Fried okra, beyond the batter


For the born-and-bred Southerner, few culinary experiences rival the intense satisfaction of biting into perfectly fried okra.

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“Whether it was at Sunday dinner, in a cafeteria or in a restaurant, a meal simply wasn’t complete without fried okra,” said Marcus Davis, who owns Kulture, a Southern restaurant in his native Houston, where Black food takes center stage.

For generations, Southerners have boiled and steamed the okra pod, or used it as a nutritious thickener for soups and stews. But it is the fried version that is most beloved. A handful or two of fried okra is often served at restaurants or by home cooks as an appetizer or a side dish. There’s a familiar structure to it: Textured, forest-green pods are typically sliced into small rounds, coated in a seasoned batter and fried to a cook’s liking (deep or pan-fried).

What makes fried okra so special is more than how it’s prepared: It’s how the dish reflects the spirit of the Black American cooks who have preserved its legacy, while creating their own versions and interpretations.

“When I see fried okra, I think about the bigger picture of us as Africans in America,” Davis said. “I think about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I think about how okra got here, and I think about what the crop means and has meant historically in our nation. I’m hoping that, when people are eating our fried okra, they’re thinking about some of those things, too.”

Derek S. Hicks, an associate professor of religion and culture at Wake Forest University, has studied African American religion and foodways throughout much of his academic career. In his work, he notes that the word okra comes from the Igbo language of Nigeria, and argues that, while the exact origins of fried okra are unclear, the technique of frying the vegetable most likely stems from West Africa.

“Deep frying was used by African cooks for a variety of foods, such as yams, okra, plantains and bananas,” Hicks said. “Enslaved people would have prepared many foods this way during Colonial and antebellum periods.”

At Kulture, Davis gives a rotating group of young Black chefs a place to iterate on classic dishes like oxtail ragout, fried fish fillets and johnnycakes. The form of fried okra changes depending on the chef. In a recent version, the okra was sliced lengthwise down the middle, coated in a tempura batter, then deep fried and served with a homemade hot sauce.

“Having fried okra on the menu was meant to give the chefs the opportunity to present their interpretation of what their grandma had put in front of them so many years ago,” Davis said.

But, for some Black Americans, simplicity is key.

“My focus is making sure you can taste okra,” said the Gullah Geechee cook Emily Meggett. To Meggett, author of “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island” (a book I co-wrote), a good taste of okra is a taste of the Black American South.

She dislikes the heavy batter found in many fried okra dishes at Southern restaurants. So she opts for okra touched with just enough cornmeal and pan-fries the vegetable.

Some cooks prefer using frozen cut okra, but for Joseph J. Boudreaux III, a partner in Tipping Point Coffee in Houston, fresh okra yields the best flavor and the best texture.

“Okra is one of my favorite vegetables, so the idea of taking it and turning it into this really flavorful side has always been something I’ve appreciated about our culture,” he said.

His fried okra also takes cues from his father, Joseph, an avid gardener originally from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

“The way I see my dad do it, he doesn’t use recipes or anything like that,” the younger Boudreaux said. “It’s always been by feeling. And so that’s essentially what I did when I made my own fried okra recipe.”

He prioritizes a well-seasoned cornmeal batter — and uses fresh okra from his father’s garden nearby.

“I guess I channeled the ancestors a little bit,” he said.

Fried Okra With Rémoulade

By Kayla Stewart

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Total time: 40 minutes

Fried okra Fried okra with rémoulade. The classic Southern dish does more than just nourish: It tells a bigger story of the Black American cooks who have preserved its legacy, while creating their own versions. Food styled by Simon Andrews. (Ryan Liebe/The New York Times)

For the rémoulade:

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup ketchup

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning, preferably Slap Ya Mama

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

For the fried okra:

2 quarts canola oil, plus more as needed

2 cups/450 grams buttermilk

2 tablespoons hot sauce, preferably Louisiana Hot Sauce

1 pound fresh okra, stem ends trimmed, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)

2 cups/240 grams all-purpose flour

1 cup/138 grams fine or medium yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning, preferably Slap Ya Mama

1 teaspoon ground cayenne

Sea salt, to taste

1. Make the rémoulade: In a medium bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, Cajun seasoning, vinegar and lemon juice. (Makes about 1 1/2 cups rémoulade.) Cover the sauce and chill it in the fridge until you serve.

2. Prepare the okra: Pour oil into a large pot with high sides and a lid, to a depth of a few inches. Heat oil over medium-high to 350 degrees.

3. While the oil is heating, combine the buttermilk and hot sauce in a large bowl. Place the cut okra into the buttermilk mixture and stir to coat.

4. In a large bowl, stir the flour, cornmeal, Cajun seasoning and cayenne.

5. Working in 4 separate batches, dredge the soaked okra in the cornmeal mixture using your hands. Shake off the excess flour and place the okra onto a wire baking rack. After one to two dredgings of okra, use your hands or a slotted spoon to sift the flour and cornmeal mixture, removing any clumps. Finish coating the remaining okra.

6. Working in about 4 batches, making sure to not crowd the pot, fry the okra, stirring frequently, until crispy and golden, about 4 minutes. (Take care not to burn it.)

7. Remove okra using a spider and allow the okra to drain on two plates covered with paper towels. Immediately season okra with sea salt. Serve immediately with the chilled rémoulade.

Pan-Fried Okra

By Kayla Stewart

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 30 minutes

Pan-fried okra Pan-fried okra. The classic Southern dish does more than just nourish: It tells a bigger story of the Black American cooks who have preserved its legacy, while creating their own versions. Food styled by Simon Andrews. (Ryan Liebe/The New York Times)

4 cups okra (about 1 1/3 pounds)

4 1/2 teaspoons salt (any type), plus more to taste

1 1/2 cups/340 grams fine or medium yellow cornmeal, plus more if needed

2 cups vegetable oil, plus more as needed

1. Wash the okra, and place aside, leaving the okra slightly wet. Cut the okra crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces and place in a large bowl. Season the okra with the salt, adding more to taste.

2. Pour the cornmeal over the okra. Using both hands, firmly grip the bowl, and shake it until all the okra pieces are coated. If too dry, add a little water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and, if needed, more cornmeal can be added. Lightly press the okra with your hands, making sure that the cornmeal sticks to the okra. Toss the okra again. All the pieces should be coated evenly, with a light layer of cornmeal — but the okra shouldn’t be obscured.

3. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the oil over medium-high. You can determine if the oil is ready by dropping a pinch of cornmeal into it; the oil should sizzle, but not smoke. (If it’s not hot enough, the okra will soak up the oil.)

4. Once the oil is ready, working in two batches to avoid crowding, drop half the okra into the hot oil and cook it, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until golden and crisp. Using a slotted spoon or spider, remove the okra to a plate covered with a paper towel to drain excess oil. Repeat with remaining okra, and serve immediately.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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