Okra: Beyond the Slime
My editor asked me to write about my opinion of okra, as I’ve done previously in these pages for pineapple on pizza (favorable), waffles versus pancakes (pancakes — I mean come on), and ranch-dressing-as-dipping-sauce (the headline for that one was: “Not to Judge, but People Who Put Ranch Dressing on Their Pizza Are a Disgrace to Humanity”; I disapprove of the practice.) Reader, I have no problem sharing my (accurate) opinions about food.
Still, picking on okra seemed…well, it just seemed wrong. Those first bites of okra are like chewing on a caterpillar. It’s blandly bitter if you’re lucky. It’s slimy, and by that I don’t mean “vaguely unpleasant to the touch,” but, rather, “slimy” as in: Slime literally oozes from the things. Every good recipe for okra is a fanciful guide to helping you make okra taste and feel like something that isn’t okra. When somebody tells me they like okra, I smile wanly and wonder what else is wrong with them.
So rather than beat up an already pitiable, repulsive fruit, I’ve decided instead to be okra’s advocate. Surely it is more than the foul fluid flowing from it. Did you know, for example, that one reason okra is so popular around the world is that at the mid-latitudes, it’s basically impossible to kill? All it needs is warm dirt and time. It’s a (hungry) people pleaser!
Here is something else you might not know about okra: No one knows where it came from.
In the South, we know it locally as a thickening agent used when preparing gumbo (indeed, the word gumbo is likely a derivative of the word for okra in various African dialects), and it certainly arrived on American shores by way of the transatlantic slave trade. But whether it was first cultivated in West Africa, East Africa or South Asia is unclear. What we do know is that, over the centuries, it has crossed the Sahara, leapt across the Atlantic and Pacific, and been enjoyed by sultans, presidents and grand viziers alike.
Okra is present in the etchings on Egyptian tombs and in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. During the Middle Ages in the Arab world, okra was believed to hold therapeutic powers as an aphrodisiac. (Its chemistry backs this up, as it is rich in magnesium, zinc, iron, folic acid and vitamin B.) It was also used internally to prevent pregnancies, making its role in reproduction oddly thorough. During the Civil War, the coffee trade with South America was badly disrupted, leaving Confederate soldiers hurting for a fix of morning sludge. Not to worry, though, because okra, which thrives in warm Southern climes, could be grown, dried, ground and brewed for an adequate coffee substitute. Is there nothing it can’t do?
In case you are wondering, here is how to make okra coffee in one sentence: Strip enough seeds from dried okra until you have an amount comparable to the coffee beans you would otherwise use, and after roasting them in a pan over medium heat until they are aromatic, grind them to a fine powder and prepare them in a French press as you would any old cup of coffee. It won’t taste exactly like coffee and it won’t contain caffeine, but it will look the part, and I mean, come on. Does okra have to do everything around here? I don’t see rice dressing making you any coffee.
But wait, there’s more! Since okra made its way back and forth across the map centuries before the discovery of America, the pointy green fruit has slimed its way across every kind of cuisine you can think of. Ready for a simple, one-sentence Indian-style okra recipe? Here goes! Add a teaspoon of cumin seeds to a sauté pan with avocado oil over medium-high heat, cook until they begin to pop, then add a diced onion and chopped-up serrano pepper, letting them brown for 10 minutes while you slice 12 ounces of okra into one-inch rounds and mince two cloves of garlic and a nice chunk of ginger, adding the latter two as you reduce the heat and splash in a bit more avocado oil to keep things alive, finally adding the okra and stir-frying the whole batch for 10 minutes further, until the okra is dry. When it’s finished, it’ll look like stir-fry, and you eat it with naan. (That last sentence doesn’t count.)
I’d give you a gumbo recipe, but even I know better than to offer an opinion about that to a Southern audience; one wrong ingredient and you’d set my car on fire.
Speaking of fire, there’s one more thing to know about okra: It’s future-proof. If you haven’t heard, the planet is getting warmer. Wheat, coffee, corn and peaches hate it when mercury creeps up the thermometer. But you know which crop doesn’t flinch in the face of a little climate change? The one that thrives in warm dirt. Okra is one of those crops grown easily even with small acreage (you can get about four tons per acre of okra), so if you don’t like it now, you probably ought to try those recipes above. Your grandkids are going to love Indian okra and coffee — because they won’t have any choice.
Aphrodisiacs, coffee, gumbo and climate-catastrophe-resistant? It’s like okra has been biding its time. Pretty good for a revolting caterpillar fruit. So keep going, little mucus plant. Keep going as far as the dirt road will take you. And if someone says you’re bad, remind them that you’re not pizza-and-ranch-dressing bad.