Okra: A Cross-Cultural Veggie

April 27, 2009
Written by Eun-Joo Park in
The Welcoming Table
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While it may not be universally loved in any race or ethnic group, okra is nonetheless, loved by many. We have chosen okra as our first "food feature" because like a race or an ethnic group, you either love it, hate it, tolerate it, or have no experience with it at all.

Okra, often better known around the world as Lady’s Fingers, is best picked while tender and young, no longer than three or four inches, or the size of a pinky. At the height of its rampant growth, in late summer, this means harvesting plants at least every other day.

When buying okra from your local farmers’ market or grocery store, look for short young pods, free of bruises or toughness. The oozy interior mucilage, which some people dislike, is easily sautéed or fried away. It actually becomes a virtue in soups, where it acts as a natural thickener. Perhaps, this is why soups and stews are some of okra’s most popular uses.

In Nigeria, for instance, where okra is often preserved by drying, fresh or dried okra is chopped or pounded and then boiled with goat, dried crayfish and red pepper. This Yoruban specialty is eaten by hand with bread-like balls of pounded yam, called fufu. In Syria and Iran, a petite and tasty variety of okra known as bamiah is stewed whole with lamb and tomato and finished with lemon juice. In India, where okra is called bindhi and esteemed as the king of summer vegetables, it is sautéed into a curry with tomato, cumin, turmeric and garam masala. In Vietnam, it plays a supporting role in canh chua ca, the bright and piquant fish soup, in which pineapple provides the distinctive sweet note and tamarind the sour counter-note.

Since gumbo takes a bit of effort and time to assemble, why not make a big batch and invite over a crowd? The recipe we have included throws it all into the pot–chicken, sausage and shrimp, making it special enough for an occasion. It serves eight hungry people and can easily be doubled to ensure leftovers.

In the bayous of Louisiana, it’s not unusual to make 20 or 30 gallons at a time, outdoors on a winter’s day, in a huge iron kettle over a fire or propane burner, stirring the pot two-handed with a boat paddle. It’s almost as tasty made indoors, too. And since it improves from sitting a day or two, it can be made ahead, so you can relax on the day of the party.

Delivered crisp and hot to the table, fried okra makes a delicious side dish, wonderful in a summer meal, alongside fried fish or chicken and garden-grown tomatoes, sliced thick. Served in winter with Cajun meatloaf and mashed potatoes, it is a reminder of sunny days past and to come.

The Welcoming Table