About Okra

Okra

Okra originated in Africa. In the sixteenth century, when African people were enslaved by the Spanish and shipped to the New World, they took with them the few things they could, including the plants and seeds from home - dried peas, yams, ackee and okra. This lantern-shaped pod containing rows of seeds oozes a sticky mucilaginous liquid when cooked, and it was popular not only for its subtle flavor but also for thickening soups and stews.

The plant thrived in the tropical climate and by the early nineteenth century, when the slave trade was finally abolished, okra was an important part of the cuisine of the Caribbean and the southern United States. In and around New Orleans, the Creoles, the American-born descendants of European-born settles, adopted a popular native American-Indian dish called gumbo. An essential quality of this famous dish was its thick gluey consistency. The Indians used file powder (the dry pounded leaves of the sassafras tree), but okra was welcomed as a more satisfactory alternative.

Gumbos are now the hallmark of Creole cooking, and in some parts of America, the worn "gumbo" is an alternative word for okra itself.

Buying and Storing : Choose young, small pods as older ones are likely to be fibrous. They should be bright green, firm and slightly springy when squeezed. Avoid any that are shriveled or bruised. They will keep for a few days in the salad drawer of the fridge.

Preparing : When cooking whole, trim the top but don't expose the seeds inside or the viscious liquid will ooze into the rest of the dish. If, however, this is what you want, slice thickly or thinly according to the recipe. If you want to eliminate some of this liquid, first soak the whole pods in acidulated water (water to which lemon juice has been added) for about an hour.

Cooking : The pods can be steamed, boiled or lightly fried, and then added to or used with other ingredients. If cooked whole, okra is not much mucilaginous but is pleasantly tender. Whether cooked whole or sliced, use garlic, ginger or chili to perk up the flavor, or cook Indian-style, with onions, tomatoes and spices.

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