Among the many reasons I love Virginia Willis, and I kid you not, one is that she and I have an obsessive love of okra. See, if you cannot understand that, then you know don’t know what you are missing!! Okay, so even for an okra lover like me, the slime is off putting. And in her new book, Okra, Virginia even has a list of ways to bust the slime so that you can enjoy okra even more!

I asked the gracious Ms. Willis why she chose to write this book:  I was drawn to this lovely series by UNC press because it of the study and celebration of Southern ingredients. And, even though I am published by a major publishing house with Random House and Ten Speed Press, as a former history major I had a very strong desire to publish with a university press. To really zero in on Okra, itself, I love okra and am constantly so intrigued by the love-hate feelings it brings to the forefront. People aren’t in the middle about okra. It’s a contentious vegetable.

Okra  showcases fifty recipes: twenty-six southern dishes, ranging from Southern-Style Fried Okra to Gulf Coast Seafood Gumbo, and twenty-four authentic global dishes, from Moroccan Lamb and Okra Tagine with Preserved Lemons to Cuban Pork with Yellow Rice, Okra, and Annatto Oil. I am delighted to say that Virginia spoke to me about a couple of the Indian dishes! Her Indian recipes are just terrific.

In addition to the recipes, Virginia also discusses okra gardening and heirloom varieties of okra.


Singapore-Style Sambal Oelek Okra

From OKRA: a Savor the South® cookbook by Virginia Willis. Copyright © 2014 by Virginia Willis.  Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Sambal oelek is a chili sauce of Indonesian and Malaysian origin. It’s made from a variety of different chilies and is most often used in cooking, not as a condiment like sriracha. This dish has a heavy dose of umami with the use of dried shrimp. It will light up your mouth with flavor!

Makes 4–6 servings

  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 large shallot, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sambal oelek
  • 1 tablespoon dried shrimp, very finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
  • 1/4-inch coin of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3/4 pound okra, stem ends trimmed, cut diagonally into 1/4-inch pieces
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


Line a plate with paper towels. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until very hot, almost smoking. When the oil is hot, add the shallot to the skillet. Cook until browned and crisp, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shallot to the prepared plate, making sure to get every last bit.

In a small bowl, add the sambal oelek, shrimp, garlic, and ginger. Stir to combine and set aside.

Reheat the oil until very hot. Add the okra to the hot oil and fry until bright green, about 2 minutes. Add the sambal oelek mixture and shallot. Stir-fry over high heat until combined, about 1 minute. Season with salt, but not too much as the dried shrimp are quite salty. Transfer the okra to a warmed shallow serving bowl. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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  1. Sushmakumaran@yahoo.com

    What about vegetarians? Any substitute for dried shrimp?

    1. Sushmakumaran@yahoo.com — Thanks so much for reading. I am sorry for the delay in my response. The dried shrimp adds a powerful punch of umami. I would suggest a dab of miso or simply soy sauce to substitute instead of the dried shrimp. Bon Appetiti, Y’all! Best VA

      1. Thank you. Will definitely try.

  2. I’m a huge admirer of Virginia Willis as well. She’s one of the few chefs who I feel is correctly representing the spirit of Southern food. I’m also an okra lover! I’ve never had it prepared any way that I didn’t like. Even slimy, boiled okra 🙂

  3. I have taken classes from Ms. Willis. Enjoy her recipes very much. Where do we purchase this book?

  4. Linda – Thanks for your kind words! It’s available here:


    thanks for reading! Best VA

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