Real Food Encyclopedia | Okra
Okra is one of the quintessential Southern ingredients, representing so much of the gastronomy of the South, from Creole cuisine to lowcountry cooking. But even for people up North, okra is seasonal eating at its best.
Botanists believe okra originated in modern-day Ethiopia. Cultivation spread quickly to North and West Africa, the Middle East and India via established trade routes. Indeed, its link to global trade gets tangled up in the most insidious form of global commerce: slavery. Alan Davidson notes in “The Oxford Companion to Food” that the plant reached both Brazil and the former Dutch Guiana by the mid-to-late 17th century, and it made its way to the American colonies around the same time
Jessica Harris, cookbook author and expert on food and the African Diaspora, says “[w]herever okra points its green tip, Africa has been, and the trail of trade evidenced by the presence of the pod is formidable.” She explains that the vegetable probably came to the US by way of Louisiana, brought there by the French-owned enslaved people via West Africa or the Caribbean. By the 19th century, use of the plant was widespread in the US, thanks to the culinary innovations of the enslaved cooks who combined the ingredients and techniques from Native American, African and colonial cuisines into what we recognize as Southern food today.
- The goo that comes out of its pods is called “mucilage.”
- Fun with linguistics: Jessica Harris explains that the word “okra” is derived from the word okuru, the name of the plant in the Igbo language of Nigeria.
- Horticulturalists at Texas A&M tell us that okra’s alternative name in the US, “gumbo” (used predominantly in the South, or to describe dishes which contain the veggie) is a corruption of the Portuguese “quingombo,” itself a corruption of the word “quillobo” (or “ki ngombo”), the word for okra in parts of Congo and Angola.
- Other words for okra include “bhindi” (in South Asia) and “lady’s fingers.”
- Thomas Jefferson started planting okra at his Monticello estate in 1809.
What to Look for When Buying Okra
Mucilaginous, gummy, slimy: these are all words used to describe the contents of the okra pod, which contains numerous small seeds surrounded by a gooey, sticky substance. Different varieties vary in the amount of gumminess, and they may range in size from an inch to over eight inches long (though there is vigorous debate amongst aficionados about the inferior flavor of both teeny tiny and very large pods). Most pods are green with slight ridges, but ridge-less varieties also exist. You may also come across red-podded varieties.
When shopping, look for firm, springy pods with no mushy, brown or yellowing spots. Most cooks agree that the perfect pod size is four to five inches long. As they get larger, they tend to become stringy, tough and nearly inedible. Pass on any pods that feel limp.
Sustainability of Okra
Because okra is sensitive to nematodes — microscopic worms that damage roots — some conventional producers may fumigate their soil, a process that also hurts beneficial microorganisms. Other pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers are also commonly used to grow it. If you are concerned about chemicals, try to buy okra from at the farmers’ market, where you can talk to growers about their chemical use. Choosing certified organic where it’s available ensures that your okra was grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Okra is at its peak in the summer — especially in the months of July and August, tapering off in early fall.
It is a minor commercial crop in the US, with production concentrated primarily in the South — especially in Texas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. Okra is also grown commercially in California. Globally, India leads cultivation, followed by Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq and Cote d’Ivoire.
If you’re planning on cooking it right away, store the pods on the counter, otherwise, store them unwashed in a paper bag in the fridge for two or three days.
Tip: If you’re feeling intimidated by its famous mucilage, here’s a method for reducing the slime: salt whole pods first, briefly soak them in water with some lemon or vinegar, drain and cook. Here are some other tips for minimizing the goo. Frying, roasting, grilling, or quick sautéing are all methods that cut back on the mucilage. The classic Southern method of fries sliced okra in a simple cornmeal coating; you can also batter whole pods and fry them up. These fried okra tacos and cheese-stuffed fried okra are more creative takes on fried okra. Oven roasting is another great option — check out these roasted okra chips or these simple oven-roasted whole okra pods with thyme.
If you do enjoy the slimier side of the vegetable, try it as the traditional thickener in Creole gumbo, a stew usually made of shellfish and sausage. or stew the pods with tomatoes. You can also look to Brazil, India and the Middle East for recipes outside of the Southern cornmeal-fried okra comfort zone — these cuisines have strong traditions of cooking with the pods. Check out this recipe for Brazilian sautéed okra with cashews; there is also a type of Brazilian gumbo (Caruru de Camarão) typically made with shrimp and okra.
Indian cuisine and okra are made for one another — try author Madhur Jaffrey’s whole okra pods stuffed with spices. Okra stew is common in many Middle Eastern countries — recipes vary by region, but the pods are usually stewed with spices and sometimes with the addition of beef, lamb or chicken. Or take it back to okra’s African origins with this delicious-sounding West African okra stew with chicken and peanut butter.
If you dig “nose-to-tail” veggie eating, this vegetable is for you: the leaves, flowers and seeds are also edible. Young okra greens can be cooked like spinach or beet greens (or eaten raw) and the seeds can even be ground and used as a coffee substitute.
The vegetable takes well to preservation — try pickled okra in your next Bloody Mary. It can also be dried and made into chips. Have an abundance of okra? Freeze it for year-round enjoyment! Here’s how you do it.
The vegetable is nutritionally rich — it’s high in Vitamins K and C, and is a good source of folate, Vitamin B6, manganese and calcium. The green pods are also high in fiber. In alternative medicine, it is said to relieve constipation and help with digestive ills.