook your okra?" And he told us - he slices them up into thick coins, and sautés them with onions for about 5 minutes. Then he adds spices and covers the pan and lets them sit while he is making the rest of the meal. The man I asked originally was particularly intrigued. "That sounds really good. I'm going to try them that way." I thought it sounded good to - much more interesting than boiling, and I said I would try them that way also.
While I was happy to know about cooking okra, I was most happy that I made the connections with these two shoppers and that they connected with each other. And they were pleased too. We all shared our appreciation and moved on with our shopping. It was a short, brief exchange, but one that has left me smiling every time I think about it.
A little online searching yielded interesting histories and recipes and repeated use of the word mucilaginous. The site that fits in with most with my story feature a A Global Roundup of Okra Recipes. A Persian stew, basic Indian okra, gumbo and southern fried okra. Yummy.
You might want to take a look there, or you might just want to ask the next time you are in the produce section "How do you cook your okra?"
What's your favorite supermarket and why? Have you had an interesting connection with a stranger in a supermarket?
And, how do you cook your okra? Let us know.