Okra originally grew wild in Africa. In fact, both the word okra and
the word gumbo, one of the most familiar American okra dishes, are
derived from an African language. The vegetable was carried north to
Egypt and other countries bordering on the Mediterranean, east to
India, and on to Europe, where it was once very fashionable. While some
sources suggest it may have been brought to America directly from
Africa, it is more likely that it was first imported by Europeans
probably the French.
However, okra made its way here; African cooks in the south took the
familiar vegetable and combined it with the Creole influence of the
Louisiana Territory to create some wonderfully satisfying dishes.
Funny as it may seem, it is the very characteristic that puts most
people off that makes okra a wonderful addition to soups and stews.
When cut and cooked, it gives off a gelatinous sap that will thicken
any liquid it is added to. When fresh okra is in the season, gumbos are
traditionally thickened with small whole pods or cut pf larger ones.
When okra is not available, file powder (the finely ground dried leaves
of sassafras trees) is added as a thickener instead.
It is the slight sliminess of this sap that is so off-putting. There
may be as many ways to counteract this as there are cooks. Most will
tell you not to pierce the pod before cooking it. Obviously, this will
help contain the sap, but the pods will still have some inside, though
the smaller and younger the pod, the less sappy it will be. Some chefs
will tell you to cook it quickly. Others will tell you to cook it for a
No matter what I have tried, with the possible exception of cutting
very small pods into thick slices, dredging them in cornmeal, and
deep-frying them in hot oil, there is still some slippery juice. I
think it is part of the beast, though, and believe we should take
advantage of its tendency to thicken liquid and stop trying to
Older, large okra can become very fibrous, and if this is what you have
been exposed to, it can be quite unpleasant. Young, fresh okra is crisp
and tender, worth looking for and once you have sampled it, I think you
will want to enjoy it often. The flavor is fresh and delicate, unlike
anything else. Okra is wonderful at absorbing or enhancing other
flavors, too, and it merges very well with tomatoes and peppers.
Okra is extremely versatile in cooking methods. It can be steamed,
boiled, stewed, fried, incorporated in casseroles and soups, pickled,
and used in salads or on crudites platters.
Okra is rich with nutrition such as protein and carbohydrates and
provides a reasonable amount of vitamin C.