Okra is an iconic Louisiana crop. Used in countless local recipes, the occasionally slimy vegetable is often maligned and misunderstood by outsiders. To their detriment. Expertly prepared okra can make up some of the most delicious and characteristic dishes of the Louisiana table.
Okra by definitionEdit
Okra is a flowering plant in the mallow family, related to such commonplace crops as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus. Its scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus (trot that out at your next gumbo party). A perennial plant, okra grows around 2m tall, and puts forth flowers with five white to yellow petals. The variety commonly cultivated and eaten is thought to have originated in the Ethopian Highlands, though the date when domestication occurred is uncertain.
Food scholar Jessica Harris asserts that okra is “the one vegetable absolutely emblematic of the African presence in the New World.”
Indeed, its shape, texture and thickening abilities are predominantly associated with southern cooking, and most especially in southern Louisiana where it has been utilized for centuries to not only thicken but give a name to the state’s most iconic food: gumbo. The apocryphal story of okra’s journey to the New World is that slaves brought the seeds with them. But as Harris wryly notes, given the horrors of being abducted from one’s home and sold into slavery, it is unlikely one had time to pack even the seeds of a treasured vegetable. Instead, like breadfruit, okra was probably brought over to be cultivated as a cheap foodstuff to feed the burgeoning slave population. While okra is often savored alone, it is most renowned for its thickening abilities, specifically in gumbo.
The many names of okra include: “Lady's Fingers”, gombo, gumbo, quingombo, okro, ochro, bamia, bamie, quiabo, quibombo, gombo, bamia, bamya, bhindi, bamies. Okra, the most commonly used name for this particular plant, is derived from a word in Igbo, a Nigerian dialect. In the Bantu languages, okra is called "kingombo," and deriatives of this word make up the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French variants on such. It is called "bamiyah" in the Middle East and Bhindi in India. Okra is remarkably popular in a remarkably large number of places.
Okra in Southern cuisineEdit
Okra finds its way into a dizzying number of iconic Southern recipes. Here's a small sampling.
Okra is often used in the classic (and contentious) Southern dish of gumbo. Okra is generally used as a thickening agent, and is not often used in tandem with file powder. As with all things in Louisiana cuisine, there are exceptions to every rule. The to-add-okra or not-to-add-okra question is a perennial and deeply important one when discussing gumbo preparation.
Sliced okra is quickly deep fried, usually in a seasoned corn-meal batter.
Stewed okra recipes can take on a dizzying number of forms and variations, but most involve the slow-cooking of okra with tomatoes, onions, and spices. Some may include bacon, Cajun seasoning, red bell pepper, tomato paste, or other ingredients to the pot.
Okra can make a pleasant addition to succotash, a traditional American salad usually involving corn and tomatoes. The late, great Justin Wilson made a good one involving plenty of bacon.