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 seed pod (there is also a red pod variety, which turns green when cooked). It has heart shaped leaves (one species is cultivated for its edible leaves), and large, yellow, hibiscus-like flowers. The seed pods are 3 – 10 inches long, tapering, usually with ribs down its length. These tender, unripe seed pods are used as a vegetable, and have a unique texture and sweet flavor. The pods, when cut, exude a mucilaginous juice that is used to thicken stews (see Gumbo), and have a flavor somewhat like a cross between asparagus and eggplant.
Lady’s fingers. Just one of the many names given to okra pods in English-speaking countries (Great Britain first and foremost). In fact, the slender, delicately tapered pods recall the shape of a woman’s fingers.
Nutrition. Largely made up of water (90%), with a fair content of carbohydrates (7%) and proteins (2%), okra befriends the figure-conscious because it is low in calories (100 g add up to just 33 kcal) and fats, but at the same time it is rich in fibre, vitamins A, C and K; it is also an excellent source of folic acid, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Quality. When buying okra, choose medium-small pods because they are more tender and less stringy. Okra is generally green – make sure it is a nice bright even shade, with no blemishes or colour alterations – but on some markets it is also possible to find the red and burgundy coloured varieties. Top quality okra must be firm and springy when you handle it. Only the pods are sold on our markets but in the countries where it is grown and picked, the leaves are also consumed: they are excellent for eating raw in salads and may also be boiled or pan tossed, in the same way as spinach leaves.
Seeds. The dried seeds may be roasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute. In fact, when coffee imports were impeded by the American Civil War (1861), the Austin State Gazette reported that “one hectare of okra plants is able to produce sufficient seeds to replace those of fifty coffee plants, with a product that is identical to the coffee imported from Rio”.
Emeril Lagasse. Stewed and spiced, but also marinated in buttermilk before being fried and served with a Creole sauce, the famous bayou blast; or alternatively, okra is fried and served with shrimps or crabmeat, as in gumbo with shrimps, or with chicken and smoked sausage. These are just some of the recipes containing okra presented by Emeril Lagasse, a celebrity US chef who, in recent years, has become the number one authority on Creole and Cajun cuisine.
Gumbo. In this unchallenged icon of Louisiana’s Cajun cuisine, okra appears as one of the most widely used thickeners, on a par with filé powder (sassafras) or roux (flour and butter). It is the opinion of food archaeologists that this tasty recipe dates back to the XVIII century as a variation on a stew common among the Cochtaw Indians (from the territories of what is now Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana), who used to thicken it with “kombo”, today’s filé powder obtained from dried and ground sassafras leaves.
Vocabulary. Okra, gombo, lady’s fingers, bhindi, bāmiyā; but also krajiab kheaw (Thailand); okura or kiku kimo (Japan); gambô, quibombô or quiabo in Portuguese; oh k’u ra (Korea), grønsakhibisk (Norway); bomiyon in Uzbek… It would be a massive job to list all the names for okra used throughout the world: a full list can be found here.