Okra: A World Traveler
Hibiscus Esculentus to scientists, Gumbo to southerners, and “Ladies’ Fingers” to India natives- okra’s many aliases allude to its rich and amusing history among cultures worldwide.
Okra’s ancient origins are rooted in southern Ethiopia. Travelling 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 its garden brethren. Due to the “slimy” mucilage substance within the actual pod, okra serves as a fabulous thickener and eventually 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, and dried for later enjoyment; this is how southern Louisiana celebrates with gumbo even during the off-season. Celebrate okra in your own kitchen by preparing Cajun-Style Chicken and Sausage Gumbo, a recipe shared with us from chef Nancie McDermont, a southern food writer and inspirational cooking teacher (learn more about her here!)
Want to know a little more about gumbo’s spicy history before diving into that recipe? Get your fix here, and get ready for a belly full of okra and Cajun soul!