Okra

Probably one of the most surprising ingredients to originate from North East Africa is okra.  It is extremely popular in Caribbean, Creole, Cajun and Indian cuisine as well as in numerous African countries. Abelmoscheus esculentus belongs to the Malvaceae (Mallow) family that also includes the cacao, baobab and hibiscus to name a few. If you only learn about one new vegetable this week, okra should be it.  Finding it in your local market will most likely be under the name okra but it can also be called the bhindi, lady’s finger, bamia or quimbombo in Spanish.

There are not many other vegetables that could be mistaken for the okra. The appearance is unique and quite bizarre at first glance. They really do look like slightly fuzzy green fingers. Along each row of the pod it contains seeds that release a mucilaginous (sticky, viscous) liquid when chopped and cooked.

To get the best flavour profile, okra is gathered at the green, tender and immature stage. The plant really needs warm to tropical growing conditions and each plant bears dark green pods that measure 5-15cm in length.

 

Fresh Okra

 

THE FLAVOUR PROFILE

The big question is how okra actually tastes. It is definitely not the most flavourful vegetable out there but its not bad. Okra’s flavour profile can be described as subtle and grassy. It has aspects of asparagus to it but nowhere near as strong. Clearly the attraction of okra is its unusually sticky texture.

SCIENCE OF OKRA

For anyone on a diet okra is an attractive option. Its a low a calorie vegetable that contains no saturated fats or cholesterol and is 90% water when raw. Its a rich source of dietary fibre and vitamins. Due to its highly sticky nature it is an excellent ingredient that eases constipation and helps digestion. If these were not enough reasons to use okra, it is also full of vitamin A and flavonoid anti-oxidants. Overall Okra really is an interesting addition to any diet.

Okra

HOW TO PREPARE IT?

Trimming the top stem end using a paring knife will reduce the chances of the okra splitting during cooking and releases its stickiness. Soaking the whole pods in acidulated water for an hour can also help eliminate some of their liquid. This is really up to you as we prefer to let the okra break naturally and create a sticky finish.

WHAT TO DO WITH IT?

Okra is one of the most widely used vegetables across many continents. Chopped or sliced, the vegetable can be stewed or fried under a low heat in oil then added to other ingredients like rice and meat.  The pods can be pickled and preserved much the same way as other vegetables. The leaves of tender okra can be cooked like beet greens or dandelions, alternatively used raw in salads.

In Egypt a thick stew of lamb or beef with okra is very popular as well as in the Cajun gumbo. In the Caribbean, okra is cooked in soups often paired with fish as well in a range of stews like Callaloo from Trinidad and Tobago. Franco com quiabo (chicken with okra) is a favourite in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The thickening quality of okra creates some amazing dishes when combined with strong or spicy ingredients.

FLAVOUR COMBINATION SUGGESTIONS

Due to its subtle flavour profile, okra should be paired with strong and even spicy ingredients as it is rarely the predominant flavour in recipes. It combines excellently with chicken, lamb, beef, tomato, shrimps, celery, swiss chard, collard greens, coconut milk, scallops, clams, oysters and chili pepper.

ESSENTIAL TIPS

  • Look for crispy immature pods, avoiding okra that has discolouration, is mushy or cuts. Fortunately it is pretty easy to spot a bad okra.
  • Freshly bought okra has shelf life of 1-2 days.

Ginger root

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a flowering plant in the family Zingiberaceae with a rhizome that consistently appears almost all cuisines globally. Almost always we only get to see the swollen base as the stalks are discarded before its gets to the market. The reason for is simply the rhizome is tender while the stalks are woodier and unpalatable.

The ginger plant if you were wondering can reach a height of 3ft (1m) even if we don’t realize when we see it. Its often used in landscaping in subtropical climates. The edible ginger we all know grows underground with the distinctive yellow to gold flesh. White and red varieties do exist but are not seen as much on sale. The maturity of the ginger determines how thick the outer skin is when harvested.

Ginger originally came from Southern China and then spread to pretty much every other country. It can grow in a wild range of climate conditions and thus has become commonplace in the majority of cuisines. Within the Zingiberaceae family (Ginger) other important edible roots include turmeric, cardamom and galangal.

THE FLAVOUR PROFILE

Ginger has a complex flavour profile. It blends hot, spicy and earthy with slight sourness and even bitterness. Its texture ranges from tender and juicy (young rhizomes) which are very mild in taste to fibrous and firm to touch (very mature) that are more intense. It has an earthy and pungent aroma that is released when sliced.

CHEMISTRY OF GINGER

Ginger’s pungent aroma is caused by a mixture of zingerone, shogaols and gingerols. As ginger is heated or dried the compounds of it are altered. Zingerone is produced when cooked (less pungent). When ginger is dried it produces more shogaols that are in fact twice as pungent as that of zingerone.

