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WHO IS THE COOK IN YOUR HOUSE?
Growing up, my mom was in full control of the kitchen but my dad, GOD bless his soul, was in charge of most of the food shopping.
Ready to drive miles to get the freshest meat in town or the juiciest mango available at a remote street vendor, my father was the most meticulous food shopper I came to know.
Aside from his knack for food shopping, he rarely showed up in the kitchen unless he craved a dish that hails from his hometown in the south of Egypt.
Upper Egypt (south of Egypt) is known of its traditional cuisine heavy on meat, low on spices, with dense and fiery tomato sauce. Many southern dishes are basically stews cooked in claypots and baked in a red brick, traditional oven.
Tagen Bamya Bel Lahm is one of those dishes that I vividly recall the wafting aromas, coming out fresh off the oven.
No one did it as nearly as good as my late father. He used to prepare this dish more often when my grandparents were aging and my mom had to spend more time at their apartment, helping them.
WHAT IS TAGEN BAMYA BEL LAHM?
Tagen bamya bel lahm is basically a stew of small okra (aka bamya zero in Arabic) cooked with chunks of lean meat at low heat in the oven in a pool of rich tomato sauce.
That dish originates from upper Egypt where the cuisine is a continuation of the most ancient cuisines in the world, given that the ancient Egyptian civilization was centered in the south of Egypt.
The tiny okra that you see in the photo is pretty small and nearly impossible to find it FRESH outside the Middle East. However, it is available FROZEN in Middle Eastern stores across the globe.
This tiny okra (aka bamya zero) has a sweeter flavor and a much softer texture compared to the long common one known of its thorny edges.
Typically, the dish is cooked in a claypot deep dish, but a dutch oven or a heat-resistant glass dish will do just fine.
AUTHENTIC, PRACTICAL, AND DELICIOUS
The fact that this okra is available frozen, clean, and ready to use cuts the prep time in half and makes that dish a 20 minute recipe of active cooking time.
Bamya zero or small okra almost takes no time to cook, therefore it is an asset to keep in your fridge.
Using whole roman tomatoes (either fresh or canned) to enrich the tomato sauce takes the dish to the next level. I’m not bothered by chunks of tomatoes in my food, yet if you fancy a smooth sauce, then puree it in the blender or food processor.
Aside from salt and pepper, spices are not something southerners use in Egypt. Typically, the dish is spiked with fresh hot pepper and nothing more.
Given my intolerance to overwhelming heat in the food, I used my go-to meat spice blend to flavor the dish, while downplaying the heat to a moderate level by using a dash of chili flakes.
Don’t fret too much on using a claypot, a dutch oven will do!
WAYS TO ELEVATE THIS DISH
Revising this dish with some modern cooking techniques elevates it to a restaurant quality level. For instance, searing the meat cubes first before adding them to the stew gives a depth of flavor to the sauce.
Mixing some Roman tomato chunks into the sauce adds satisfying body to the stew.
Also, while it is fine to use the meat of the chuck cut in this stew, I found that lean meats makes the cooking time much shorter and renders the overall flavor much cleaner and empty of unnecessary fat or greasiness.
Most and foremost, Taklia, the ancient Egyptian technique of frying the crushed garlic, coriander, salt and pepper in hot butter, boosts the potency of the powerful mixture which elevates the dish from mundane stew to an exceptional sensational food experience.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF OKRA
Okra is low in calories but packed with nutrients. The vitamin C in okra helps support healthy immune function. Okra is also rich in vitamin K, which helps your body clot blood.
Okra contains antioxidants called polyphenols, including vitamins A and C. It also contains a protein called lectin which may inhibit cancer cell growth in humans.
Various studies have shown okra may help control blood sugar levels. Researchers believe okra may help prevent sugar from being absorbed during digestion.
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Tagen Bamya: Okra and Meat Stew in Claypot
Serves 6 people
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 500 grams lean meat, veal, beef (see notes)
- 1 big onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1/2 cup tomato juice
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 roman tomatoes, chopped or a can of tomato juice
- 1/2 cup water
- A bag of frozen okra, defrosted
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
- Salt and pepper
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- Sear the meat cubes: Add the butter to a pan on a low heat until the butter gets hot. Add the meat cubes and sear them on all sides. Don’t cram the meat in the pan. When the meat cubes become seared with a golden crust, remove them and add them to the claypot or the dutch oven.
- Sweat the okra: In the hot pan, add the defrosted okra, stir no more than 2 minutes and then add it to the claypot.
- Make the tomato sauce: Add another tablespoon of butter to the hot pan, once it sizzles add the chopped onions, stir for a couple of minutes, add the garlic, stir for one minute, and don’t walk away so the garlic doesn’t burn. Once the onions and garlic start to sweat, add the tomato juice, tomato paste, and the tomato chunks. Add 1/2 cup of water if necessary and let the sauce boil down until it gets dense and homogenous. Add the sauce to the claypot.
- Make the Taklia: In the same pan, add more butter, the crushed garlic, ground coriander, salt and pepper. Once the mixture becomes fragrant, add it to the claypot and stir to distribute it evenly in the sauce.
- Cook the okra stew: Place the claypot or the dutch oven in a preheated oven at 360ºF for 20-30 minutes, until the stew is cooked through and the sauce is dense and rich.
- Serve the okra stew: Serve the dish hot with vermicelli rice or vegetable rice, and/or hot bread to soak up the sauce.