Okra: Ladies’ Fingers of the South

I actually can’t remember not liking okra, even as a kid who really wasn’t all that fond of many vegetables. It mattered not to me if it was stewed with or without tomatoes, or breaded and fried. I really liked okra just about any way it was prepared. And to this day I still do. 

Being lucky enough to have a wife who loves gardening and also shares my love of okra, she grows it almost every year. In years past, the plants grew only about five or six feet tall and were somewhat spindly. But this year was totally different. The plants grew to over eight feet tall, were extremely bushy but didn’t make a single flower and therefore produced no okra. That is until about the last week of August when the plants seemed to suddenly realize they were supposed to produce fruit. So they did! Seemingly to make up for the slow start, they began producing a plethora of new flowers every day and within a week we were getting more okra than we ever imagined. It  grew so fast that we were having to harvest every two or three days. In fact, we had so much okra we were giving it away to just about anyone who would take it. Even then, we were constantly trying new okra recipes in an effort to utilize as much of those delicious pods as possible—pickling it, cooking it with fresh tomatoes, freezing it, frying it, making fritters, and more.

Okra (Hibiscus esculentus) is a member of the Mallow family, therefore related to hollyhock and to cotton. A tall heat loving tropical annual, okra is cultivated primarily for its edible seed pods which can vary in color from green to red, depending on the variety. It has large heart-shaped leaves and yellow to cream colored, hibiscus-like flowers that open only for one day before becoming a three-inch to ten-inch long tapered seed pod, within 24 to 48 hours. It is these pods that are used as a vegetable. 

Ideally picked when only three to six inches in length in order to preserve its tender texture and sweet flavor, okra pods if allowed to fully develop, can grow to over ten-inches long becoming woody and totally inedible. Young okra leaves can also be used in salads or prepared like any other greens. 

Okra, or ladies’ fingers as the pods are sometimes referred to because of their long, tapered, finger-like shape, is thought by many historians to have originated in east Africa. It was cultivated as early as the 12th century BC in and around Ethiopia, including portions of Eritrea, and Egypt. From there it traveled eastward to Arabia and other Mediterranean countries, including India. By the year 2,000 BC okra has spread throughout western and southern Africa by way of the Bantu tribes fleeing Egypt. In fact, West African slaves brought to America referred to okra as “ngombo,” the Bantu word for gumbo. That name (among others) stuck with deep Southerners for many years but today gumbo is a dish in which okra is an ingredient. The word “okra,” first came to be used in 1679 in the Virginia Colony, also came from West Africans, a derivative of their word “nkruma.”

One of the earliest accounts of okra being used as a foodstuff is by Spanish Moors traveling through Egypt in 1216. They described the Egyptians cultivating okra and incorporating the young pods into their meals.

Okra arrived in the Southern United States by way of the Caribbean at the beginning of the slave trade in the 1500s. Like rice, okra was one of the few crop seeds slaves were able to smuggle from their West African homes. It’s recorded that seeds of these and other seeds and grains were braided into the the hair of children in order to ensure they had familiar sustenance in the new and unknown land to which they were headed. And other stories about slaves making the treacherous voyage to America with okra seeds hidden in their ears. 

While slow to gain popularity in much of the country it was quickly accepted by Louisiana’s French colonists where they used it extensively in soups and stews. By 1748 okra was being grown as far north as Philadelphia and in 1781 Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president proclaimed it a well know crop in Virginia. Jefferson, proud of the okra he grew at his home in Monticello, described himself as a “very old man but a very young gardener.” By 1806 there were several known varieties of okra being grown in the American South.

Okra is one of those foods that you either like or don’t like. Those with an aversion to okra are turned off by its sliminess—the glutinous substance known as mucilage that develops when cooked. But it’s this characteristic gooeyness that’s also one of okra’s beneficial traits. Not only can it thicken soups, stews, and sauces, it’s also high in fiber, one of okras numerous health assets. Other health benefits include low fats and calories, high in vitamins C and K, minerals such as iron and potassium and antioxidants. This superfood is also thought to contain properties that may benefit pregnant women, heart health and cholesterol and blood sugar control.

In addition to being used in many popular culinary dishes, okra seeds have been roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. Okra and its parts have also been used to produce a number commercial applications—cooking oils, biofuel, strengthen polymer composites, treating waste water, and biodegradable food packaging. 

If you’re an okra eater, chances are you’ve had the Clemson Spineless variety, since its meaty, dark green, slightly grooved pods account for about 90% of all commercially grown okra. Clemson pods are full flavored and can be prepared in any way you care to make them, from stewed to fried, roasted to sautéed. For you gardeners in the audience, this variety is easy to grow and an excellent producer, developing in about 55 days and ready to  harvest four days after flowering.

Another excellent variety for your garden is Louisiana Green Velvet. Although a bit more picky, taking about two months to mature, this heirloom plant is very popular in the state for which it is named. Delicious fried or in gumbo. 

Have you ever seen red okra? Many people don’t know red okra exists, since when it’s cooked it turns green just like any other. To retain its unique aesthetic appeal red okra must be served raw or pickled. There are several varieties of red okra—Red Burgundy, Little Lucy, Hill Country Red, Aunt Hettie’s Red, and Red Velvet. Red okra can be prepared in any way that green varieties can be. And their taste is indiscernible from that of green okra.

So there you have it. Some facts and other information about one of my absolute favorite fruits. Oh, didn’t I mention that okra is actually a fruit that we eat as a vegetable? Because it develops from the ovary of the flower and contains seeds needed to reproduce, it is technically a fruit, as are string beans, peas, squash, eggplant, avocados, tomatoes, and bell peppers.

