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