August is over, but it's still warm for a bit, and okra is here for at least a little while longer in many of our gardens. I don’t particularly like okra, but I eat it because I'm a good Southern girl.
I grew up eating okra, even picking it from a fussy plant that requires gloves while handling. When I protested its presence on my plate, this is what I was simply told: “It’s a Southern food.” No matter that the word mucilaginous is often used when describing the plant’s slimy nature. No matter that half the family didn’t like it — the other half did. If you’re a Southerner, you eat okra. If you don't, well… What can I say? You’re a foreigner.
One could argue that foreigners eat more okra than we Southerners do. A well-kept secret among Southern moms is that okra’s origins are quite exotic. Many geneticists believe its journey to the southern states of America began in Nigeria. Plant historians say it originated in North Africa around the 12th century, finally arriving in the Americas in the 18th century. It was not commonplace in the South until 1800 — a real newcomer, some might say.
Okra likely gained its popularity in the South because it fits our Southern climate. It’s heat- and drought-resistant, and can handle poor soils. Frost is the killer of okra.
Plant okra about 10 days after all threat of spring frost is gone. Harvest the pods when they’re about two to three inches long, and pick every couple of days to keep the plant producing. Okra plants can get very tall, up to five feet or more, so a dwarf variety might be best to stand up to summer storms that can knock taller varieties over.
As far as what to do with okra once it is harvested, ideas are plentiful. In India, okra is stir-fried with cumin, ginger and coriander. The Japanese stir fry it with soy sauce. Pakistan pickles it, eats the flowers and thickens soups with the leaves. In the Caribbean, okra is a part of the side dish callaloo. In Haiti, it's eaten with corn and rice. Brazil has a chicken and okra dish, Minas Gerais. The Gulf shores of the United States and the low-country of South Carolina have their own versions of gumbo. The rest of the South follows my husband’s rule of okra — sliced, breaded and deep fried.
You can even cook the leaves of the okra plant — fix them like you do your beet greens. The flowers are edible as well. The seeds can be roasted and ground for coffee, or used for oil. Okra has even been swept up in the chip mania that’s surfacing in the health food section of the grocery stores, where every vegetable under the sun is being made into a chip.
Okra is good for you, too. It's high in fiber, vitamins A, C and K, plus it's rich in calcium and antioxidants. The list goes on and on, although I feel certain that my mom knew none of this. Okra was simply a Southern staple to her. By the way — if you don’t like the “mucilaginous” quality of okra, try cooking it with tomatoes, vinegar or citrus (lime and okra anyone?). The acidity cuts down on the slime.
I recently realized just how far okra has come when a friend sent me a picture of the fried okra sushi she was eating in California (notice that even the health-conscious Californians fry it). Okra has made it all the way to the West Coast. It has gone Hollywood.
If you’re holding out against okra's often-debated culinary charm, then try using it as a garnish. Pickling it and serving it alongside any Southern meal is a nice touch. The pods can also be be dried and put in wreaths or dried flower arrangements. Okra is in the mallow family. Like its relative, hibiscus, the flowers are ornamental, so it can be used as a landscape plant. Or, allow the pods to get larger than is edible and use the woody pods for a centerpiece. If that isn’t doing your part for the South, I don’t know what is.
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— Cinthia Milner can be reached at email@example.com.