BĀMĪA (or bāmīā), okra, the edible unripe seed-pods of Hibiscus esculentus of the Malvaceae or mallows.
A native of Africa, okra has long been naturalized and extensively cultivated in some countries neighboring Iran, especially in Turkey, Iraq, and the Indian subcontinent; but, as stated by J. L. Schlimmer, Terminologie, p. 7, it was introduced into the culinary art of Persians by Arabs from Baghdad in the 19th century. The mucilaginous, bland okra pods do not seem to have ever been very popular in Iran; the same author, writing in a.d. 1874, ibid., already points out this relative unpopularity, saying that “the fruits of Abelmoschus esculenta [sic; i.e., A. esculentus = Hibiscus esculentus] are sought for as a vegetable only by [resident] Europeans and by Arabs settled in Persia.” Even nowadays it is grown and eaten mostly in Iranian Azerbaijan (both East and West) and in Kurdistan, although its cultivation has been extended in recent times to other regions such as Isfahan and Mašhad.
In Afghanistan, it grows precociously in abundance in warm regions such as Qandahār and Nangrahār.
The earliest, and unique, mention of okra as a medicinal vegetable in Arabic sources on materia medica in the Islamic era is found in Ebn al-Bayṭār (d. 646/1248), I, p. 81, who quotes his teacher the Sevillian botanist Abu’l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad surnamed Ebn al-Rūmīya (561-637/1165-1239) as having written, in addition to a description of the whole plant: “Bāmīa is [found] in Egypt [. . .] and Egyptians eat it with meat, that is, the capsules of the fruits while they are tender [. . .].” As to its pharmacological properties, Ebn al-Bayṭār quotes “somebody else”: “By nature it is "cold" and "moist",—the "moistest" of all vegetables. The blood produced from it is bad. It is of little nutritive value. It is said to agree with people with a hot temperament. Its harmful effects are averted if it be eaten with a lot of hot spices.” Ebn al-Bayṭār’s quotations first reappeared (in translation) in Persian medico-pharmacological works in ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī’s Maḵzan al-adwīa, p. 107, compiled in 1183/1769-70, and thence down to modern works in Persian, e.g., A. Nafīsī, Ḵawāṣṣ-e ḵᵛordanīhā, pp. 165-66.
Moḥammad-Ḥosayn ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī, Maḵzan al-adwīa, offset reprint, Tehran, 1349 Š./1970? from the lithographic ed., Tehran, 1276/1859-60.
Dāʾerat al-maʿāref-e Ārīānā, Kabul, 1328-Š./1949-.
Ebn al-Bayṭār, al-Jāmeʿ le mofradāt al-adwīa wa’l-aḡḏīa, 4 vols., Būlāq, 1291/1874.
Abū Torāb Nafīsī, Ḵawāṣṣ-e ḵᵛordanīhā o āšāmīdanīhā ṭayy-e qorūn o aʿṣār . . . , Isfahan, 1362 Š./1983.
J. L. Schlimmer, Terminologie médico-pharmaceutique et anthropologique française persane . . . , Tehran, 1874.
Moḥammad Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Applied Botany for Agriculture and Natural Resources I: Plants for Extensive Cultivation (in Persian; mimeographed text now in press).
The unripe fruit of bāmīa, which has a large amount of mucilage, is used in preparing certain dishes, including stews and casseroles. The fruit, or pod (12-15 cm long), is dark green, conical, tapered at one end, and contains numerous dark-colored seeds. Among Persian dishes that utilize bāmīa, are the following: Ḵᵛorāk-e bāmīa bā morḡ (okra with chicken), ḵᵛorāk-e bāmīa bā qeyma (okra with ground beef), ḵᵛorāk-e bāmīa bā gūšt (okra and lamb casserole), and ḵᵛorešt-e bāmīa (stewed lamb with okra). In preparing these dishes, the bāmīa is always first soaked in vinegar and salt water.
N. Ramazani, Persian Cooking, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1982, pp. 153-54, 171, 180-81.
G. Watt, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India, London, 1889-1906, vol. 4.
Bāmīa is a sweet, sticky confection made with a deep-fried dough shaped like finger-length buns, coated with a treacly syrup, often dyed pink or gold. As with most Iranian confections it is served principally between meals, with afternoon tea, or any time of the day when visitors might drop in. In addition, it is strongly associated with Ramażān, the Muslim month of fasting, when there is a great deal of visiting among relatives, and when special sweetmeats are served at efṭār, the breaking of the daily fast at sundown. Traditionally, sweet delicacies are served at this time, before the evening meal, providing a quick surge of energy, a much-needed lift at the end of a day of alimentary abstinence.
A less well-known variety of bāmīa is bāmīa-ye pīčī, dark in color, very thin, and shaped like a conical spiral coil. It is usually sold in street-corner stalls in provincial towns or in the poorer sections of big cities. A popular game among children is to vie with each other to lift and uncoil as large a piece of the brittle confection as possible before it breaks, the broken piece of bāmīa being the reward.
Bāmīa is not usually prepared at home. However, a recipe for doing so may be found in N. Ramazani, Persian Cooking, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1982, pp. 231-32.
(H. Aʿlam, N. Ramazani)
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: December 15, 1988
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 6, pp. 656-657