Despite being such a common sight in gardens throughout the Southeast, okra isn’t particularly well known elsewhere in the United States. But it should be, as the uses for this vegetable are incredibly diverse. It’s most popularly served fried, but it can be pickled, roasted, stewed or included in soups such as gumbo.
For those who have taken a taste, it’s either loved or loathed. Those who dislike okra tend to blame its texture, which can be described as somewhat slimy or gelatinous. However, there are ways to prepare it that circumnavigate the textural issue. Here’s a quick look at this unique vegetable’s origins and how you can best incorporate it into your cooking.
What is it?
Raw okra — Photo courtesy of iStock / Kai_Wong
Okra is a member of the mallow family – related to cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock – and thrives in the warm summer climate of the South.
A mature plant can reach six feet tall, and its flowers are a light yellow, resembling a hibiscus or hollyhock. Each plant can produce one or two edible okra pods per day.
Mature seed pods tend to be between four to five inches long, although they can grow up to 10 inches in length, becoming tougher and less edible along the way. The younger pods are tender and sweet in flavor, which some compare to a green bean, eggplant or asparagus.
Flowering okra plant — Photo courtesy of iStock / igaguri_1
Okra is planted once the threat of frost has passed and the soil temperature has warmed to at least 65 degrees. If you want to get a jump-start or live in a colder climate, gardeners can plant okra in pots four to six weeks before the final frost.
Plant in full sun, and sow seeds an inch deep and about four inches apart. Once they germinate, thin out the plants to about 12-18 inches apart. You can also transplant extra seedlings or give them to a friend.
Where did okra come from?
The origin of okra is unclear. Wild plants have been found growing in the upper Nile region, as well as in Ethiopia. Scholars suggest that it was introduced to Egypt in the 12th century B.C. and that its cultivation then spread to North Africa and the Middle East.
It was most likely brought to the U.S. by enslaved people from West Africa through the Caribbean, and its popularity originates with the Créoles who were taught how to properly harvest and prepare okra by slaves.
Today, okra remains uncommon in most European countries, but it’s regularly enjoyed in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Turkey, India, South America and Greece.
Why is okra slimy?
When okra is cut, a mucilaginous (thick and sticky) juice leaks out. This juice makes an excellent thickener for stews and soups, such as gumbo, but it does result in a gooey mouthfeel.
How do you cook okra?
Slicing the stems off okra — Photo courtesy of iStock / Creative-Family
Okra is not widely distributed outside of the South or ethnic markets, mostly because consumers don’t know how to cook it. However, there is a growing interest in American regional foods and foreign dishes, so these bright green, tender pods have gained more attention as a vegetable in the U.S. – aside from its use as a thickener.
Okra is excellent fried, roasted, grilled, pickled, sautéed, stewed or when added to soups. Okra pods are best when young, tender and harvested up to five days after flowering.
When simply fried, okra is warm, crunchy and can be eaten as a side dish or appetizer. The pods are sliced, dipped in egg or buttermilk, dredged in a mixture of cornmeal and flour, and then fried in oil.
To roast, whole pods can be tossed along with quartered onion, fresh garlic and mint in olive oil.
When pickled, small pods are packed into a jar and filled with a simmering mixture of chili peppers, dill water, vinegar and salt.
For more in-depth instructions, we have three failproof recipes for you to try:
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