This small green pod tells the history of Africans in diaspora
This small green pod tells the history of Africans in diaspora, and the love/hate relationship that most of the U.S. has with it reflects that history. In the South, where enslavement lasted longer than other parts of the country, and where the climate felt most familiar to Africans and their descendants, okra is revered and treated with the respect it so richly deserves. Globally, it shows up the caruru of northeastern Brazil and in the callaloo and coocoo of the Caribbean. In the United States, it becomes the thickener in the soups and pilaus of the Carolina Low Country, and it is served up crisp and fried across much of Mississippi. It’s an ingredient in Southern succotashes and reigns supreme in many of the gumbos of New Orleans and South Louisiana. Southerners just seem to know (or have learned from African Americans) how to savor the slippery juice that the tender pods exude when they are cut.
Wherever okra points its green tip, Africa has been, and the trail of trade evidenced by the presence of the pod is formidable. It turns up in the cooking of North Africa and the Middle East where it is known as bamia or bamya. It is savored curried in India where it is called or bhindi in Hindi and lady’s fingers by those of a more colonial persuasion. It’s known as fiao dou in Chinese and kachang bendi in Malay. Spain takes its word for the pod from the Bantu languages of Central Africa and calls it quingombo or ginbombo, and the Brazilian variant quiabo seems to derive from the same origins. Our American use of the word okra comes from the Igbo language of Nigeria where the plant is referred to as okuru. It is the French word for okra that takes us to the heart of the matter in Louisiana, because it also harkens back to the Bantu languages but simply uses the final two syllables — gombo.
Okra has a long history. Botanists debate its exact region of origin. Once considered to be indigenous to tropical western Africa, it is now thought to have originated in northeastern African where wild okra has been found in the Upper Nile Valley. Although it has clearly been cultivated in Egypt for centuries, its origins continue to remain a mystery. There seem to be no representations of it in Egyptian tomb paintings, and texts citing it only go back to the 13th century. (It first appears in a letter written by a traveler from Moorish Spain in Egypt in 1216.)
Okra probably was first introduced into the continental United States via Louisiana. R.W. Schery in Plants for Man (Prentice Hall, 1952) postulated that okra was brought to the New World by the French in the 1700s. Others suggest the Portuguese introduced it to the New World and place its arrival in the 16th century. Whoever it responsible for the pod’s presence in the Western Hemisphere, by 1748 it is verifiably being used in Philadelphia. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson commented on it growing in Virginia, and we now know that it was certainly grown in the slave gardens of Monticello. (It also appeared on the master’s table if we are to trust the Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, who included a recipe for “Gumbs: A West India Dish.” By 1806 the plant was relatively widespread and botanists spoke of several different varieties of the plant.
Okra is one of the plants indigenous to the African continent that was brought over the Atlantic to feed enslaved Africans. Okra delivers a generalized African taste fo the mucilaginous that is also found throughout Africa in the use of “slippery” vegetables such as melloukiah (a leafy green that is cooked into a slick stew and savored in Egypt and North Africa), and in the creolized world in the use of xilo, a prickly and slimy Brazilian vegetable.
One of the reasons for okra’s popularity is that it can be used both fresh, when young and tender, and also dried and preserved for future use. It is also relatively high in nutritional value — rich in calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron (who knew!). It is also easy to digest, mildly laxative, and has emollient properties. Dried okra can be found as far afield as the bazaars of the Middle East and the homes of the Gullah in the Atlantic coastal Low Country of the South where the pods are dried and strung with shrimp heads, garland-like, to provide seasoning and thickening for roux-less gumbos and soups. In antebellum South Carolina, okra seeds were dried by the enslaved and used as a substitute for coffee (a practice that was adopted by their owners during the privations of the Civil War).
Okra’s lack of respect in the culinary world (I call it the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables!) is due to its propensity toward ooze. Like the Africans and their descendants who came to revere it in almost totemic capacity, okra does not behave. It is tricky. It cannot be tamed into submission by the cook who does not know how to use it properly. It is for this reason that a is not often found in wide usage outside of areas where black hands turned the wooden spoons in the cooking pots.
The distaste for okra is all about the sticky substance that vegetable exudes when cut. The more it’s cut; the more it‘s sticky. Some dishes in Brazil and on the African continent make a point of releasing much of the ooze as possible, resulting in thick glue-like sheets of almost elastic consistency. In Louisiana folks understand that the beauty of okra is its “slime.” The prodigious thickening properties of the vegetable mean that it can take a thin watery soup and transform it into a substantial one. Those who are hellbent on defying okra’s natural propensity toward ooze can fry it, as they do in much of the South, or blanch young tender pods and serve them in a salad with a light vinaigrette as they do in parts of Brazil. It is said that a squeeze of lemon juice or a bit of vinegar in the cooking water will cut down the stick, but I say let’s stop fighting these mucilaginous qualities. Let okra do its own magnificent thing. After all, it’s only doing what comes naturally.