Lady’s fingers and ochro (English Caribbean), bhindi (India), bamia/bamya (Egypt, Turkey, and Greece), gumbo, quingombo (Spanish Caribbean), red okra, quiabo (Brazil)
(Hibiscus esculentus, formerly Abelmoschus esculentus – Family Malvaceae)
Native to Ethiopia and a close relative of the ornamental hibiscus, okra is one of the oldest vegetables and the only member of the mallow family to be used as food. This annual, or perennial, bushy plant can grow to a height of eight feet. From its beautiful, yellow flowers, pod-like fruits that look like narrow, angular, finger-like seed capsules and containing numerous edible, white seeds, are formed. The skin is yellowish-green to dark green, or red, covered with a fine down, and has exterior ridges running along its length. These pods are harvested before they are ripe and fully grown. What makes this vegetable so unique is that, during cooking, the pods exude a milky substance that thickens its surroundings, making it a sought after vegetable for soups and stews.
Records of its use date from 2000 BCE. It is highly prized in Africa, India, Thailand, tropical Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, the Balkans, France, and the Mediterranean. Okra is generally regarded as native to Africa and may have been first cultivated in Ethiopia or West Africa. The name comes from nkurama, a term used from the Twi language of the Gold Coast (Ghana). African slaves took it with them to the Caribbean and the southern US, where the name gumbo came into being. Gumbo is also an African word of Angolan origin (ki ngombo), and given to stews thickened with the vegetable. This name, in turn, was rendered as quingombo by Portuguese slave traders and then shortened by the slaves in the West Indies to gumbo, which is still used today.
It is not exactly known just when the vegetable spread to North Africa, the Mediterranean, Arabia, and India. There is no trace of it in early Egyptian tombs, but it was recorded as growing along the Nile in the 13th century. Okra reached Brazil by 1658, and Dutch Guiana by 1686. It may have arrived in the southern US during the 17th century, and was grown in northern Virginia and Pennsylvania by the 18th century. It did not seem to arrive in China until late in the 19th or early in the 20th century.
Okra is a good source of dietary fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, thiamin, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, C, E, and B6. It is also very light on calories, with about ten pods having a total of about thirty-two calories. Because of its thickening abilities, it is a notable source of pectin. The vegetable’s mucilaginous substances not only thicken soups and stews, but help lubricate the intestines and soothes duodenal ulcers. Scientifically speaking, when okra is heated in water, its starch granules absorb water molecules, which swell and eventually rupture, releasing amylose and amylopectin molecules as well as gums and pectic substances, all of which attract and immobilize water molecules, thickening the soup or stew. However, if the pods are blanched first, the mucilage will stay in the blanching water, allowing the vegetable to be used in dishes where thickening is not desired. Usually red okra turns green when cooked, but there are some red cultivars that remain red.
When purchasing, look for small, brightly coloured, crisp okra. Some pods reach up to six inches in length; but these are not as good as the smaller, three-inch pods as the longer ones become tough and fibrous. The stem end should be moist, which will indicate freshness. Okra does not like frost, moisture, or time; and should be used the day it is picked. If it is particularly fuzzy, remove by wiping it softly with a paper towel. Okra does not need peeling, but it is better after a light trim of the stem and tips. The key is a “light” trim as once the inner capsule is pierced, the sticky juices are released, invoking such descriptions as “slime”. If using it to thicken soups or stews, quickly slice it in rounds, trim the stem end completely, and place immediately into the pot.
Medicinally, okra is effectively used as a demulcent which soothes inflammations, including duodenal ulcers, and lubricates the intestines. In India, infusions of the pods are used to treat urinogenital problems and chest infections. In some places, okra is also added to artificial blood plasma products. Non-medical uses includes its being used in the making of rope in some countries.
For the gardener, okra flourishes if grown with melons and cucumbers. The most popular variety is green, but a baby burgundy type is gaining popularity. Typically, the skins are fuzzy, but some varieties have smooth skins. Their gumminess also varies with the variety.
Some varieties include the following:
Artist has purple-red pods that turn green when cooked.
Burgundy grows to a height of about five feet, producing rich red pods whose colour is lost in cooking.
Clemson Spineless is a popular variety known to produce fleshy pods.
Dwarf Green Long Pod has dark green spineless pods produced on short plants.
Mammoth Spineless Long Pod is a popular variety, excellent used fresh or bottled.
Pure Luck, despite its name, is one of the best varieties.
Red Velvet is another red variety.
Star of David Heirloom is an Israeli variety that grows to a height of eight feet.