Several years ago, I was thrilled to learn that Mississippi singer, Olu Dara, would also be in attendance at the annual Southern Foodways Alliance conference in Oxford, MS. I could think of nothing better than getting listening to him sing his song “Okra” that celebrated the mucilaginous pod. You see, I love okra! There, I’ve said it. I’ve lectured about the vegetable often, eat it in any form and even have pictures of it on my personal and professional stationery and on my business cards! No plant more than this small green pod tells the history of Africans in diaspora and the love/hate relationship that most of the country has with it is evidence of its history.
In the South, where enslavement lasted longer and climate made Africans and their descendants most at home, it is revered and treated with the respect it so richly deserves. It shows up the caruru of Northeastern Brazil and in the callaloo and the coocoo of the Caribbean. In the United States, it becomes the thickener in the okra soups and pilaus of the Carolina Lowountry and is served up crisp and fried in parts of Mississippi. It’s an ingredient in the southern succotashes of many states and reigns supreme in many of the gumbos of New Orleans and southern Louisiana. Southerners just seem to know (or have learned from African Americans) how to savor the slippery juice that the tender pods exude when they are cut.
I wrote once that wherever okra points its green tip, Africa has been and the trail of trade evidenced by the presence of the pod is formidable. It turns up in the cooking of North Africa and the Middle East where it is known as Bamia or bamya and it savored curried in India where it is called or bhindi in Hindu and lady’s fingers by those of more colonial persuasion. It’s known as fiao dou, in Chinese and kachang bendi in Malay. Spain takes its word for the pod from the Bantu languages of Central Africa and calls it quingombo or ginbombo and the Brazilian variant quiabo seems to derive from the same origins. Our American use of the word okra comes from the Igbo language of Nigeria where the plant is referred to as okuru. It is the French word for okra that takes us the heart of the matter in Louisiana, because it also harks back to the Bantu languages, but simply uses the final two syllables calling the mucilaginous pod gombo.
Okra has a long history. Botanists debate its center of origin. Once considered to be indigenous to tropical Western Africa, it is now thought to have originated in Northeastern African where wild okra has been found in the Upper Nile Valley. Although it has clearly been cultivated in Egypt for centuries, its origins continue to remain a mystery. There seem to be no representations of it in Egyptian tomb paintings and texts citing it only go back to the 13th century. (It first appears in a letter written by a traveler from Moorish Spain in Egypt in 1216)
Okra probably was first introduced into the continental United States via Louisiana and R.W. Schery in Plants for Man (Prentice Hall, 1952) postulated in that okra was brought to the New World by the French in the 1700s. Others suggest the Portuguese brought it to this hemisphere and place its introduction in the 16th century. Whoever it responsible for the pod’s presence in the Hemisphere, by 1748 it is being used in Philadelphia, In 1781 Thomas Jefferson commented on it as growing in Virginia and we now know that it was certainly grown in the slave gardens of Monticello. (It also appeared on the master’s table if we are to trust the Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph who includes a recipe for Gumbs: A West India Dish. By 1806 the plant is in relatively widespread use and botanists are speaking of several different varieties of the plant.
Okra is one of the plants that is indigenous to the African continent and that was brought over to feed the enslaved Africans during the period of enslavement. No doubt it was a hit with the enslaved Africans and their descendants for whom it certainly recalled a generalized African taste for the mucilaginous that is also found in throughout Africa in the use of “slippery” vegetables such as melloukiah (a leafy green that is cooked into a slick stew and savored in Egypt and northern Africa) and in the creolized world in the use of the prickly and slimy Brazilian vegetable known as xilo.
One of the reasons for the popularity of the vegetable is that it can not only be used fresh when young and tender, but can also be dried and preserved for future use. It is also relatively high in nutritional value and rich in calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron (who knew!) It is also easy to digest, mildly laxative properties and has emollient properties. Dried okra can be found as far afield as the bazaars of the Middle East and the homes of the Gullah of the Low country where the pods are dried and strung garland-like along with shrimp heads to provide seasoning and thickening for their roux-less gumbos and soups. In Antebellum South Carolina, okra seeds were dried by the enslaved and used as a substitute for coffee (a practice that was adopted by their owners during the privations of the Civil War).
Okra’s lack of respect in the culinary world (I call it the Rodney Dangerfield of Vegetables!) is due to its propensity toward ooze. Like the Africans and their descendants who came to revere it in almost totemic capacity, okra does not behave. It is tricky. It cannot be tamed into submission by the cook who does not know how to use it properly. It is for this reason that okra is not often found in wide usage outside of areas where Black hands turned the wooden spoons in the cooking pots. The distaste for okra is all about the sticky substance that the vegetable exudes the more its cut. The more it’s cut; the more it’s sticky. Some dishes In Brazil and on the African continent make a point of releasing as much of the ooze as possible resulting in thick glue-like sheets of almost elastic consistency. In Louisiana folks understand that the beauty of okra is in the thing that is most decried by the unknowing… in its “slime.” The prodigious thickening properties of the vegetable mean that it can take a thin watery soup and transform it into a substantial one. Those who are hell-bent on defying okra’s natural propensity toward ooze can fry it as they do in much of the south or blanch young tender pods and serve them in a salad with a light vinaigrette as they do in parts of Brazil. It is said that a squeeze of lemon juice of a bit of vinegar in the cooking water will cut down the stick, but I say let’s stop fighting the mucilaginous vegetable. Let okra do it’s own magnificent thing, after all it’s only doing what comes naturally.