After last week’s culinary escapade with gumbo, I started thinking about okra. I love okra, yet I don’t often cook with it. I certainly never think to add it to soups or stews. Usually, I’ll only buy it if I’m doing a curry meal and want to make bhindi masala (curried okra). I also realized that I had no idea how or where okra is grown. So, in an effort to get back on track with my ‘weekly’ ingredient series, here is some information on okra!
Okra, also known as ladies’ fingers, is a member of the mallow family of flowering plants. (The popular garden plants hibiscus and hollyhocks and also members of the mallow family.) It’s a native of Africa, where the name okra comes from the Twi language of Ghana (nkurama). The word gumbo actually comes from the Angolan word for okra, ngombo or kingombo. It was first taken to the Americas by the Spaniard in the 17th century. It is cultivated extensively in Africa, India and Egypt, as well as in the southern United States.
Because okra requires a hot climate to grow, you won’t find locally-grown okra in Canada (except maybe in some wine-growing regions). Personally, I have never seen organic okra in stores in Montreal, although I’m sure it must exist. Despite being a ‘scavenger’ crop, commercial okra is still grown using fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. Sadly pesticide residue on okra (including pesticides banned in the US) is not uncommon and has been the subject of several scientific papers. Most seem to focus on okra coming from India. I don’t know if US-grown okra has less residues.
If you have cooked with okra, you know that the seeds inside are slimy. When okra is added to soups and stews, these slimy seeds act as a jelly-like thickening agent. This thickening is actually one of the hallmarks of gumbo. Apparently keeping the okra pods or “fingers” intact helps reduce the sliminess. Stir-frying the okra, especially with acidic ingredients, before adding it to soups and stews also cuts the sliminess and thickening properties. I guess this is why bhindi masala never seems to be gooey, just yummy.
Fresh okra should be bright green, firm and springy. If they’re brown it means that they’re getting old. The seeds won’t be as slimy, and they may taste bitter or not thicken as well. You can use okra whole or sliced. It’s not necessary to cut off the ends. Okra is an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphate. It is also a good source of vitamin C and many B vitamins. Some nutrition is lost when it’s simmered, like in a gumbo.
Here are some okra recipes from around the web. For an easy okra side-dish or appetizer, you can also simply slice the okra and stir-fry it for two minutes with olive oil, garlic and crushed chili.
- Roasted Okra from The Fat-free Vegan Kitchen
- Butter Bean Risotto with Fried Okra from Bon Appetit
- Khoresh Bamieh (Persian Okra Stew) from My Persian Kitchen
- Bhindi Anardana (Okra with Pomegranate Seeds) by Chef Sanjeev Kapoor
- Gumbo with Vegan Andouille Sausage from Vegan Dad
- Curried Okra with Chickpeas and Vegetables from Gourmet
- Pickled Okra by Gourmet
- A selection of gumbo recipes from Gumbo Cooking
Do you have a favourite okra recipe? What has been your experience with okra? Have you seen organic okra anywhere in Montreal or elsewhere in Canada? Share your thoughts!Photo credits: Okra and chilies by Cheap Ethnic Eatz (with permission); Okra plant by uberphot (creative commons license); okra at market by The Boreka Diary (creative commons license)