Okra from A to Z: 26 Things to Know


What is okra? 26 interesting facts and figures about this plant known in many English-speaking countries as ladies' fingers and valued for its edible seed pods.
Okra from A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Africa or Asia? The plant going under the scientific name of Abelmoschus esculentus (belonging to the family of Malvaceae), which gives us the tasty edible pods, is of debatable origin: some say it comes from west Africa and Ethiopia while others claim that it originates from the tropical and sub-tropical areas of Asia.

Bāmiyā. Okra goes under this name in Egypt and Ethiopia, where it has been grown along the banks of the Nile starting from the XII century: from here it apparently spread throughout North Africa, to the Mediterranean basin and subsequently to India. In Egyptian cuisine, it is an essential ingredient of bamya weeka sa'idi a beef stew of okra, tomatoes, onion, chilli pepper, garlic and coriander.

Canh Chua Cá.
This is the characteristic sweet and sour Vietnamese soup made from fish and crustaceans which, in its many different versions, always requires the addition of okra (which in Vietnam is called đậu bắp).

Dhabas. in the filling stations of North India, particularly in the Punjab, a very popular dish is bhindi masala, bhindi being the name for okra, which is pan tossed with a little oil until crisp and then flavoured with garam masala (a curry spice mix), coriander, chilli pepper and onions.

Emeril Lagasse. Stewed and spiced, but also marinated in buttermilk before being fried and served with a Creole sauce, the famous bayou blast; or alternatively, okra is fried and served with shrimps or crabmeat, as in gumbo with shrimps, or with chicken and smoked sausage. These are just some of the recipes containing okra presented by Emeril Lagasse, a celebrity US chef who, in recent years, has become the number one authority on Creole and Cajun cuisine.

Frango com quiabo. Literally meaning, "chicken with okra": a typical Brazilian stew mainly to be found in the region of Minas Gerais, where it is also known as Xi com Angu.

Gumbo. In this unchallenged icon of Louisiana’s Cajun cuisine, okra appears as one of the most widely used thickeners, on a par with filé powder (sassafras) or roux (flour and butter). It is the opinion of food archaeologists that this tasty recipe dates back to the XVIII century as a variation on a stew common among the Cochtaw Indians (from the territories of what is now Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana), who used to thicken it with "kombo", today’s filé powder obtained from dried and ground sassafras leaves.

Haiti. A popular recipe on the Caribbean Island consists in cooking okra with rice and maize. Equally widespread and popular is an oxtail stew with morsels of beef and okra or a chicken-based variant with okra and djon-djon, a dried Haitian mushroom.

Igbo. The ethnic group of South East Nigeria whose word ọ́kụ̀rụ̀ would appear to have given us our current term "okra" (or "okro"). Today, the same word is also widespread in the UK, in the United States of America, in the Philippines and in the British West Indies. In Nigeria, it is the main ingredient of a stew known as ofe okwuru (Igbo), obe ila (Yoruba) and miyan kubewa (in the Hausa language) which contemplates, fish, meat and poultry (innards included), flavoured with dried shellfish, okra and other vegetables (onions, pumpkin or spinach, for example).

Joe Bastianich. In a challenge of the Italian edition of 2017 Masterchef, the chef launched the “American Cuisine” invention test: alongside the traditional crabmeat balls and chilli con carne, “Louisiana gumbo” appeared in the version with shrimps, spicy sausage and, of course, okra.

Ki ngombo. This is the term used for okra in many Bantu languages, and it is very probably the same word from which the present-day “gumbo” derives, now widespread in some areas of the USA and in the British West Indies, in its turn mingled with the Portuguese word quingombo (probably deriving from the original quillobo of East Africa).

Lady's fingers.
Just one of the many names given to okra pods in English-speaking countries (Great Britain first and foremost). In fact, the slender, delicately tapered pods recall the shape of a woman’s fingers.

Marcus Samuelsson. Just pan-tossed okra, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilli pepper and peanuts: this is how to prepare the celebrated dish of Spicy Okra as made by the chef of the Red Rooster Harlem (New York): in February 2017 the recipe was presented for the celebration of Black History Month.

Nutrition. Largely made up of water (90%), with a fair content of carbohydrates (7%) and proteins (2%), okra befriends the figure-conscious because it is low in calories (100 g add up to just 33 kcal) and fats, but at the same time it is rich in fibre, vitamins A, C and K; it is also an excellent source of folic acid, potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Oil. The ripe fresh seeds of okra are processed to extract a straw yellow-coloured oil with greenish reflections, rich in linoleic acid, with a pleasant flavour and aroma.

Pinakbet. A typical dish from the Philippines, in which okra accompanies pork, shrimp paste, egg plant, courgettes, string beans, bitter melon, onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic. It is served nice and hot with plain steamed rice.

Quality. When buying okra, choose medium-small pods because they are more tender and less stringy. Okra is generally green – make sure it is a nice bright even shade, with no blemishes or colour alterations – but on some markets it is also possible to find the red and burgundy coloured varieties. Top quality okra must be firm and springy when you handle it. Only the pods are sold on our markets but in the countries where it is grown and picked, the leaves are also consumed: they are excellent for eating raw in salads and may also be boiled or pan tossed, in the same way as spinach leaves.

Recipes. Okra and "gumbo" made their earliest appearance in American cuisine in the XIX century, in the first US recipe books compiled by high society female authors, including Mary Randolph (The Virginia Housewife, 1838) and Abby Fisher (What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, 1881).

Seeds. The dried seeds may be roasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute. In fact, when coffee imports were impeded by the American Civil War (1861), the Austin State Gazette reported that "one hectare of okra plants is able to produce sufficient seeds to replace those of fifty coffee plants, with a product that is identical to the coffee imported from Rio”.

Tea. When the pods (whole or cut into rounds) are left to infuse for one night, they make an excellent herbal brew. They are also available in a dehydrated form, in convenient individual sachets, just like tea. Its flavour is pleasingly bitter.

Uganda. In the northern territories of this East African state, okra is a very common food, in particular among the Acholi (who call it otigo iwoka), Lugbora (bamie) and Batooro (eteeke) ethnic groups: picked when the pods are still small and tender, they appear in soups typical of harvest time or as an ingredient for meat, fish or bean stews, braised with other vegetables and possibly served with millet, manioc or white polenta (posho) and sometimes eaten fried.

Vocabulary. Okra, gombo, lady's fingers, bhindi, bāmiyā; but also krajiab kheaw (Thailand); okura or kiku kimo (Japan); gambô, quibombô or quiabo in Portuguese; oh k’u ra (Korea), grønsakhibisk (Norway); bomiyon in Uzbek... It would be a massive job to list all the names for okra used throughout the world: a full list can be found here.

Wok. When cooked, okra tends to become sticky, which is why it often appears in soups and stews as a thickener (the jelly-like substance it contains actually gives a creamy consistency to recipes). If you prefer to eat it when still crisp and light, it is advisable – according to the experts – to toss it for a few minutes in a wok with oil and spices to taste (add them to the hot oil before you start to cook, not afterwards).

XVII century. Apparently, okra became widespread in the United States from the 17th century onwards, during the dark period of the African slave trade.

Yogurt. This is the essential ingredient of Gujarati bhinda ni kadhi, also known as hot creamy soup with sour yogurt and pan-tossed okra. A speciality of the state of Gujarat (West India), it is served with plain rice.

Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In these two countries of Central South Africa (as well as in South-East Botswana), where okra also goes under the name of derere, a popular dish is "delele" which is actually an all-vegetarian stew of okra served with white polenta (sadza or phaletšhe).