Okra (okro, ladies’ fingers, ochro or gumba) is from the mallow family (includes cotton and cacao). The flowering plant has edible green seed pods.
Okra’s origins are disputed – it is generally believed that it originated from Ethiopia. The routes by which okra was taken from Ethiopia to North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, Arabia, and India, and when, are by no means certain. The Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries used the Arabic word for the plant, bamya, suggesting it had come into Egypt from Arabia, but earlier it was probably taken from Ethiopia to Arabia. The plant may have entered southwest Asia across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Manded straight to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara, or from India. One of the earliest accounts of okra use is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216 and described the plant under cultivation by the locals who ate the pods with meal.
From Arabia okra was spread over North Africa, completely around the Mediterranean, and eastward.The absence of any ancient Indian names for it suggests that it reached India after the beginning of the Christian Era. Although the plant has been well known in India for a long time, it is not found wild there. Modern travelers have found okra growing truly wild, however, along the White Nile and elsewhere in the upper Nile country as well as in Ethiopia.
The plant was introduced to the Americas by ships plying the Atlantic Slave Trade by 1658, when its presence was recorded in Brazil. In Louisiana, the Créoles learned from slaves the use of okra (gumbo) to thicken soups and it is now an essential in Créole Gumbo. Okra may have been introduced to southeastern North America from Africa in the early 18th century. By 1748, it was being grown as far north as Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson noted it was well established in Virginia by 1781. It was commonplace throughout the South by 1800, and the first mention of different cultivars was in 1806.
Today okra is popular in Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, India, the Caribbean, South America and the Southern U.S. It is not a very common vegetable in most European countries, except for Greece and parts of Turkey. Okra is commonly associated in Southern, Creole, and Cajun cooking since it was initially introduced into the United States in its southern region. It grows well in these warm climates.
The species is a perennial, often cultivated as an annual in temperate climates, and often grows to around 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall. The leaves are 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 in) long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The flowers are 4–8 centimetres (1.6–3.1 in) in diameter, with five white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 centimetres (7.1 in) long with pentagonal cross-section, containing numerous seeds. Okra is cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world for its fibrous fruits or pods containing round, white seeds. It is among the most heat- and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world and will tolerate soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture, but frost can damage the pods.
Sow okra seeds indoors as early as February, about an inch in pots of compost. Leave in a warm room to germinate and keep well watered. Once a good height, plant on into large pots and keep in a greenhouse. They like humid conditions so keep well watered.
The seed pods rapidly become fibrous and woody and, to be edible, must be harvested when immature, usually within a week after pollination. They can be frozen easy-peasy in a bag or kept in the fridge for a few days before use.
Okra is available in two varieties, green and red. Red okra carries the same flavor as the more popular green okra and differs only in color. When cooked, the red okra pods turn green.
The most common disease afflicting the okra plant is verticillium wilt often causing a yellowing and wilting of the leaves. Other diseases include powdery mildew in dry tropical regions, leaf spots, and root-knot-nematodes.
Okra is a good source of vitamin C and A, also B complex vitamins, iron and calcium. It is a good source of dietary fibre.
Ridged along its length, the green, fuzzy pod contains rows of edible seeds that release a mucilaginous (sticky) liquid when chopped and cooked, which has led to it being used to thicken soup and stew recipes but it can also served whole as a side dish. Its flavour is quite subtle, so it benefits from being cooked with strong, spicy ingredients. Stir-fry, chopped or whole (6-12 minutes); steam whole (5 minutes); grill whole (2-3 minutes each side); chop and add to soups, stews and casseroles.
This is an Indian curried version of okra – a simple recipe for using it. You just slice the okra up into pieces and fry it in the spice mix until cooked. Serve it as a side dish alongside another curry, some rice and some naan bread for extra yummy-ness.
– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Ghee or oil, for frying – 1 tbsp mustard seeds – 1 tbsp nigella seeds – 1/2 tbsp fenegreek seeds – 1 handful curry leaves (optional) – 1 tsp cumin – 1 tsp ground coriander – 1 tsp ground turmeric – 1 1/4 tsp ground garam masala -2 large garlic cloves, diced -250g okra, cut into chunks
- Oil a large frying pan. Peel and slice the onion into thin strips and place in the pan. Heat for a few minutes until the onion turns golden brown before turning down to simmer. Add the mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fenegreek seeds and curry leaves, stirring in the ingredients to combine. Allow the contents of the pan to simmer for a few minutes to absorb the flavours.
- Add the other spices: cumin, ground coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Add the garlic. Stir in the cut up chunks of okra and leave to simmer until fried and combined with the spices.
- Remove from the heat and serve alongside more curry, rice or Indian breads, such as naan or chapatis. Store any left overs in the fridge or freeze.