I have a love affair with okra. First and foremost, I like to eat it. It’s delicious stewed, fried, grilled, or thrown in a soup pot. And oh my - a spear of pickled okra?! It might just be the best pickle - a sweet tangy slime explosion in your mouth, en route to a bloody mary which is an occasion of its own. The way I most often eat okra is something like this recipe - thrown in a very hot oven, and roasted till browned, with some crispy bits too. Other than eating the furry and tender fruit directly off the stalk, roasting okra seems like the quickest way to get from pod to plate. If you’re an okra skeptic, hot-roasting might be the method for you - it usually rids oka of its sliminess which seems like the polarizing characteristic of this well-meaning vegetable. If you have an air-fryer (which I do not), it seems like a well-suited tool to cook your okra.
I also have an affinity for surrounding myself with okra in the decorative sense - an impulse that may have started with this ladyfingers photo taken back in 2015. I’ve made Christmas ornaments from dried okra, wreaths, and garlands. My friends anointed me with a silver dried okra collar at my bachelorette party. I’ve braved spooky abandoned okra fields to harvest armfuls of the dry, rattly stalks, with a distressed selfie to prove it. On the month of my wedding, my sister gifted me this sweet okra necklace, and then we spent time spray painting and glittering the dried pods… wedding decorations, of course.
If you don’t want to shabby chic your home with dried pods, or if you just can’t get over the slime factor, let me present you with a few other reasons to at least appreciate the pod:
IT CAN RID WATERWAYS OF MICROPLASTICS
This spring, Texas Monthly published a piece outlining research happening at Tarleton University in Stephenville by Rajani Srinivasan in which polysaccharides (a type of carbohydrate) from okra (as well as from tamarind and fenugreek) were used to produce flocculants - agents that help particles flocculate (ha)... or aggregate…or become ‘floc like’. Once all floc-ed up, these particles are more easily removed from water - technology which can help treat stormwater, wastewater, or purify drinking water. The research happening at Tarleton is specifically aimed to help remove microplastics from water sources. Srinivasan’s lab found that equal parts okra and tamarind extracts worked best for fresh water, while okra and fenugreek worked best for ocean water.
IT IS MORE THAN YOU THINK
Beyond microplastic removal, okra’s uses are plenty. Caffeine-free coffee alternatives are made with roasted okra seeds, and scientists are studying okra slime as a means to make biodegradable food packaging. The fiber is useful, too. Okra, in the mallow family and related to hibiscus and cotton, are small seed pods harvested from a large, stalky plant. There are lots of studies testing okra’s application as a natural, plant-based source of fiber. Its rigidity means that it’s often blended with another fiber source, like cotton or polyester. Here is a study talking about okra yarn, and here are some natural okra fiber scrubby pads that you can buy on Amazon. Look out, loofah.
The earliest known evidence of okra cultivation comes from Ethiopia. Egyptian cultivation of the crop was common by the 12th century B.C., and okra became a prevalent crop in North Africa and the Middle East where the plant could stand up to the hot temperatures. Okra arrived in the United States with enslaved West Africans, brought as food for enslaved people to eat along the passage. Once landed, many of the enslaved planted and cultivated okra in small gardens as a means to supplement the meager rations provided by slave owners. Okra, therefore, became an important source of sustenance, as well as culinary tradition, for many slaves in the Southern United States. Like history itself, the use and popularity of okra expanded and evolved with time. The tropical plant grows well in hot summers and has become a cornerstone of Southern food traditions. Prepare your okra with a healthy dose of introspection and celebration of Black cooking traditions and its impact on Southern foodways.
Gumbo: The word gumbo is actually a derivative of a West African word for okra, and in many Créole gumbo recipes, okra is the main ingredient used to thicken the stew. If you ask us, it’s a bit hot for gumbo at the moment, but okra freeze well. Chop, blanch, and prepare for fall’s first cold front. I ceremoniously have a Coca-Cola with my first gumbo of the season, and you’re welcome to adopt that tradition as well.
IT’S GOOD FOR YOUR GUT
All vegetables contain fiber, and okra’s no exception. But okra’s benefit towards gut health goes beyond just fiber. The mucilaginous (or slimy) characteristic of okra helps it coat the digestive system, perhaps helping to remove some toxins from the body. Like cactus, some folks swear by drinking okra water to achieve this very effect. I’d personally prefer a preserved lemon, okra, and tomato salad, but okra how you must.
Charred Okra With Tomato, Garlic, and Preserved Lemon
This method of cooking with tomato, onion, and garlic is popular in Jerusalem, writes “Jerusalem” author Yotam Ottolenghi, and it’s a good way to combine two summer vegetables. Try to get smaller okra from Middle Eastern or Asian markets so they are more tender, he says.
2 cups baby or very small okra
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons preserved lemon skin, cut into thin slices
3 small tomatoes, cut into wedges or halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Maldon sea salt and black pepper
1. Trim the okra, cutting stems just above the pod so as to not expose the seeds. Heat a large, heavy-bottom skillet or frying pan over high heat and let it get scorching hot.
2. Without adding any oil to the pan, place half of the okra in the skillet and dry cook, shaking the pan occasionally, for 4 minutes. The okra pods should have the occasional dark blister. Repeat with remaining okra.
3. Return all the charred okra to the pan, add the olive oil, garlic and preserved lemon. Cook for 2 minutes, shaking the pan. Reduce the heat and then add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of water, chopped herbs, lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt and some black pepper.
4. Gently stir so the tomatoes don’t break apart, and continue cooking for 2 to 3 minutes, so that the tomatoes warm through. Transfer to serving dish. Drizzle with more olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.
Serves 4 to 6.
— Adapted from “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi for The Austin American Statesman