How To Cook Okra Two Different Ways - Bollywood Theater

Bollywood Theater's Troy MacLarty gives the green pods an Indian twist

"It's always great when people tell you, 'I usually hate that, but I love yours,'" Troy MacLarty says.

That's been the overwhelming response from customers to his Indian-inspired preparations of okra at Bollywood Theater, his always-bustling Portland, Oregon, restaurant.

"Okra is not a vegetable people are excited about," MacLarty explains. "Everyone has their own idea about it—and all the negatives. But these dishes have none of that."

And that's what MacLarty loves—changing people's perspectives—whether it's about the depth and richness of regional Indian cooking he's gleaned on his four trips or the glory of oft-misunderstood okra.

Now he's converting the masses with these two dishes: one that cooks up in a minute, flash-fried okra chips (see the recipe), and one that takes a little time, slow-stewed okra sambar (see the recipe).

The first comes not from the rows of hawker stalls he sought out in Indian alleyways, but a little street food-inspired joint called Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina.

"It got me thinking," MacLarty recalls. "When I went to India, I searched for the dish, but I couldn't find anything like that, something kind of potato chip-y."

So MacLarty makes his own, shaving okra into superthin slivers—less tender, heartier okra works well here—then tossing them into a game-changing salt: a fragrant, addictive blend of ground hot peppers; salt; and amchoor, dried, ground green mango. And because you simply cannot have chips without dip, MacLarty cools every crunchy, creamy bite off with a cucumber raita.

As for his more time-consuming recipe, MacLarty whips up a classic sambar, a lentil- and tomato-laced stew. However, instead of relying on the old-school technique of cooking the cut okra in a hot pan, he roasts whole pods to draw out their natural gloppiness (aka, the reason most people don't like okra in the first place).

"Okra is a tricky vegetable, but a lot of vegetables benefit from roasting rather than wet heat," MacLarty explains. "Plus, the viscous texture of sambar works well with the okra."

He throws together a homemade sambar masala made with red chiles, coriander and cumin seeds, and fresh curry leaves, and puréed with two types of dal, earthy chana (split chickpeas) and nutty toor (halved pigeon peas). Then he adds the roasted okra at the very end, so it doesn't fall apart once the spicy, aromatic stew is spooned over hot basmati rice.

"I'm just starting to scratch the surface," the Southern California-born, Italian-trained MacLarty says. "Cooking Indian food is still such a challenge for me, but I love that."

He won't quit daring and broadening the minds of his customers either—Indian ones, too.

"I tried to get an Indian to eat an okra flower, and he wanted no part of it. He thought I was crazy," MacLarty laughs. "There is a strong tradition with most food, and we certainly try to honor that at Bollywood Theater, but we're not held to the same exact long-standing way of doing things here in the States."

And God bless America for that.