Readers frequently ask me, “How do you stay skinny when you’re testing recipes all day long?” Enjoying treats in moderation is key; most of the time I stick to a flexitarian, Mediterranean-style diet. I also have a secret weapon, a recipe that we make on the regular here at home. Bamya, or okra cooked Middle Eastern-style, is one of our very favorite things to eat. Instead of a full dinner every night, we often replace 1-2 meals per week with a pot of simmering, spicy bamya. This wonder vegetable is low calorie and high in fiber. It leaves us feeling full and satisfied without packing on the pounds. I’m excited to share our family recipe with you today!
Okra is one of those foods that people tend to love or loathe. Those who dislike it bemoan its “slimy” texture. This naturally-occurring film, known as mucilage, is similar to the goop you’ll find in aloe vera plants. In this recipe, the mucilage is actually beneficial to the dish. When okra is slowly simmered with acidic tomato paste, the mucilage thickens the sauce. The okra loses its slimy texture and becomes something altogether different– tender with a terrific texture. I’ve had many friends say they dislike okra, only to be converted by this very recipe. Good thing, too– okra has lots of health benefits, including a healthy dose of dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C and folate. This stuff is good AND good for you!
Warning– as written, this recipe has quite a kick to it. We love our okra spicy… it is Middle Eastern-style, after all. I’ve written “to taste” on the red pepper flakes and cayenne, which provide most of the heat here. If you’re spice sensitive, add with care. If you love spice like we do, go all out… it’s a flavor bomb!
To learn more about okra, check out this terrific post by History Kitchen contributor Michael W. Twitty - The Secret History of Okra. It also includes a Southern recipe for okra tomato soup!
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- 2 lbs. okra (bamya)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, minced
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 tsp salt, or more to taste
- 1 tsp smoked paprika (or substitute regular paprika)
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes - if spice sensitive, use sparingly or omit
- 1/4 tsp cayenne, or to taste
You will also need
- Large saute pan with lid
- Prepare your okra by rinsing it clean, then slicing off the top and bottom tips of each piece. At this point the okra will feel slimy. Don't worry, it will lose that texture as it cooks. To speed the process of prepping the okra, I sometimes line up the stem ends against my chef's knife...
- Then slice those stem ends off 4-5 pieces at once.
- Turn the okra pieces, realign the bottom tips with the knife, then slice off the very bottom tips. By grouping them this way you can speed through the whole batch and prep them relatively fast.
- Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a saute pan over medium. Add the minced onion and saute, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes until softened and starting to caramelize. To save time, I usually prep the okra (as outlined above) while the onion is cooking. Just be sure to keep a close eye on the onions and don't let them burn.
- When the onions are cooked, add the minced garlic to the pan and saute for another minute till fragrant. Add the okra to the pan and stir. It will feel like a lot of okra at first and the pan will be crowded, but it will quickly shrink up and soften as it cooks.
- Whisk together 1 1/2 cups hot water, 1/4 cup tomato paste, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes and 1/4 tsp cayenne. Both the red pepper flakes and cayenne add heat; if you are super spice sensitive, omit the pepper flakes and start with a pinch of cayenne, then add more to taste as desired.
- Pour the tomato liquid evenly over the top of the okra. Bring to a boil.
- Cover the saute pan with a lid, vented at the edge. Reduce heat to a simmer. Let the okra cook for about 20-30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until the largest pieces of okra have softened to your liking. We like the okra quite tender and almost falling apart, but that is a matter of preference. At the end of cooking, your tomato sauce should have reduced and thickened. If there is a lot of liquid in the pan, remove the lid and turn up the heat to a high simmer till the sauce has reduced (careful, don't let it burn!). Add more salt or spice to taste, if desired.
- Serve okra hot. We usually eat it alone, but if we need a more substantial meal I serve it over rice, quinoa or couscous.