And for you culinary adventurers, I have included this popular New Orleans dish for your cooking pleasure:

Okra & Tomatoes with Gulf Shrimp

Serves 6 people

Whatcha Need:
1-1/2 pounds large (15-20 size) raw shrimp, peeled & deveined
4-1/2 teaspoons Louisiana Cajun Seasoning, divided
9 slices hickory smoked bacon, chopped
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups diced fresh or frozen okra
1-1/2 cups diced Roma tomatoes, seeded
1-1/2 cup Louisiana Salsa, medium
12 ounces clam juice
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
3 green onions, thinly sliced
3 cups cooked rice

Whatcha Do:

  1. In a large bowl, put shrimp and 2-1/4 teaspoons Cajan seasoning and toss to ensure all shrimp are coated. Set aside.
  2. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until browned and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon to paper towels to drain. Add flour to bacon drippings and cook, stirring constantly, until roux is dark brown, 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to burn.
  3. Add okra, salsa, and diced tomatoes and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add clam juice and cook, stirring often, until thickened. Add shrimp and cook an additional 5 minutes or until just opaque. Stir in parsley, geen onions, and cooked bacon. 
  4. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice.
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Yam or Sweet Potato?

My momma, like so many other Southern homemakers, made wonderful sweet potato pies. So good in fact, that I was in my teens before I knew that her pumpkin pies (one of my favorites) was actually made with sweet potatoes, not pumpkin. Later on for whatever the reason, she actually made pumpkin pies, and they were pretty damn good but I still liked the sweet potato version best.

The one thing my momma did not make was “yam” pies. In fact, I was a young man just entering the culinary world before I heard anyone use the word yam. Perhaps that was because we were pretty much country folks from Southeastern Oklahoma and not too savvy when it came to fancy culinary terms. I distinctly recall the first time I heard the word because the chef I was working under at the time used it when referring to a sweet potato dish we were preparing. That lead to a verbal altercation between him and our well-traveled Spanish sous we called Manny, who told him they were sweet potatoes, not yams. And as it turned out, Manny was right.

Did you know there’s a difference in yams and sweet potatoes? Well, there definitely is.

Yams

As it turns out almost all reddish-orange fleshed tubers eaten in the good ole’ US of A are sweet potatoes—not yams. In fact you nor anyone you know has likely ever seen a yam, much less eaten one.

Yams are monocots a member of the Dioscoreacea family, closely related to lillies and grasses. They are native primarily to Africa and Asia, although there are a few varieties grown in South America. There are over 600 known yam varieties with 95% of them from Africa. Yam tubers can grow to almost five feet in length and weigh up to 130 pounds. Even the word “yam” derives from the West African word “Unami,” “yam,” or “enzyme,” which means “to eat.” 

Yams have a thick, rough, scaly skin which is hard to peel. Their skin color may vary from dark brown to light pink. The vegetable’s meat can also vary in color from white to yellow, purple to pink. Yams have a mild earthy taste although drier and starchier than sweet potatoes, whose taste, as the name implies, is much sweeter. 

Sweet Potatoes 

The sweet potato on the other hand belongs to the morning glory family, Convolvulacea. And while its large, starchy, sweet tasting tuber is the popular prize, its young leaves and shoots are also edible. The long, tapered root has a smooth skin ranging in color from brown to yellow, to red, white, and purple. Its flesh can also be light beige to yellow, red-orange, orange, and purple, although the orange fleshed varieties Jewel and Beauregard are the most popular in this country.

Thought to have originated in Central or South America, the sweet potato was domesticated in the Americas more than 5,000 years ago. In Peru sweet potato remains have been found that date back to 8000 BC.

However, in the 1700s Captain Cook while on his exploration of the Polynesian islands  some 4,000 miles from South America discovered sweet potatoes being grown there. Later European explorers also discovered them throughout the Pacific from Hawaii to New Guinea. This brought up a question still unanswered today. How did the sweet potato get from South America to those Pacific islands?

The fact is, sweet potato ranks sixth as the world’s most valuable crops, after rice, wheat, potatoes, maize, and cassava. And it provides more nutrients per acre than any other staple. As it turns out sweet potatoes have helped sustain humans for centuries. There are about 6,500 sweet potato varieties cultivated in almost every major country in the world, including Australia, China, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, and of course North and South America. The exception is Europe, which is not a big fan.

And while sweet potatoes are grown mostly for use as food, many people grow them for their beautiful ornamental value.

But how did the term “yam” become so synonymous with sweet potatoes in this country? Well it seems that a Louisiana researcher by the name of Julian Miller developed a new variety of sweet potato with creamier, less stringy flesh and a more tender skin. It was also higher in vitamin A that traditional sweet potatoes. As a marketing ploy to distinguish their new product, the Louisiana sweet potato industry used the term “yam.” This was undoubtably a successful campaign as the term has stuck in the minds of the American public. So much so that the USDA now requires the words “sweet potatoes” to be incorporated on all domestic yam labels in an effort to clear up the confusion.

Sweet potatoes have been an important part of the U.S. diet from its beginning, especially in the Southeastern part of the country. The per capita consumption of sweet potatoes was about 30 pounds prior to 1920, but due to our societies growing affluence and its connotation as a poor man’s food, consumption has dropped to about 4 pounds today.

In spite of its Latin origin, China is the world’s producer and consumer of the sweet potato, growing about 90 million tons annually. In our country, about 39% of sweet potato production comes from North Carolina, followed by California at 23%, Louisiana at 16% and Mississippi’s 19%.

Now that you know a little about the world of sweet potatoes and how nutritious they are, I hope you’ll enjoy one with your next steak instead of the same ole’ mundane russet potato you normally have.