A short history of how Indians came to eat bhindi

Slaves bonded over it, emperors dined on it and the British could never develop a taste for it.

 |  5-minute read |   06-09-2016
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Scrape the thorny spines off the surface of the bhindika, slice the pods, rub in the sundried and pounded yellow haridra root and deep fry in sesame oil. Lay the crisp bhindika in a bowl of whipped curds or the tangy juice of the bijapura fruit, seasoned with salt. It is a dish fit to be set before a king, nay, an emperor.

The emperor in question is the "lotus of the earth", Bhulokamala Someshwara III of the Western Chalukyan dynasty who ruled between 1126 to 1138 AD.

Charaka writes of a vegetable called bhandi but is it lady’s finger or okra, the vegetable so enjoyed by the "lotus of the earth"?

These are the earliest documented, with a tiny bit of added eloquence from my side, evidence of bhindi in the world.

The next bit of documentation comes from a Spanish Moor visiting Egypt in 1216. The young seed pods were cooked with meal (sic) to reduce their gummy structure, he wrote.

It was commonly supposed by the later Europeans that the meal mentioned was cornmeal. But corn or maize wasn’t introduced to the old world until the discovery of the Americas. The meal could have been any of the grains then popular. Ragi, perhaps? Even wheat is a possibility.

These were possibly also the grains eaten by the people of the Bible and the pharaohs of Egypt before the (post-discovery-of-America) European versions of the Bible turned all grain into corn.

Grown first in Eritrea and the highlands of Sudan, bhindi is said to have travelled with the Bantu tribe who migrated from Egypt around 2000 BC. Soon it was growing along the great river valleys of India and China.

We have no evidence of our Harappans eating bhindi masala and so must assume that it was introduced later by the Arabs or African sailors. Strange, that the Spanish Moor traveller thought it novel enough to merit documentation a 100 years after the "lotus of the earth" tucked into his early Hyderabadi dahi bhindi. Had the Arabs not discovered bhindi before setting off on establishing their Caliphate?

The transatlantic slave trade carried bhindi to the Americas. It provided the masters with a brew during the shortages of the Civil War years.

A recipe from Georgia, dated February 11, 1863, reads: Parch over a good fire and stir well until it is dark brown; then take off the fire and before the seed gets cool put the white of one egg to two tea-cups full of okra (seed), and mix well. Put the same quantity of seed in the coffee pot as you would coffee, boil well and settle as coffee.

While we wrap our brains around slippery egg albumin coagulating about toasted brown bhindi seeds and pray Nescafe does not chance upon the recipe, let us move on to the topic of the original soul food.

bhindi2-embed_090616105646.jpg Grown first in Eritrea and the highlands of Sudan, bhindi is said to have travelled with the Bantu tribe who migrated from Egypt around 2000 BC. 

Slaves, who had been brought in from various regions of Africa and spoke different languages, needed to bond. The medium was food. Food that reminded them of home, of a time when they were free.

The principle ingredient became bhindi or okra that Africa had introduced to the world. A soup was created using local produce and okra. Gumbo became the signature dish of French Louisiana.

One of the early recipes went like this:

1 chicken

1 onion

One-half pod of red pepper, without the seeds

2 pints of okra, or about 50 pods

2 large slices of ham

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of thyme or parsley

1 tablespoon full each of lard and butter

Salt and cayenne to taste

Clean and cut up the chicken. Cut the ham into small squares or dice and chop the onion, parsley, and thyme. Skin the tomatoes and chop fine, saving the juice. Wash and stem the okras and slice into thin layers of one-half inch each. Put the lard and butter into the soup kettle and when hot add the chicken and the ham.

Cover closely and let it simmer for about ten minutes. Then add the chopped onions, parsley, thyme, and tomatoes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Then add the okras, and when well browned add the juice of the tomatoes, which imparts a superior flavour. The okra is very delicate and Is liable to scorch if not stirred frequently. For this reason many Creole cooks fry the okras separately in a frying pan, seasoning with pepper, cayenne,  and salt, and then add them to the chicken.

Equally good results may he obtained with less trouble by simply adding the okra to the frying chicken and watching constantly to prevent scorching. The least taste of a "scorch" spoils the flavour of the gumbo. When well fried and browned, add about three quarts of boiling water and set on the back of the stove to simmer for about an hour longer.

Serve hot with nicely boiled rice. Round steak may be substituted for chicken, but it must be borne in mind that the chicken gumbo is the best flavoured.

Despite the close relations with their American colony, the British did not develop a taste for bhindi or, as they called them, lady’s fingers.

Those serving in British India often railed against the only two summer vegetables, bhindi and parwal, available in the early 1900s – "the tasteless garbage that garnishes the monsoon mourghee".

It would have taken a very frustrated khansama who, forced by necessity, reduced his bhindi gosht to steamed mucilaginous bhindi atop the Sunday roast. Curiously, I am yet to come across a Hindu community that cooks a non-vegetarian bhindi recipe.

Classed along with pretty hibiscus, bhindi has only recently changed gender and become Abelmoschus. The sour leaves of its twin, known earlier as hibiscus cannibinus or gonkura, ground into a chutney continues to be a favourite in the erstwhile Chalukyan empire.

Also read: Behind the Bengali dish charchari lies a fraught history

Also read: If you're tired and sleepy all the time, this is what you must eat

Writer

Manoshi Bhattacharya Manoshi Bhattacharya @chittagong1930

Physician and author now working with nutrition in Indian diets.

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