Probably one of the most surprising ingredients to originate from North East Africa is okra. It is extremely popular in Caribbean, Creole, Cajun and Indian cuisine as well as in numerous African countries. Abelmoscheus esculentus belongs to the Malvaceae (Mallow) family that also includes the cacao, baobab and hibiscus to name a few. If you only learn about one new vegetable this week, okra should be it. Finding it in your local market will most likely be under the name okra but it can also be called the bhindi, lady’s finger, bamia or quimbombo in Spanish.
There are not many other vegetables that could be mistaken for the okra. The appearance is unique and quite bizarre at first glance. They really do look like slightly fuzzy green fingers. Along each row of the pod it contains seeds that release a mucilaginous (sticky, viscous) liquid when chopped and cooked.
To get the best flavour profile, okra is gathered at the green, tender and immature stage. The plant really needs warm to tropical growing conditions and each plant bears dark green pods that measure 5-15cm in length.
THE FLAVOUR PROFILE
The big question is how okra actually tastes. It is definitely not the most flavourful vegetable out there but its not bad. Okra’s flavour profile can be described as subtle and grassy. It has aspects of asparagus to it but nowhere near as strong. Clearly the attraction of okra is its unusually sticky texture.
SCIENCE OF OKRA
For anyone on a diet okra is an attractive option. Its a low a calorie vegetable that contains no saturated fats or cholesterol and is 90% water when raw. Its a rich source of dietary fibre and vitamins. Due to its highly sticky nature it is an excellent ingredient that eases constipation and helps digestion. If these were not enough reasons to use okra, it is also full of vitamin A and flavonoid anti-oxidants. Overall Okra really is an interesting addition to any diet.
HOW TO PREPARE IT?
Trimming the top stem end using a paring knife will reduce the chances of the okra splitting during cooking and releases its stickiness. Soaking the whole pods in acidulated water for an hour can also help eliminate some of their liquid. This is really up to you as we prefer to let the okra break naturally and create a sticky finish.
WHAT TO DO WITH IT?
Okra is one of the most widely used vegetables across many continents. Chopped or sliced, the vegetable can be stewed or fried under a low heat in oil then added to other ingredients like rice and meat. The pods can be pickled and preserved much the same way as other vegetables. The leaves of tender okra can be cooked like beet greens or dandelions, alternatively used raw in salads.
In Egypt a thick stew of lamb or beef with okra is very popular as well as in the Cajun gumbo. In the Caribbean, okra is cooked in soups often paired with fish as well in a range of stews like Callaloo from Trinidad and Tobago. Franco com quiabo (chicken with okra) is a favourite in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The thickening quality of okra creates some amazing dishes when combined with strong or spicy ingredients.
FLAVOUR COMBINATION SUGGESTIONS
Due to its subtle flavour profile, okra should be paired with strong and even spicy ingredients as it is rarely the predominant flavour in recipes. It combines excellently with chicken, lamb, beef, tomato, shrimps, celery, swiss chard, collard greens, coconut milk, scallops, clams, oysters and chili pepper.
- Look for crispy immature pods, avoiding okra that has discolouration, is mushy or cuts. Fortunately it is pretty easy to spot a bad okra.
- Freshly bought okra has shelf life of 1-2 days.