Native to Ethiopia, the okra plant has flourished throughout Africa since the 12th century B.C. Global trading over the centuries, including the slave trade, brought okra to various other parts of the world. In the United States, the okra plant is cultivated primarily throughout the South and Southwest regions. Okra seed pods are used in Creole cooking and southern cooking, and are common to Middle Eastern and South American cuisines.
The plant’s flowers are similar in appearance to those of the hibiscus plant and the edible pods are green or purplish in color. The pods are harvested when they are approximately 2-to-3 inches in length. Larger or mature pods tend to be fibrous and have a chewy texture that may be unpleasant.
Handling and storing okra
Some varieties of okra have tiny hair-like spines along the surface which may trigger redness or irritation in those with sensitive skin. If necessary, wear kitchen gloves when handling the pods during preparation.
Rinse the okra in cold water and pat dry. If storing the okra for future use, place in a plastic bag, remove the air from the bag and seal. Okra will keep for approximately five days in the refrigerator.
Bring the okra pods to room temperature and pat dry with a towel. Use a paring knife to remove the hard tips from the top of the okra and discard. Heat approximately three inches of oil in a deep pot until the oil ripples.
Make a corn flour and egg mixture and season with salt and pepper. Dip the pods into the flour and egg mixture and add to the oil, a few at a time, allowing them to cook until golden in color. Remove from the oil and allow the okra to drain on a paper towel. Serve with a BBQ dip or alongside rice or potatoes.
Stir-fried with tomatoes
Remove the tips from the okra and cut the okra into 1/4 inch thick slices. Roughly chop fresh tomatoes or drain a can of chopped tomatoes.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a pan over medium high heat. Add the okra to the pan and heat through for approximately three minutes. Add the tomatoes and a small amount of tomato sauce, enough to make a sauce for the vegetable mixture. The sticky substance in the okra will thicken the sauce. Season the mixture with a little bit of sugar, chili powder and cumin, heating it through until the okra is tender and the sauce slightly thick. Serve over rice.
Okra as an ingredient
The sticky substance in okra, called mucilage, makes okra a good ingredient for stews and chili dishes, as the substance acts as a thickening agent for the sauce.
After removing the hard tip from the pods, simply slice the okra into small slices and add to the stew or chili, allowing it to simmer with the other vegetables and meat. The sticky stuff seeps slowly into the dish, thickening the sauce and adding an earthy undertone to the flavorings.
Use larger pods that may be too fibrous for simmering by slicing the pods very thin and adding them to the hot oil when browning the meat or tenderizing the vegetables. The fiber in the okra breaks down, but the sticky substance will carry over and continue to thicken the sauce or stew.