Okra is the seed pod of the Abelmoschus esculentus plant. It's filled with tiny white seeds and is sometimes called lady's fingers due to its long, slender, tubelike shape. Native to Ethiopia, okra was brought to North America by slaves and settlers when they arrived centuries ago. It grows best in hot and humid climates. Leading growers include India, Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan, Ghana, Egypt, Benin, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Cameroon—it's also grown in Florida and other southeastern states. Okra is essential in Southern, Caribbean, and Indian cuisines in gumbo and stews, and it's one of those foods that people either love or hate. Typically, those who dislike it blame the way okra becomes slimy and silky when it's cooked, but others enjoy it for this same reason. Okra is clearly one of those vegetables that means different things to different people.
What Is Okra?
Okra is a fruit, though it is eaten as a vegetable. The light green seed pods are cooked whole or sliced, so preparation is extremely easy, and it can be cooked in so many ways. However, choosing the right cooking method, such as frying, grilling, sautéeing, and pan-roasting, can reduce or prevent it from becoming slimy. Grocery stores in the U.S. typically sell fresh okra by the pound during the summer months when it's in season. It's pricier in the winter months when it's imported.
How to Cook With Okra
Okra is most commonly used in soups and stews. It contains mucilage, a substance that acts as a natural thickener when heated. While this is beneficial to dishes like gumbo, it also produces the sliminess so often associated with okra. In some Caribbean regions, okra is breaded and deep-fried while in other cuisines it is pickled, which is one way to cut down on its slimy consistency.
You will need to rinse and pat okra dry before cutting or slicing it. The way you slice it can vary from one household to the next, not to mention from one part of the world to another. Okra can be cut into rounds, sliced lengthwise, or cut diagonally. Of course, you can always opt to leave it whole.
A few methods have proven successful in reducing the slime quotient of cooked okra. Some cooks suggest soaking it in vinegar before cooking but just make sure to thoroughly pat it dry afterward. Cooking it at very high heat, such as by grilling or sautéing, also works. You can precook okra this way before adding it to other recipes.
What Does It Taste Like?
Okra has a mild, almost grassy flavor that is uniquely okra. While it's sometimes compared to the taste of eggplant or green beans, its texture gets more attention. Okra is crunchy when cooked quickly but becomes almost mouthwateringly tender when slow-cooked.
Where to Buy Okra
Fresh okra should feel firm but not hard. Look for bright green pods with unblemished skin. A little browning on the stem shouldn't be a concern, though the greener it is, the fresher the okra. It's not a highly popular fruit, and not all grocers stock it fresh. The best chances of finding it would be May through September when it's in season. A lot of grocery stores sell it precut and frozen in 12- to 16-ounce bags.
Okra is a drought-resistant annual that thrives in warm, humid weather. It will produce edible seed pods after a pretty white, yellow, pink, or red hibiscus-like flower emerges. When temperatures reach 80 degrees and higher, it's a good time to plant seeds (or starter plants that you've grown indoors) in rich, organic soil and in a spot that gets full sun.
Okra can be stored in your refrigerator's vegetable compartment in paper bags for up to four days. You can also wrap it loosely in plastic. When you're ready to prepare it for cooking, remove it from the fridge and bring it up to room temperature first. This will reduce the amount of moisture released from cooking.
Gardeners who have an over-abundance of okra (which is often the case as pods tend to mature all at once) can freeze them for up to a year. To freeze okra, wash and stem the pods, blanch in boiling water for a few minutes, dunk them in an ice water bath, chop, and flash freeze before packing in freezer bags. Or follow the lead of Southern cooks, who fry or bake battered pods before freezing.
Nutrition and Benefits
If you're one of those who isn't put off by okra's texture, it offers several health benefits. It's rich in fiber and remarkably low in calories. Okra is also high in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as several antioxidants that include beta-carotene, xanthin, and lutein. Okra offers a host of B-complex vitamins, too, including niacin, thiamin, pyridoxine, and pantothenic acid.
There are many varieties of okra, with names like Clemson Spineless, Annie Oakley, Baby Bubba Hybrid, Cajun Delight, Louisiana Green Velvet, and more. The green okra is the most common form found in the U.S. with pods that can look fuzzy or smooth, long or short, pointed or rounded, and depending on the variety, plants that grow three to eight feet tall. You may even come across purple okra, which should look as fresh as the green variety when selecting it at the market.