Ode to Okra

Ok, I know, I know. Stop. You either love okra or you absolutely hate it, and you’ve already decided to turn the page.

Stay. Please, please stay. I’ve got this, really I do. Okra is the new asparagus. Seriously. I’m certain of it. This is what I know: Okra is a controversial vegetable. Folks love okra or they hate it. No one — veritably no one — is in the middle.

I also know this: Okra lovers passionately love okra in all manners of all shapes and forms. Boiled, fried, steamed, grilled, broiled, pickled, whole, sliced and julienned. And especially in gumbo.

According to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, African slaves brought okra across the Atlantic Ocean during the slave-trading era. Little is known about the early history and distribution of okra, but it is thought to have originated in Equatorial Africa. It eventually made its way into North Africa, the Mediterranean and India before its journey across the Atlantic to the New World. Okra is not, however, solely found in the American South or in Africa. The ancient routes by which okra was taken from Central Africa to Egypt to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean and to India are not known with any certainty, but we do know that okra is found in abundance in three major areas today — East Africa, India and Southeast Asia. It is also found in pockets in the Caribbean, as well as in South America.

One thing is for certain: If the weather is hot, okra will grow.

In general, when you are shopping at Rouses, look for young, small pods no longer than four inches in length, depending on the variety. There is a reason okra is called ladyfingers in some countries. Seek out pods smaller than a lady’s finger! Green is the most common color available, but you may also find red or deep burgundy varieties, even pale green to almost white.

Top Five Slime-Busting Tips:

  • Choose small pods.
  • Wash and dry okra very, very thoroughly.
  • Don’t cut okra into pieces; cook whole pods.
  • Add an acid like tomato, lemon juice, vinegar or wine when cooking.
  • Overcooking produces more slime! Don’t overcook okra.

Virginia Willis is the author of the acclaimed cookbooks Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company.

Virginia has a popular food blog and website: www.virginiawillis.com.