A Guide To Okra

One of the most integral pieces of produce in the Southern pantheon, okra has popped up on everyday menus from Texas to Virginia for generations. Recently, Southern food has seen a rise in popularity all over North America, so naturally, interest in Okra has skyrocketed. If you’re unfamiliar with the little green pod, you may be asking yourself “what’s the big deal with okra?” Follow along as we explore the history of okra and share some tips and tricks to make sure you make the most of okra’s unique texture and malleable flavor.

History

The true history of okra is contested, but there is evidence of Egyptian culture importing it as early as the 12th century. Importantly, America was first exposed to the plant through the slave trade in the early 1700’s, where it slowly grew in popularity until everyone from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington was farming it. That means that the plant, lovingly nicknamed “lady fingers,” has held an important place in American cuisine since the country’s inception.  

  • Fun Fact: Okra is native to both Africa and India, so it will often pop up in Indian dishes like Bhindi Masala!

Selecting & Storing

In line with other fruits and vegetables, properly selecting and storing your okra has a big effect on your finished product. To choose the best product, look for crisp, brilliantly colored pods that are shorter in length. Additionally, avoid any okra that has clear bruises and blemishes or ones that feel overly soft. When it comes to storing, wrap up your okra in a paper towel before placing in the fridge, as this will help soak up any excess moisture that can shorten the shelf life. If placed in a plastic bag with a bit of airflow, expect your product to last about 3 days in the fridge before spoiling.

  • Pro Tip: Concerned that your okra is overripe? Give it a feel! If the exterior feels particularly sticky, it’s most likely overripe. 

Cooking

Okra is a fairly versatile veggie, so it will hold up in most cooking methods. Traditionally, stewing or frying your okra are the most popular methods, but it can be baked, grilled, or stir-fried! It’s important to note that okra exudes a viscous liquid when cooked, which makes it the perfect thickening agent for stews, gumbos, and sauces. There are a few ways to rid yourself of the liquid if your so desire; for best results, only wash your okra until immediately before serving, pat dry before adding to the pan, and cook it at high heat for a decent amount of time to allow the liquid to  evaporate.

Pairing Ingredients

When taken on its own, okra has a mild, grassy flavor that many compare to eggplant, but it can become much richer when paired with bold flavors. As you’d expect, southern favorites like cayenne pepper, shrimp, andouille sausage, and cumin are all excellent options, but standard-bearer veggies like onion, garlic, and tomatoes can easily fit into many different dishes. 

  • Pro Tip: Looking for ingredients that can help cut down on okra’s “slime?” Try adding fresh citrus juice when cooking.