Monday, January 25, 2010

Dinner: Bamya (okra)

Tonight I've decided to return to a classic favourite of mine: Bamya, arabic for okra. It's my comfort food, especially during these days when it's gross outside, and I can't remember that there is life beyond space heaters and the thick greyness that is a 'sunny' day. Maybe if the water pressure in the apartment didn't go from trickle to none, my saving grace of a hot shower would be ok. But that's not going to work, so bamya it is.

It's another slimy variety of vegetable, like molokhia, which means it is good for stewing.

It's one of those meals that I found myself defending a lot while in elementary school. My mom would always make this for us, and of course, I would have leftovers for lunch along with my warm yogurt, mashed-up peach and browned banana. I can still remember the smell of garlic mixing with the warm and bruised fruits mmmmmmmmmm. What was even better was after I opened up the container and began to eat my lunch. Noses would perk up and people would see me eating this slimy looking vegetable. "What is that?", "Okra" I answered. "Oh, well, what is okra?" And so the lessons in vegetables outside of tomatoes and carrots began for my friends who were 90% anglo-saxon origin. It's ok though, we traded lessons. They taught me about the world of Mr.Noodle eaten dry. Amazing.

Much further south to where I grew up, i.e. the southern states of the US, okra is cooked readily in gumbo stews, or deep fried. So it's not completely unknown in North America.

Anyhoo, it's a comfort food and a staple in most Egyptian households. And it's one of those vegetables that originates from Egypt. Wild bamya used to grow along the Nile shores back in the days, as far back as the time of the Pharaohs, (12th BC). Egyptians are thought to be the first people to cultivate it, starting around the 12th century BC.

Apparently, based on deciphering hieroglyphics from tombs, pyramids and other buildings, people have been able to put together some of the meals from that time, such as bamya. But, of course, over time, things have changed, and though we still eat the same vegetable, it's generally eaten in a tomato-based broth. Tomatoes have no claim to Egypt since they were introduced to the area back in the 1800s, so the dish that most Egyptians are familiar with is not what the ancients ate. But that's ok.

As a vegetable, it is rich in folic acid, vitamin B6 and fiber. And because it's slimy, nutritionists believe that it is actually a better source of fiber for you than bran/wheat etc. since it doesn't irritate your intestines thanks to its texture. Things you didn't know!

As usual for most of these dishes, stay away from fake rice, meaning the pre-boiled variety. This dish also depends on its stock for flavouring. Traditionally, people use cubed beef or lamb, I like chicken, but regardless of which meat you use, you can follow my recipe for stock.

Total Preparation Time (not including stock): 45-60 minutes
Yield: 4 persons


2 cups of egyptian or italian short grain rice
4 cups of water
1 teaspoon of butter

2 cups of stock
1 bag (about 375 grams-1.5 cups) of frozen egyptian okra (looks shorter than other varieties)

1.5 cups/375 grams of any kind of okra (fresh or frozen)
1 can of tomato paste
1 diced onion
6 cloves of peeled garlic
1 tablespoon of butter (or oil)


1. As with previous recipes, wash rice until water is not as starchy looking
2. Add water with salt and butter
3. When water is boiling, add rice and turn down heat
4. Allow to cook for about 15 minutes

5. In a medium-sized pot, add some butter or oil
6. Add onions and cook until soft
7. Add two cups of stock
8. Add all of the tomato paste and stir until mixed
9. Add all the garlic cloves
10. Adjust sauce with salt and keep on low heat
11. When sauce is good, add the okra
12. If you are using beef or lamb, add the meat to the sauce.
13. If you used chicken (as I did), then you don't need to cook it in the sauce. You can fry it in a little butter and serve it with the rice and bamya
14. Let okra (and meat) cook for about 40 minutes
15. When okra is soft, and flavourful, serve over a bed of rice.
16. Serve with raw green onions on the side

It's a very simple dish, and not too complicated taste-wise either. It's heavy on the garlic which is good for you, bad for others, and if you eat it with the green onions, you'll be guaranteed no one at the elementary lunch table will sit with you for a few years until you outgrow your momma-makes-your-lunch phase.


  1. My keep-the-other-kids-away lunch was the vietnamese subs I brought, usually stuffed with garlicky pork sausage/fish sausage and pickled carrots and daikon.

  2. okra is actually one of my favourite vegies! we guyanese eat it cooked with onions, tomates and garlic too occasionally with some beef or this was also a recipe i learned to make early on in my marriage to an egyptian! i've make it with lamb for my parents who loved it! b/ we are used to the larger lady finger type okra, people i serve this to are usually amazed that they come in the tiny variety.

  3. 2 cups of stock?`