I eat anything and everything. I say, “yes, please” before I say, “no, thank you”. It is a matter of personal pride and reckless perseverance. But even I have my limits: slime. Cannot stand it, cannot do it.
It was another hot and humid afternoon in Dakar. Six of us were sitting around a large table reviewing the questionable endeavours of aspiring academic hopefuls. Stacks of research papers on topics of little relevance had to be worked through and sorted into two piles: “fit-for-review-and-possibly-publication” and “rejected”. It was tedious work, sort of like cleaning your cupboards at home.
First, you unpack everything. Then you sort through it. You discover things that you’d long forgotten about. You look at it closely, and realize that the reason you’d forgotten about it is because it is useless and needs to be thrown away. Then you ponder – make coffee. Ponder some more. Throw it away. Contemplate retrieving it. Do so. Touch it. Look at it again. Rethink its value carefully. Spiral into a contemplative paralysis. Get up, make more coffee. Decide to continue the spring-clean some other day.
A colleague from Nigeria joined us at the table with a bowl with contents that looked like stew. With mashed yams on the side.
It smelled delicious, more so perhaps, because of my contemplative paralysis.
I watched as he used the first four fingers of his right hand to knead some yam into a little ball. Dip it into the stew and bring it to his mouth. He lowered his head to meet his ascending hand with yam and stew.
Then I saw the slime. Slippubg between his fingers and slipping back in the direction of the bowl. It hovered just above the surface like honey over tea on a cold morning. Then with a loud sshluuuurppp, he sucked it up, back between his fingers, with such force that it slammed into the back of his throat. At least, that is what I could see in my mind’s eye.
“What is that stuff?”
“What? This?” and he pointed to the bowl.
“Yes. That gooey, slimy stuff”.
I was not bothered by the fact that meat was probably grasscutter. I could live with that. But that slime…
“It is lady’s fingers”.
I wanted to ask how long ago this particular lady died for her fingers to be in such a state, but my polite upbringing kicked in.
“They call it Okra”, added Leah the house cook, standing not far away at the door to the kitchen. “We love it here in West Africa”.
Clearly so by the rate my Nigerian colleague finished the contents of his bowl. Wiped it clean with the last, rather large, yam ball.
A few days later Leah brought me a little dish of Okra she had fried. “Much less slime this way”, she explained.
I really liked it. Those little seeds that burst when you bite into them, like little balls of flavour. Pop, pop, pop, they go; the culinary equivalent of squeezing bubble wrap.
Okra or “lady’s fingers” is quite an interesting species of hibiscus (Abelmoschus esculentus) and is related to cotton. The mucilage is a mixture of carbohydrate molecules and protein that helps the plant and its seeds to retain water. When cooked long and slow, the okra mucilage thickens soups and stews such as gumbo. If cut really finely and cooked for a long time, the mucilage dissolves. Eventually.
I still don’t like the slimy texture of Okra. One way to ensure that there is very little mucilage is not to bring a knife anyway near them, i.e. to cook the pods whole. Another is to cook them for very short periods over very high heat, such as with a stir-fry, or a deep fry.
Remember: the more it is cut and the longer it is cooked, the slimier it will get. Thus, if you like you Okra with mucilage, you chop and cook a lot. If you don’t, you take the opposite route.
I really enjoy the spicy Cajun flavours from America’s southern states quite a lot. Especially if served with zydeco and blues music. So this is my homage to Cajun cooking, the blues and the slaves that took their Okra with them on their dreadful journey across the Atlantic.
And to Leah who taught me how to avoid the slime.