When the ginger is heated or dried, gingerols are transformed into different compounds, which can alter both the flavour and pungency. Cooking produces zingerone, which is less pungent, and is characteristic of the ginger flavour found in gingerbread. It’s less pungent than the gingerols, leading to a differing flavour to fresh ginger. Another class of compounds that can be produced by cooking or drying are the shogaols, which are approximately twice as pungent as the gingerols which proceed them. This helps explain why dried ginger has a greater pungency than fresh ginger.


BUYING AND USAGE ADVICE

GETTING IT READY TO EAT

Ginger needs little preparation once bought at the market. The outer skin should be peeled to reveal the flesh and this can either be used in chunks, cut up fine or dried into a powder.

MARKET GUIDE

When looking for ginger to buy always avoid really tough, woody ginger as it is very likely to be lacking flavour and an texture worth eating. Ginger can be found all year round so it is often found at markets even in countries where its use is not so common.

KEEPING IT FRESH?

Ginger does keep relatively well but it should be kept away from moisture. The quality can deteriorate if this happens. If kept in the fridge ginger keeps for around a month but will lose a lot of its pungency before that. Its recommended to keep it in a sealed bag in the refrigerator

COOKING IDEAS

Ginger really is very versatile. It is most famous for its presence in stir fries, soups and curries but it does have other uses. Some of them are mentioned here:

  • Pickled in vinegar or sherry as an appetizer.
  • Steeped in boiling water to make ginger tea.
  • Ginger powder is used as a spice in numerous cuisines including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai.
  • Also used in flavouring gingerbread, cookies, crackers and cakes.
  • Artisanal ginger ale and beer still contain a good amount of ginger.
  • Candied ginger is the root cooked in sugar until soft.
  • Ginger is a key ingredient in the yemenite jew spice mix hawaij.
  • In the arab world it is sometimes used to flavour coffee.

Ginger powder is used as a spice in numerous cuisines including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai.

 
Ginger

FLAVOUR COMBINATION SUGGESTIONS

Ginger goes with a lot of other flavours so it would be impossible to mention them all. It combines with most meats (chicken, pork, beef and goat) and almost all seafood and fish. Alliums (onion, garlic and scallions) benefit from the pungent heat of ginger. Other ingredients that pair well are chili pepper, bell pepper, soy sauce, lime, lemon and honey.


ESSENTIAL TIPS

  • Fresh ginger can be substituted with dried ginger – ratio 6:1
  • Often ginger can be confused with galangal. Generally speaking the galangal has a paler colouration and pink tinges.
  • Always remove the outer skin of ginger as it does not add to the overall flavour and can actually add bitterness.

Sweet Potato

DIFFERENT FROM THE YAM AND DISTINCT FROM A POTATO, THE SWEET POTATO IS A GLOBALLY POPULAR ROOT VEGETABLE

Sweet potato has become known as the supposedly healthy option to potato. It’s popularity has grown and grown to the point that in most healthy food shops something ‘sweet potato’ will be found. Known as Sweet Potato in most english speaking countries or sometimes called Yam in the US can lead to confusion with the genuine Yam (Genus Dioscorea.) Despite the name its distantly related to the potato. Throughout the spanish world it is called batata.

See our article on the difference between sweet potato and yams.

Ipomoea batatas is actually a herbaceous perennial vine with an edible root and leaves. Its full of starch which makes it an excellent addition to any meal. With a particularly smooth skin the sweet potato can come in a variety of colours. While the UK are more familiar with the orange to yellow type, in the Americas a purple variety is often more common. Inside a sweet potato the flesh is more moist and less sweet in white/yellow varieties compared to darker varieties.

THE FLAVOUR PROFILE

Earthy, creamy and slightly sweet is the way to describe the Sweet Potatoes flavour profile. Its generally a lot tougher than a potato when raw. In fact to cut open a raw sweet potato involves considerable effort. Not to disimilar to having force open a tough pumpkin or cassava root. When cooked it becomes tender, almost melt in the mouth, starchy and sweet. Depending on the variety the amount of creaminess will vary. Some can become so creamy that they resemble a well cooked butternut squash.

SCIENCE OF SWEET POTATO

Amongst all the root vegetables the sweet potato is one of the most nutritious. Its rich in carbohydrates, dietary fibre, beta carotene, Vitamin C and B6. Pink, Yellow and green varieties are particularly high in carotene.

cutting sweet potato

GETTING IT READY TO EAT

MARKET GUIDE

When buying sweet potatoes look for ones that have a smooth skin and small to medium in size. Often if it has cuts and blemishes the underlying flesh will be damaged or rotten.

