What do cacao, cotton and hibiscus plants have in common? They’re all related to okra. And, for the most part, they’re held in much higher regard than their misunderstood and maligned cousin.
Okra often generates negative reactions, especially among those who have limited experiences with this versatile vegetable. I’ve seen fully grown, allegedly mature adults respond to the mere mention of the word as if I’d waved a piece of ripe roadkill under their noses. Transplanted Yankees frequently seem to carry strong prejudices against this tasty mainstay of many traditional Southern dishes.
The fact is, okra has an interesting history. Originating around present-day Ethiopia, it was a favorite food of Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen. Centuries later, the plant was brought to North America by African slaves. Thomas Jefferson, probably the closest we’ve come to having a vegetarian president, was a big fan of okra and raised the plant in his huge garden at Monticello, his home in Virginia.
Okra ranks high in nutritional value with a more significant fiber content than many other green-leafed vegetables. It also delivers important quantities of Vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium, antioxidants and folates (particularly important for pregnant women), and, with its low caloric content and cholesterol-free nature, is a perfect food for weight loss efforts.
For many cooks, okra is the equal opportunity vegetable of choice. It can be fried, stewed, boiled, grilled, baked, or eaten raw — and is especially renowned for its prominent role in gumbo. I’ve read there’s a contingent of okra devotees who make a passable “coffee” substitute from the roasted seeds (a practice dating back to Civil War days when Union blockades made coffee unavailable in the Confederacy). Any respectable cookbook for Southern food will include several okra recipes.
So why the anti-okra sentiment? Probably due to two reasons: the “itch factor” and the “slime factor.”
Picking okra causes a serious itch for most people. Tiny, almost invisible, spines cover the stalks, leaves and pods of okra plants, irritating bare skin and leaving a mild burning sensation. Soap and warm water usually relieve the condition, but the best bet is to wear long sleeves and gloves when picking okra. Some varieties are said to be “spineless,” but be wary; that claim may apply only to the pods and not the rest of the plant.
As for the “slime” issue, okra is a mucilaginous plant — meaning it secretes a moist and sticky substance when overcooked. Some close-minded individuals are bothered by this. The secret is to find the right recipe. Okra can be sliced and sautéed in a very hot pan or added to soups and stews where the mucilage acts as a natural thickening agent. Or it can be grilled (see below).
Because it favors long, hot summers, okra is a perfect vegetable for the Natural State. Though it isn’t planting season now, if you want to plant some next spring, just follow the instructions on the seed packet, but here’s a quick refresher: Wait until two weeks after the last chance for frost before planting (soil temperature should be at least 62 degrees); soak seeds overnight; site needs to have good soil, be in full sun and well-drained; plant seeds 1 inch deep and every 6 inches in rows that are 3 feet apart; seedlings will emerge in about a week; after plants are 4 inches feet tall, thin to one plant every 12-18 inches; water regularly.
As for me, I prefer my okra grilled. Here’s how you can enjoy this delightful dish.
Buy two dozen fresh pods (2 to 4 inches in length; longer ones are likely to be too woody and fibrous). Wash pods and pat dry. Coat lightly with extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with seasoned salt and a touch of ground cayenne pepper or paprika. Grill over medium-hot coals for 8-10 minutes, turning once.
This quick and easy recipe will convert even the most reluctant taste buds.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.