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  • 1. Preamble
    Call it okra, bhindi, ladies’ fingers, gumbo or kalalu, its glue-like characteristics are all pervasive. Many people cannot stand this quaint little vegetable because of this, but in most African countries, tit is a pleasure to watch the look of delight on the face of the folks as they dip their fufu in an okra sauce and let the sticky liquid drip down. Back home in Mauritius, we called it lalo, and for an idea of the low opinion everybody had of this vegetable, somebody who was not very bright was said to be a “lalo”. We used to eat it either cooked with onions and tomatoes, or sometimes with kheema (mince meat), in both cases with lots of massala. It was something one had to eat, and did so without relish; I really began to appreciate this once lowly vegetable once I arrived in London, possibly because of its rarety.

    In London which was not yet swinging, I stayed in a house full of West Indians, and they loved their kalalu, cooked in their own Caribbean style, which I grew to become very partial to it. Finding bhindi on the menu of the few Indian restaurants then in existence was something of an event, and was duly celebrated. A South Indian restaurant in which the coconut had pride of place offered a delightful novelty, bhindi stuffed with spicy coconuts, and I visited it every time I went to the West End.

    Although I was enjoying okra over all these years, I still could not get used to its glutinosity, but on a visit to Mauritius a few years ago, my sister’s mother-in-law taught me how to solve this problem. You clean each okra individually, scraping off any dirt with a knife, never using water in the process. Then heat a pan and when it is hot enough, tip in the sliced and cleaned vegetable, shaking it all the time, adding a little salt. As it becomes hot, the fingers emit some of its glue and if the pan is hot enough, this sticks to the pan and becomes brown. Keep shaking the pan for a few minutes, then transfer the half-cooked vegetable into a plate or pot, leaving the charred sticky mess in the pan, and allow to cool. This can then be added to onions and garlic which have been fricasséed, containing perhaps one tomato, a chilly or two, and some curry powder, and allowed to cook for a few minutes, and then left to simmer. Cooked in this manner, there is no excessive glutinosity. If mince meat is to be used, allow it to cook well with the onions and garlic before adding the half-cooked okra.

    2. The paradox.
    I have been a regular buyer of okra from Indian, Pakistani or Greek greengrocers south of the border for over a quarter of a century, and have seen the price rocket from about ten pence a pound when I just arrived to about two pounds a half kilo or a pound. When I moved up to Edinburgh, I discovered that Scotland was a different country. Oh yes, one could still find okra, but the pricing is a little bit unusual.

    I lived in a small flat in Tollcross, and on the main road there are at least three Indian or Pakistani greengrocers, and they all sold okra. When I went into the first one, the chap at the cash point, a Mr Hossein, I was later to find out, began by asking me where I came from, mentioning that as he had never seen me before, he had deduced that I must be new to the area. I told him, and he assured me of the best possible products in his shop at very competitive prices.
    I picked the usual stuff, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, melon and then I noticed that he had okra. Hossein saw me eyeing them, and waggling his head to the right and left in the manner of folks from the sub-continent, he promised me that they were very fresh, having arrived this very morning from Kenya. I looked at the price, and was a bit bemused by it. £2.00 a lb (500g) or 50p per 100g. I decided to buy about one pound, and put some in a bag. As Hossein was weighing my things on his scale and totting them up on his machine, I noticed that my okra had come to £2.25. I checked that it was a few grams short of a pound. I pointed this out to him, explaining that as I had bought less than one pound, logically I should be paying less than £2.00. Sounds logical to me of course, Mr Hossein assured me, but my machine operates under a different logic, it counts anything less than one pound in 100g units. As this lot weighs 450g, that’s 4 units of 100g i.e £2.00 + half unit for the 50g, making it £2.25.
    ‘But Mr Hossein, that logic is hard to justify,’ I said. He smiled and nodded.
    ‘But I can tell you what you can do,’ he said, ‘you add a handful more to make it exactly one pound and the machine will only charge you £2.00, what’s fairer than that?’

    I visited all the other greengrocers in the area, and they all sold their okra at so much per pound, and so much per 100g, their machines all operating on the same logic so that it always cost more to buy say 420 g of okra than 500g.

    PIc: Okra + Aubergines (or Eggplant, or Brinjals, or Baigan, or Brinzelle)
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