Meet Okra, A World Traveler
Hibiscus Esculentus to scientists, Gumbo to southerners, and Ladies’ Fingers to residents of India - okra’s many aliases allude to its rich and amusing history among cultures worldwide.
Okra’s ancient origins are rooted in southern Ethiopia. Traveling west to Europe via mass migrations and east to Asia via the spread of Islam, okra began to dig its roots into gardens and food cultures throughout the world thousands of years ago; well before its trip across the Middle Passage to the New World. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1700s that okra hit the scene in colonial America (most notably in the port towns of Charleston and New Orleans) and served as a common thread among those enslaved and in charge of dinner. Often stewed with a mixture of onions, peppers and tomatoes, or served mixed with rice and called “Limpin’ Susan”, okra was a dinner staple during the hot summer months- as it turns out, this hardy vegetable loves the southern heat that tends to scorch other garden staples. Due to the “slimy” mucilage substance within the actual pod, okra serves as a fabulous thickener and made a splash in signature soups and stews of the South, such as Brunswick stew, Kentucky burgoo, and of course, gumbo... though it took several generations of more affluent (French) cooks to morph a simple okra soup into the thick, spicy mixture of seafood, chicken and southern vegetable we’re more familiar with.
In its most interesting preparation, okra seeds were roasted, ground, and brewed into a “coffee” for southern soldiers to stay buzzed during the Civil War era, as actual coffee beans were scarce and expensive due to the blockade from the North (no, there’s no caffeine in those seeds!). However, oil can be extracted from those seeds for use in cooking, as it is in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions.
In the pleasant event of abundance, okra is easily canned, pickled, frozen and dried for later enjoyment; this is how southern Louisiana celebrates with gumbo even during the off-season. You can celebrate okra in your own kitchen by preparing them in several super-simple ways, like pan-searing, roasting and grilling. Slicing, breading and frying your okra is a crowd-pleaser and a favorite among all ages - well worth the extra step in breading and fry oil.
- Obsessed with Okra? Try these recipes: