This week I’ll tell you a little something about okra. Now, to me, okra is not exotic or strange. However, being from Texas, I only know how to cook it one way. Fried in buttermilk and cornstarch! (Memaw style!) I was sad when transitioning to Paleo because I really…really like okra and I’ve never had it, nor seen it cooked any other way!
So. Let’s talk okra!
What is Okra?
Okra is a member of the Mallow family, related to cotton, hibiscus and hollyhock. It is a tall (6 ft) annual tropical herb cultivated for its edible green (or sometimes red!) seed pod. It has heart shaped, edible leaves, and large, yellow, hibiscus-like flowers. The seed pods are 3 – 10 inches long and tapering. These tender, unripe seed pods are used as a vegetable, and have a unique texture and sweet flavor. The pods, when cut, exude a thick juice that is used to thicken stews (like gumbo).
Okra is also known as: Lady’s Fingers, gombo, gumbo, quingombo, okro, ochro, bamia, bamie, quiabo. In Spanish okra is quibombo; the French word is gombo, bamia or bamya, in India it is bhindi, and in the eastern Mediterranean and Arab countries bamies.
The name ‘okra’ probably derives from one of the Niger-Congo group of languages (the name for okra in the Twi language is nkuruma). The term okra was in use in English by the late 18th century.
Okra probably originated somewhere around Ethiopia, and was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians by the 12th century B.C. Its cultivation spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The seed pods were eaten cooked, and the seeds were toasted and ground, used as a coffee substitute (and still is).
Okra came to the Caribbean and the U.S. in the 1700s, probably brought by slaves from West Africa, and was introduced to Western Europe soon after. In Louisiana, the Créoles learned from slaves the use of okra to thicken soups and it is now an essential in Créole Gumbo.
Today okra is popular in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, the Caribbean, South America and the Southern U.S. It is not a very common vegetable in most European countries, except for Greece and parts of Turkey.
Mature okra is used to make rope and paper! (Avoid those old woody pods!)
Okra is a rich source of dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins. The pods contain healthy amounts of vitamin A, vitamin-C, niacin, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), Vitamin K, thiamin and pantothenic acid and flavonoid anti-oxidants such as beta carotenes, xanthin and lutein. Vitamin A is also required for maintaining healthy mucus membranes and skin. Consumption of foods rich in vitamin-C helps body develop immunity against infectious agents, reduce episodes of cold and cough and protects body from harmful free radicals. Vitamin K is a co-factor for blood clotting enzymes and is required for strengthening of bones. The pods are also good source of many important minerals such as iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium.
Selection & Storage
Okra is a tropical plant which grows best in warm climates. Fresh and immature okra pods are readily available in the stores all year round, with a peak season during the summer months. The pods grow rapidly, being ready for harvest in about 60 days of summer weather, when grown from seed. They must be picked about 4 to 5 days after flowering, when 4 inches or so in length, before they mature and toughen.
The pods have attractively rich green color and neutral flavor. In the store, look for crispy, immature pods. They should snap easily in half. Avoid those that are dull and dry looking, blemished or limp. The best varieties are a rich green color.
Once at home, store in a paper bag in the warmest part of refrigerator, as temperatures below 45 degrees can damage okra. It does not store well, so use within 2 or 3 days at most. Eat them while they are fresh to obtain full benefits of vitamins and anti-oxidants. Do not wash until ready to use, or it will become slimy.
Preparation & Cooking
Okra pods are one of the widely used vegetable in tropical countries.
There are several (Paleo) ways to cook okra:
- In Caribbean islands okra is cooked up and eaten as soup, often with fish.
- The pods can be pickled and preserved like in other vegetables.
- Okra leaves may be cooked in a similar manner as the greens of beets or dandelions. The leaves are also eaten raw in salads.
- Batter & fry it up!
- Sautéed in olive oil or coconut oil
- Use it raw in salads.
- Okra can also be steamed, baked, pickled, boiled or stewed.
- Because of its similar flavor, it can be used in place of eggplant in many recipes.
- Chopped or sliced pods are then stewed or fried in low heat oil in order to remove mucilaginous content. It then, can be mixed with other vegetables, rice or meat.
Wash the pods thoroughly in the water in order to remove dust, soil and any residual insecticides.
When preparing, remember that the more it is cut, the slimier it will become. Aluminum pots will discolor it. Avoid long cooking times unless you are making soups, stews or gumbo.
When the pods are cut, they exude a mucilaginous (thick and sticky) juice that is an excellent thickener for stews and soups, especially Créole Gumbo. The flavor blends well with acid foods such as tomatoes.
Remember, okra is slimy and sticky – it is supposed to be that way. If you object to this quality, don’t eat okra. You can’t get rid of this quality by soaking or overcooking.
I should have a recipe demo for you on Wednesday. Thanks for reading!!