“What kind of peppers are these?” the cashier at the grocery store asked me. “Those aren’t peppers, they’re okra,” I replied. I couldn’t fault her. Growing up in the south, fried okra was a big part of my diet, but I had never actually seen the whole pod, naked, without a crisp coating of cornmeal or cloaked in stewed tomatoes. It wasn’t until I left home and began buying my own groceries at farmer’s markets that I saw the fresh pods, shaped like a “lady’s fingers” (as they’re called in India), covered in a fine fuzz and colored green or purple. Okra is such a staple in southern cooking that it’s hard for me to fathom how you feel about it, though I’m willing to bet you either love it, hate it, or have no idea what it is.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s sentiment, “Vegetables are never rightfully hated, merely misunderstood.” especially rings true for okra. It’s human nature to fear things we don’t understand, such as okra, which doesn’t look like any other vegetable, nor does the flesh cook like any other vegetable. Okra is not easy to love; it requires thoughtful preparation and responds well only to very specific cooking techniques. Learning to love okra is no more difficult than eggplant, beets, or kale; it’s a matter of focusing on the vegetable’s positive attributes rather than trying to make it behave like something it’s not. Okra will never be easygoing like a tomato, or refreshing as a cucumber. To really get to know okra is to discover a taste reminiscent of asparagus, with a delightful texture that is both crunchy and juicy at the same time.
Cooking with okra means playing by its rules. Southern cooking relies on stewing, frying, or pickling the pods. Juices released by okra during cooking function as a natural thickener for soups and stews, and when sliced into rings the fibrous flesh softens without breaking down completely. Stewed tomatoes and okra is a complimentary flavor combination, but it’s also functional because the acidity of tomatoes causes a chemical reaction that neutralizes okra’s tendency towards sliminess. Larger okra pods can be woody, even stringy, but when sliced, coated in cornmeal, and quickly fried, each mouthful is a balance of crisp, golden crust and warm, juicy, sweetly vegetal okra. Long, slender okra pods with their crisp but tender texture are well suited to pickling in spicy brine flavored with garlic, mustard seeds, and chilies. These classic preparations from the American south – gumbo, stewed okra and tomatoes, pickled okra, and fried okra – are just the beginning in a quest to get to know okra.
Okra didn’t originate in the American South; many cultures across the globe have long embraced it. According to The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion, okra first came to the Americas with the slave trade via Africa, where they tend to leave the pods whole in cooking. In Africa and the Middle East, okra is often prepared by soaking in salt and lemon juice, then added to meaty tagines (stews) for just the last few minutes of cooking. Okra poached in tomato sauce seems to have universal appeal, but just as with the tagines, the pods are kept whole. They also like to slice the okra into rings or halve it down the middle and sear it in hot oil until crispy, tossing the caramelized okra pieces into rice dishes. From Africa, okra spread through India and Asia, where it’s commonly found sliced and stewed in curry with coconut milk or tomatoes. A popular Indian recipe is stuffed okra flavored with fried onions and spices like ginger, turmeric, garam masala, and cumin, fennel, and fenugreek seeds. The stuffed pods are browned in a hot skillet then simmered in a scant splash of water till tender. From India to Africa to the Americas, okra is cooked using the same four techniques: stewed, fried, pickled, and seared. Understanding these techniques is the key to properly preparing okra, and then you’re free to experiment with flavor combinations and spices.
When selecting okra, the smaller pods are usually the most tender (look for pods 2-3 inches long). Okra deteriorates rapidly after harvest and does not store well, so it’s important to buy only the freshest pods. Like a fresh green bean, okra pods should snap in half when bent with your fingers. Don’t buy okra with dull flesh or black spots. To store okra, wrap the pods in a paper towel and place them in a plastic bag with plenty of holes for air circulation. Pods can be kept this way in the fridge for a day or two before cooking. Okra is harvested during summer and fall. The next time you pass a barrel full of okra at the farmer’s market, you’ll have the confidence to bring home a bagful and create a meal that celebrates okra for what it is: a sweet, uniquely-flavored vegetable full of vitamins and minerals that just needs a little love in the kitchen to realize its full potential.