Real Food Encyclopedia | Okra
Okra is one of the quintessential Southern ingredient, representing so much of the gastronomy of the South, from Creole cuisine to lowcountry cooking. But even for those of us up North, okra is seasonal eating at its best.
Botanists believe that the origin of okra is in Africa, although it is still not clear whether cultivation of the plant first occurred in the East or the West of the continent. Either way, okra cultivation spread quickly to North Africa, the Middle East and India via established trade routes. Indeed, okra’s 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; it was probably then that okra also made its way to the Southern United States. (This was the beginning of the height of slavery in these areas.)
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 okra probably came to the US by way of Louisiana, brought there by the French via West Africa or the Caribbean. Harris also notes that the plant was first carried over as a food to feed enslaved Africans, but by the 19th century, use of the plant was widespread in the US.
Fun Facts about Okra:
- The goo that comes out of okra pods is called “mucilage”, a word some might find nauseating.
- 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 of okra 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 okra aficionados about the inferior flavor of both teeny tiny and very large pods). Most okra 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 okra pods with no mushy, brown or yellowing spots. Most cooks agree that the perfect size is four to five inches long. As okra gets larger, they tend to become very, very woody and much less delicious, bordering on inedible. Pass on any pods that feel limp.
Sustainability of Okra
Pesticides and Okra
Fortunately, okra doesn’t make an appearance on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides on Produce, but pesticides are liberally applied on much conventionally grown okra. If you are concerned, talk to your local okra farmer and ask about his/her growing practices.
Okra is at its peak in the summer — especially in the months of July and August, tapering off in early fall.
Okra and Geography
Okra is a very 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. India leads by a mile in global okra cultivation, followed by Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq and Cote d’Ivoire.
Storing Fresh Okra
If you’re planning on cooking your okra right away, store the pods on the counter, otherwise store them unwashed in a paper bag in the fridge for two or three days.
Cooking with Okra
Pro tip: If you’ve got a hankering for stewed okra but can’t stomach the slime, here’s a method for reducing the slime: salt whole okra pods first, then toss in acidulated water, drain and cook. Here are some other tips for minimizing the goo.
If you dig “nose-to-tail” veggie eating, okra is for you: the leaves, flowers and seeds are all edible. Young okra greens can be cooked like spinach or beet greens (or eaten raw) and the seeds can be ground and used as a coffee substitute (here’s a recipe for okra coffee) or even pressed for oil.
Are you a hard-core okra lover, embracing the slimy nature of the pods, or do you want to mitigate the goo? If the former, do what the Creoles do and toss chopped okra into gumbo, a stew usually made of shellfish and sometimes sausage or other meats, or stew or braise the pods. If you’d rather get rid of the slime, frying, roasting, grilling, or quick sautéing the veggie is your best bet. The classic Southern method of fries sliced okra in a simple cornmeal coating; you can also batter whole pods and fry them up. (Or make these fried okra tacos! Or these jalapeño popper-inspired cheese-stuffed fried okra!) Okra fritters are another way to keep the slime factor down — here is a fantastic video of Scott Peacock making okra fritters with Martha Stewart. Oven roasting is another great option — check out these roasted okra chips or these simple oven roasted whole okra pods with thyme.
You can also look to Brazil, India and the Middle East for okra 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 making bhindi masala or 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.
Okra takes well to preservation — try pickled okra in your next summer Bloody Mary. Okra can also be dried and made into chips. Have an abundance of okra? Freeze it for year-round okra enjoyment! Here’s how you do it.
Okra’s got a lot going for it in the nutritional department. It is high in Vitamins K and C, and is a decent source of folate, Vitamin B6, manganese and even calcium. The green pods are also high in fiber. In alternative medicine, okra is said to relieve constipation and help with digestive ills.