As an Army brat, I never know how to answer when people ask where I’m from. I usually say “I grew up all over,” but when pressed, I mention that most of the bases where we were stationed are in the South – Kentucky (twice), Tennessee, Texas, Georgia and Virginia. And while both of my parents are from New Jersey, and I’ve lived in Brooklyn for almost 15 years, I can’t help but think of myself as a little bit Southern, because so much of what makes the South wonderful has become a part of me. Many of my close friends are Southern, even here in New York City. I gravitate towards notions of Southern hospitality and kitchen craftsmanship, like pickling. (Southerners were kitchen DIYers before it got trendy – the South has a long, long tradition of putting up fruits and vegetables, pickling, preserving, making from scratch; and eating seasonally is nothing new in traditional Southern foodways.) Southern people and even so-called “Southern” food have gotten a bad rap lately (see: Paula Deen on both counts), but true Southern cuisine is really something special and worth celebrating; it is definitely Real Food. In my mind, okra represents all of this: it’s the quintessential Southern ingredient, representing so much of the gastronomy of the South, from Creole cuisine to lowcountry cooking. Even for those of us up North, okra is seasonal eating at its best.
A Brief History
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.
- The goo that comes out of okra pods is called "mucilage", a nauseating word that is best forgotten.
- 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 I’ve also seen it as "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.
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus or Hibiscus esculentus depending on who you ask) is a tropical plant, now cultivated in most of the tropical and subtropical world. It is in the mallow (Malvaceae) family, which also includes cotton and cacao, and is closely related to the beautiful hibiscus – evident when you see okra flowers, which are distinctly hibiscus-like and usually lemon yellow with a reddish-purple interior. Most varieties have small, fuzzy spines on the plant and pods that can cause irritation while harvesting. In a short, lovely essay on okra in his and Edna Lewis’ book The Gift of Southern Cooking, native Alabamian Scott Peacock describes his childhood method of harvesting okra:
In the fierce heat, the pods grew rapidly. The small ones that weren’t ready in the morning would be ready by dusk (by the next day they’d be too mature). My sister and I would go into the patch with tube socks over our hands and forearms – to protect us from the plant fuzz that scratched like fiberglass – wielding little jackknives.
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.
It is worth noting that so-called "Chinese okra" is actually a type of luffa, in the cucumber family.
Okra is at its peak in the summer – especially in the months of July and August, tapering off in early fall.
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. (*And check out our vegetable rule of thumb, below.)
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 – I grow a positively stunning variety called Red Burgundy that has deep red, ridged pods.
What to Look For
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.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
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.
What to Do with It
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. Okra pods can be eaten raw or cooked; in Creole and African cooking, okra’s gummy quality is put to good use as a thickener in stews and soups.
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. I love the classic Southern method of frying 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.
I also look to Brazil, India and the Middle East for okra recipes outside of my 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 my personal favorite: 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’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.
If you’ve got a hankering for stewed okra but can’t stomach the slime, here’s a method pulled from the pages of Saveur magazine: salt whole okra pods first, then toss in acidulated water, drain and cook. Here are some other tips for minimizing the goo from The Kitchn.
Stretching your Fresh Food Dollar though Preservation
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.
Oven-Fried Crispy Okra with Buttermilk-Chive Dressing
Roasting okra preserves its unique flavor while limiting the slime factor. Pair the crispy okra pods with the buttermilk-chive dressing, below, or with your favorite dipping sauce.
For the okra:
Cooking spray or olive oil (for greasing the pan and for the okra)
1 lb. okra
1⁄2 cup cornmeal
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne (or more, to taste)
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1⁄3 cup well-shaken buttermilk
For the buttermilk-chive dressing:
1⁄4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 tablespoon mayonnaise or Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons finely chopped chives
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 450ºF. Lightly oil a large baking sheet.
2. Trim the stem ends and just a tiny bit of the tips of each okra pod.
3. Combine cornmeal, cayenne, salt and pepper in a medium shallow bowl or plate. Add the buttermilk to a small bowl.
4. Lightly dip each okra pod in buttermilk, then roll in the cornmeal mixture until thoroughly coated. Place pods on prepared baking sheet.
5. If desired, gently spray with cooking spray or drizzle with olive oil. (This step is optional but it makes for more even browning and crisping.)
6. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, or until cornmeal coating is crispy, gently shaking the pan once or twice during roasting.
7. Meanwhile, make the buttermilk-chive dressing: whisk together the buttermilk, mayonnaise or Greek yogurt, chives, a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper in a small bowl.
8. Transfer okra to a serving platter and lightly drizzle with the buttermilk dressing, or serve dressing on the side for dipping.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)