Here in the South, okra is beloved. It is a key component without which gumbo is not technically gumbo. “Gumbo” is a word that, not incidentally, has its roots in the Bantu name for okra itself, kingombo. Okra and the Southern staple for which it is best known arrived here via the slave trade, but today we are not discussing the polarizing green seed pods’ West African preparation. For okra, or “lady fingers” as it is known in a variety of other international cuisines, is also prolific in South Asia. In Hindi, the vegetable is called bhindi. It grows in all sorts of hot, humid climates, lest we forget that our weather in Atlanta often feels the same as the weather in Mumbai. India and Bangladesh actually produce the majority of the world’s okra.
Not everybody loves okra. Those who are anti-okra usually boil it down to one argument: the texture is mushy. Sure it is, if you’re making a gumbo. Even if you bread and flash fry it, as many Southerners do, it can still turn out a bit soggy inside. The seed pods produce a kind of slime that can be used productively as a thickener. In scientific terms, okra is mucilaginous, and this goo is where much of the soluble fiber resides. Fiber is one of the many nutritional benefits of okra, alongside antioxidants, iron and vitamin C. Surely there must be a way to cook it that would appeal to Southerners who can’t stand the accompanying goo.
Indeed, there is! Go to Chai Pani, the new Indian street food restaurant in downtown Decatur, located in the old Watershed space. Order the okra fries. You get a huge—truly, huge—portion for just under $6. The menu describes it thus: “Julienned ‘okra fries’ tossed with lime, salt & seasoning. Okra like you’ve never had it – one of our signature dishes.” It is also marked as gluten-free and vegan. I did order an entrée, and it was great. But once I dug into those okra fries, the entrée was all but forgotten.
It’s not like fried okra. That involves bigger chunks of the vegetable, and some type of breading. That involves the dreaded goo. It’s not even really like fries. You can dunk them in the yogurt sauce, but it’s totally unnecessary. They are thin, thinner even than shoestring potatoes. Though they are long and skinny like fries, the texture is more like a potato chip. They crunch and even pop when you land on the seeds. They are salty like chips, with more evenly spread saltiness than fries. Unlike chips but more like popcorn, they can withstand the refrigerator test and come out just as crunchy when you are going after that final fistful the next morning. I really can’t emphasize enough how huge the serving size is. You will be full at the restaurant, and then you will have plenty for leftovers.
If you love okra and want a fresh take, you must go to Chai Pani and order this dish. If you hate okra and fear the slimy texture, you must go to Chai Pani and order this dish. If you’re a Southerner and can’t understand Indian food, you must go to Chai Pani and order this dish. It’ll be the most enlightening $6 you’ve spent in awhile.
Chai Pani is located at 406 W. Ponce de Leon Avenue in Decatur. For more, visit facebook.com/chaipanidecatur.