Okra, a tropical plant in the mallow family, traces its native roots to Ethiopia and a bit north to the region of the Sudan. As early as the 13th century it was said to be growing along the Nile River. From Africa, okra readily found acceptance in the Middle East where it is enjoyed in a dish called Bamieh, a traditional stew of okra, tomatoes, onions, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil to which meat is frequently added. In India okra was highly favored and even today it is enjoyed in a popular dish known as Sabzi Bhindi where the okra is fried in oil along with cumin and onions and seasoned with spices.
In the early 1600's the black slave trade brought new delicacies to North America as well as South America and the West Indies. Okra came to our South during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries when slaves from the Gold Coast introduced it as nkrumun. The name never caught on, but okra brought in by slaves from Angola was called ochinggombo, later shortened to ngombo. The Indians of Louisiana discovered okra's thickening abilities and used it in place of file' powder to thicken a stew made of vegetables and seafood which they named" gumbo."
Black slaves were also brought to Brazil and Dutch Guiana during the 17th century. As a result, okra became incorporated into their cuisines and grows well in those tropical climates. It's possible that the name ngombo became gombo and finally evolved into gumbo by slaves in the West Indies. No one knows for sure.
Although the word gumbo refers to the African vegetable, okra, it was transferred to the stew where it has survived for centuries. Today, if you encounter an okra dish in England, it may be called Lady's Fingers. In the Caribbean you might enjoy a soup containing okra called Kallaloo.
Okra's characteristic mucilaginous trait comes from acetylated acidic polysaccharide and galaturonic acid contained within. When it is cut, it releases these chemical compounds and makes an ideal, naturally thickened stew of vegetables and legumes. Okra can be dried and ground into a powder to use as a thickening agent for soups and sauces.
Okra has a striking appearance. The fingerlike, slightly curved pods come to a point at one end while the stem end appears to be wearing a conical cap. Some varieties are ribbed on the outside while others are smooth and slightly fuzzy. Its green color can vary from light to dark with some varieties even producing a reddish color. The pods are ribbed inside and are filled with soft, edible seeds that range in color from beige to pinkish beige.
Okra pods grow from two inches in length up to eight inches, with the smaller size offering the tenderest, most pleasing flavor. The larger pods tend to become woody and tough. Some have described the flavor of okra as something between an eggplant and asparagus. Neither seems fitting. Okra's flavor stands above any comparison. When cooked, the texture is soft and the flavor delicate, with the seeds adding delightful character.
If you plan to grow okra in your garden, plant several seeds or seedlings in the early spring for a good summer harvest. Throughout the summer, check the plants daily, harvesting the pods while they are small, two to four inches in length. Okra is available throughout the year in many markets, especially markets that sell Middle Eastern items, but its peak season is summer.
If you would like to add more fiber to your diet, a mere 1/2 cup of cooked okra supplies 2 grams, while that same quantity raw offers 1.3 grams. It offers 1.5 grams of protein for that same quantity cooked, with raw providing 1 gram. Okra has abundant vitamin A, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and folacin. Its other nutritional attributes include impressive potassium content, providing 257 mg. and calcium content supplying 50 mg. for 1/2 cup cooked.
SHOPPING: Select pods that 2 to 3 inches in length for their tenderness. Look for those that are bright green, plump, and unblemished. If they have black spots on them and look dry, they are not fresh.
STORING: Store fresh okra in the refrigerator and use within a day or two. Beyond that they begin to lose their freshness, flavor, and nutrients.
PREPARING: Wash the okra under cold running water. If you plan to cook them whole, no further preparation is necessary. As an alternative, you can slice off the stem end if you prefer or peel the conical portion without breaking the surface of the okra. Keeping the okra whole prevents the mucilage from oozing out. If you plan to use them sliced, slice off the stem end, and simply slice the okra crosswise into desired lengths.
RAW: Wash the okra and pat dry. Thinly slice crosswise and add to a bowl of salad greens with your favorite dressing.
Thinly slice okra and combine with your favorite chopped vegetables such as tomatoes, sweet onions, avocado, and cucumbers, and bathe in a cashew dressing.
Thinly slice okra and marinate for two or three days in a dressing of olive oil, apple cider vinegar, fresh lime juice, finely diced red or green chiles, and seasonings. Use as a condiment.
STEAMING: After washing, place whole okras in a skillet with or without stem ends intact. Add 1/4 to 1/3 cup of water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately turn heat down and steam 3 to 5 minutes. Test for fork tenderness and remove to a serving dish. Sprinkle with a little salt, serve, and enjoy the exotic experience of this unique, delicate vegetable. SAUTEEING: Slice washed okra and saute until tender in canola oil along with onions, garlic, and ginger. Season to taste.
BRAISING: Okra can be combined in a stew or "gumbo" along with your favorite vegetables, legumes or grains, onions, and tomatoes. Season with spices and cook covered on top of the stove until the legumes or grains are cooked through.
SOUPMAKING: Add okra to your favorite vegetable soup ingredients and enjoy its ability to thicken the soup naturally. Puree if desired or enjoy the soup with texture of bite-sized vegetables.
Here's a recipe from Zel's kitchen that will give you a tasty introduction to this vegetable.