Although okra is consumed throughout the South, it is predominantly associated with South Louisiana, where it is used as a thickener for gumbo.
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a tall, tropical, flowering herb that thrives in Louisiana’s extreme summer heat; it is cultivated for its edible fibrous, mucilaginous seed pod. A member of the mallow family, the vegetable is related to cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus. Okra was brought to the French West Indies along with slaves from West Africa; from there it went to New Orleans. Although okra is consumed throughout the South, it is predominantly associated with south Louisiana, where it is used as a thickener for gumbo. In Louisiana, okra is considered a specialty crop and is a widely planted summer vegetable for home gardeners.
It is believed that okra originated in present-day Ethiopia. The plant was cultivated by ancient Egyptians around the twelfth century BCE. Mention of it first appears in a letter by a traveler to Egypt in the year 1216. From the Upper Nile, okra spread throughout North Africa and then to the Mediterranean, Asia, India, and the Caribbean.
In ancient civilizations, the seed pods of okra were consumed cooked, dried, or ground into flour. Because the entire plant is edible, leaves were also eaten cooked or raw. In many places, the seeds were toasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute. Many of these practices continue today.
Okra has long been considered a food of the poor; in some countries with few other options, the seeds are pressed into an edible oil. Internationally, the vegetable has come to be known by many names, including bamia or bamya (western Asia), quiabo (Brazil), jiao dou (China), bhindi (India), and kacang bendi (Malaysia). The English term okra comes from the Igbo language of Nigeria, where the plant is called okwuru–which became ochra and okra. The word okra was in use in English in the eighteenth century. In many English-speaking countries, okra is also known as “lady’s fingers.”
A few classic okra dishes outside Louisiana are Trinidad’s callaloo soup, Nigeria’s okra soup, Brazil’s caruru stew, and Charleston, South Carolina’s okra pilau (Limping Susan).
Okra Comes to the Americas
Okra came to the Americas with the transatlantic slave trade and was initially used to feed enslaved Africans. For slaves, okra was not only a familiar food but also a common link to their African heritage.
The first record of the vegetable in the West was in Brazil in 1658. In the 1700s the plant came to New Orleans, likely from the Caribbean. By 1748 okra was growing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in 1781 Thomas Jefferson wrote that it was growing in Virginia. The first written record of okra growing in Louisiana’s southwest Acadian parishes dates to 1804.
Louisiana’s plantation owners generally did not grow okra as a commercial crop. In antebellum New Orleans, okra sold in markets mostly came from the rural farmers of what was known as the German Coast on the east side of the Mississippi River.
During the Civil War, when Union blockades made imported staples scarce, Southerners took up a practice they had learned from their slaves and ground dried okra seeds to make a coffee substitute they called “ambrette.” (True ambrette is a weedy shrub native to India; this tropical plant is valued for its fragrant seeds and is closely related to okra.)
The Gumbo Connection
In New Orleans, the French Creole/Louisiana word gumbo is derived from “ki ngmobo,” the word for okra in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa. Therefore, in early years, and even in some places today, the word gumbo could refer to both the thick, complex soup known as gumbo and to the vegetable okra.
As an example, an English visitor named Fortescue Cuming dined in Baton Rouge in the early 1800s and wrote: “The table was well covered with different dishes, and a variety of vegetables, among which the most conspicuous, was a large dish of gumbo … made by boiling ocroc [okra] until it is tender, and seasoning it with a little bit of fat bacon … it is a standing dish among the French Creoles.”
In 1803 C. C. Robin, a traveler to the Acadian parishes, wrote about gumbo as a soup. New Orleans’s Lafcadio Hearn, in his Creole Cook Book (1885), highlights this common interchangeability with a recipe for stewed okra titled “A Nice Way to Cook Okra or Gombo.” Hearn also includes a recipe for the soup gumbo called “Simple Okra Gombo.”
In addition to consuming okra dried and ground, slaves also ate it cooked with rice and called this dish ya ya. This stew was an important progenitor of gumbo, which was created in Louisiana in the 1700s. Eventually, okra became an important ingredient in today’s soup known as gumbo by optionally replacing the Choctaw spice filé, the soup’s original thickener.
Modern Use of Okra
Although grown throughout the state, okra is not considered a large commercial crop in Louisiana; however, during the summer, fresh okra can be found in local farmers markets, at roadside stands, and in grocery stores. It is available frozen, pickled, and canned year-round.
Okra is abundant during Louisiana’s hot summers, and it grows so fast that it can usually be harvested daily. Pods are best picked before completely ripe, when they’re about four inches long; any larger and they will be too tough and fibrous. In late summer, tall plants can be cut off about a foot above the ground, and they will sprout again to make a second crop.
Throughout the South, fresh okra is traditionally boiled whole with vinegar or on top of beans; cooked sliced and stewed with tomato and onion; coated with cornmeal and deep fried; or made into succotash with corn and tomatoes. Most cooks sauté okra before adding it to gumbos to reduce the vegetable’s “sliminess” caused by mucilage, the gelatinous substance crucial for thickening soups and stews but which can sometimes be too ropey.
The Louisiana State University Agricultural Center’s recommended varieties for Louisiana are the open-pollinated cultivars Clemson Spineless, Louisiana Green Velvet, Emerald, and Gold Coast (available mostly in the New Orleans area), and the hybrids Annie Oakley II, Green’s Best, and Cajun Delight.