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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Okra

Ah, okra!

The vegetable that's fuzzy on the outside and mucilaginously slimy on the inside! You can't have a good gumbo without it. You can't be a true Southerner if you don't like it, but people all over the world love it.

Okra's scientific names are Abelmoschus esculentus or Hibiscus esculentus, depending on the taxonomist you ask. It is a member of the Mallow family (Malvaceae) and is a relative of hollyhock, cotton, and hibiscus.

Okra is also known as Lady's Fingers in English, quibombo in Spanish, bamia in French, bhindi in Hindi, nkuruma in Twi (a Niger-Congo language), gombo in West African dialects, and bamie in Arabic. Okra plants, which are annual herbs, grow up to two meters tall. They grow best in warm, tropical climates. They have heart-shaped leaves and produce flowers that look much like hibiscus blossoms. Its tapered, edible seed pods are usually 8-25 centimeters (or 3-10 inches) long.

While the seed pods are usually green, some varieties produce red or white pods; the uber-phallic red ones sadly turn green during cooking. Okra seed pods are eaten unripe, when they are still tender, and they taste a bit like asparagus and a bit like eggplant. The pods contain a thick, sticky juice that serves at the primary thickener for gumbo soups (and a major source of revulsion for those who don't care for the veggie). Okra's ripe seeds can be roasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute.

Okra is very good for you. In addition to being high in fiber, the seed pods are a good source of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, B-complex vitamins, calcium, and iron.

However, the plant has many uses aside from being a vegetable. The seeds can be pressed for oil for cooking and soapmaking. The plant produces fibers that can be used for papermaking. And in some tropical areas, okra has been used for poultices and the juice has been used to treat eye ailments.

Okra originally came from Africa; its precise place of origin is thought to be in or near Ethiopia. The ancient Egyptians discovered it and started cultivating it over 3000 years ago, and from there it spread throughout Africa and the Middle East. It came to the Americas and the Carribean along with West African slaves in the 1700s. It caught on in the Southern U.S., particularly Louisiana, and visiting Europeans developed a taste for the vegetable and took it with them when they went back to Western Europe.

Today, major okra producers include Mexico and several U.S. states, particularly Florida, California, and Georgia. Over 41 million pounds of breaded, frozen okra are processed every year by food manufacturers.

If you're a gardener and you live in a warm climate (or have a greenhouse) you can try your hand at growing okra. Plant your seeds 3 or 4 weeks after the last expected frost. They won't grow properly if the night temperatures fall below 50 degrees.

The plant matures rapidly, and after it flowers (it self-pollenates) you'll be seeing harvestable seed pods in about four days. Okra will produce pods throughout the summer as long as you keep picking the old pods off it. If a pod is too tough to easily cut with a knife, it's not suitable for cooking. Fireants, aphids, and root knot nematodes are the main organisms that trouble okra in the U.S.

If you'd rather get your okra at the grocery store, look for smaller, younger pods, because these tend to be most tender. Their caps should have a light color; a dark color means the pods may be old. Avoid shrivelled or decayed pods. Keep your okra in a plastic bag in a cool place away from ethylene-producing fruits such as apples, pears, and bananas. Also, don't wash your okra until you're ready to prepare it; washing and then storing okra makes it get slimy.

If okra is too fuzzy for your tastes, you can gently rub some of the hairs off with a paper towel or a soft-bristled plastic scrubber.

References

Okra: The Veggie People Love to Hate by Wayne McLaurin (Georgia Extension Service)
http://www.foodreference.com/html/artokra.html
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/plantanswers/vegetables/okra.html
http://www.tonytantillo.com/vegetables/okra.html


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