KEEPING IT FRESH?

Sweet potatoes should be treated the same way as potatoes. Kept away from direct sunlight and in a cool location. Sweet potatoes can keep for a similar shelf life as the potato (a few weeks).

HOW DO WE USE IT?

To prepare sweet potato it needs to have the skin cleaned with a brush and water. Usually it cooked in boiling water or steamed (having been cut into slices). Our preference is to roast sliced sweet potato with some chicken, thyme and lots of olive oil.

COOKING IDEAS

The prevalence of sweet potato around the world is huge. Its extremely popular in the pacific regions, the americas and Africa. It is cultivated throughout these regions as well parts of Europe.

In Africa sweet potato with peanut sauce is very popular particularly in Uganda. Its also a common street food in Egypt. Many cultures enjoy sweet potato as a snack including in China and Japan. It features in tempura (food deep fried in a light batter) as well as on pizzas in the Korean peninsula. In Malaysia and Singapore it is often paired with coconut milk and yam. In the US sweet potato chips have become fashionable as well as using sweet potato with ceviche in Peruvian cuisine.

In the americas sweet potato as a dessert is really popular. In Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, ‘dulce de batata’ in english sweet potato jelly is consumed a lot.

Not only can the root be eaten also the young leaves and shoots.

 

Sweet Potato Fries

FLAVOUR COMBINATION SUGGESTIONS

As a nutritious starch, it goes well with a lot of other ingredients. Sweet creamy nutty flavours like honey, cassava, peanut, chestnut, sago and a variety of squash (pumpkins) go really well with sweet potato. In many cultures it is combined with creamy ingredients like coconut milk, cream shrimp and jackfruit. Sharing similar qualities to the potato it crisps very well so can be used as a dip with a huge range of ingredients as well as being roasted with herbs like rosemary and thyme along with garlic, olive oil and chili pepper.

ESSENTIAL TIPS

  • Buy small to medium sized Sweet Potatoes
  • Don’t confuse it with the true yam or butternut squash
  • Try it as an alternative to potato chips

Jicama Root

JICAMA – THE TUBER MADE FOR SALADS

At first glance you would probably think the Jicama (Pachyrhizus erosus) pronounced [HEE-kah-mah] is a turnip but in fact they are not related. Unlike the starchy flavour profile of other more well known root vegetables, the jicama is famous for being crunchy and watery when consumed raw more than being overwhelmingly starchy. If you cannot find it under jicama it also has others name that include the Mexican Yam or Turnip.

Although native to Mexico it is cultivated in Central America and parts of California because it grows best in warm dry climates that have a lot of sun. Over time it has become very popular in the Philippines. Often with other root vegetables not just the root is edible. Take for instance the shoots of turnip which are eaten as an addition to a salad. In the case of the jicama only the root or tuber is edible.

Two distinct varieties of Jicama exist. One is the water jicama (rounded with transparent juice) and the other milk (elongated root and milky juice).

Chopped Jicama for Salad

THE FLAVOUR PROFILE

Crunchy, watery, juicy and slightly starchy. Thats how to describe the flavour profile of jicama. Inside it has white flesh that resembles a potato or apple. Not matter if its eaten raw or cooked it still retains a certain amount of crisp and sweetness. Its flavour profile is best compared with the water chestnut and its texture to the jerusalem artichoke.

SCIENCE OF JICAMA

What sets jicama apart and makes it very attractive to the health conscious is its low calorie content and high vitamin C content. It is refreshing, an antioxidant, said to reduce cholesterol and fights constipation. Interestingly the jicama produces a natural insecticide on the vine of the plant that protects it from harmful pests too.

GETTING IT READY TO EAT

MARKET GUIDE

Look for heavy, dense roots that have a relatively smooth skin.

HOW TO USE IT?

The jicama should be stored in the fridge and will have a shelf life of no more than 2 weeks. Ideally it should be eaten well before that. In Mexico its usually eaten raw, boiled or roasted. If it has any green stem attached still that should be removed as well as the rough outer skin peeled. This should be done just before serving as the flesh darkens when exposed to air. To add a kick to it when eaten raw you just have to add some lemon juice, chili powder and a little salt. It is a good alternative to water chestnuts and thus can be added to stir fries and of course makes a great addition to a salad.

JICAMA AND MANDARIN ORANGE SALAD

FLAVOUR COMBINATION SUGGESTIONS

Jicama goes really well with other ingredients that benefit from its texture. Citric flavours like lemon and orange work well along with leaf vegetables. It is an excellent ingredient to add to salads.

ESSENTIAL TIPS

  • Make full use of its interesting texture to add variety to a salad.
  • Always peel the skin away totally. Its not going to add much to the flavour profile other than a bad taste.