If you grew up in Illinois, you were probably like me and okra never crossed your mind–or plate. The fact is that I never laid eyes on an okra plant or ate an okra pod until my brother started growing it on his central Illinois farm. Now I pluck it off the tall beautiful flowering plants and eat it raw, stir fried, or sauteed with fresh tomatoes and sweet corn.
Although it is native to Africa, okra grows beautifully in hot, humid Midwestern summers. And it’s a perfect plant for edible landscaping as well, since it’s a member of the Hibiscus family, and puts out many showy yellow flowers throughout the summer.
A Well-Traveled Veggie
From Africa, okra traveled far and wide, becoming the bhindi in Indian curries, the bamies in Arab and Mediterranean food, and lady’s fingers in England and the English Caribbean. But long before, when it grew wild on the White Nile, it was nkurama in the Twi language of present-day Ghana. Nkurama crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade and the name became shortened to okra.
Don’t Fear the Slime
Even though okra has become a common sight at mid-summer farmers markets, it is still a vegetable that gets few raves — mainly because of the perceived slime factor. And yes, if you cook the living daylights out of it, there will be a thickening effect, which is precisely what it has been used for in soups and gumbos.
But when you get very fresh okra, and cook it lightly and quickly, there is no slickness. Millions of people all over Africa, India, the Middle East, the Caribbean, South America, and the Balkans enjoy okra cooked in many ways, and you will too.
In addition to being packed with fiber that can lower cholesterol, one cup of okra is only 33 calories, and contains lots of vitamins (A, C, K and B-complex), minerals (calcium, manganese, and magnesium), and antioxidants.
2-3 Tb vegetable oil
1 medium onion or two shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 lb fresh okra, stems cut off, and okra pods cut into ¼-½ inch pieces
1 hot pepper of any sort, minced (optional)
2-3 Tb Curry Powder or to taste
- Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until golden.
Add garlic, pepper, curry powder, and okra. Stir-fry about 5 minutes or until okra is bright green and tender-crisp. Serves 4.
The best way to enjoy healthy, seasonal produce is to buy it from your local community farmer. To locate the farmers’ market or CSA nearest you, visit www.localharvest.org.
Farm Fresh Now! is a project of The Land Connection, an educational nonprofit that preserves farmland, trains new farmers, and connects people with great locally-grown foods. This series is made possible with generous support from the Illinois Department of Agriculture.