Sunday, September 30, 2012
[First published in the Brazos Valley Farmers' Market newsletter, September 15, 2012. The prose in The Lost Crops of Africa is sublime.]
A member of the mallow family, okra, inspires a perhaps muted allegience from vegetable lovers, and usually general disdain from vegetable nonlovers; however, it redeems itself in its potential for an astonishing array of uses beyond soups and stews: from its seeds can be extracted an oil comparable to olive oil or be processed into a protein source, and the stems and leaves could be animal feed.
But its uses don’t stop with edible products: the mucilage offers benefits of laxatives (owing to the soluble fat, and ranking with psyllium and flaxseed); the gums and pectin can lower serum cholesterol, and can be used as a substitute for aloe vera. Like its relative, kenaf, fibers from okra can be fashioned into high-quality paper. Jokingly, it has been said, “okra: a vegetable so slimy you don’t notice how hairy it is.” Indeed, the Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables leads off its surprisingly entertaining chapter on okra on a 1974 survey of least-liked vegetables.
In African dialects, the word for okra sounds similar to gumbo (http://africhef.com/Okra-Recipes.html), and indeed, it is regarded with reference in New Orleans, where it forms the basis of signature dishes, such as…gumbo.
Published by the National Academies Press, Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables offers a transcendent literary homage to okra. The sheer delightfulness of the language in this scientific volume will bring a smile to even the most mucilage-averse persons. For instance—
“In reality okra could have a future that will make people puzzle over why earlier generations failed to seize the opportunity before their eyes. In the Botanical Kingdom it may actually be a Cinderella, though still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn.” (National Research Council (2006-10-27). "Okra". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Lost Crops of Africa. 2. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6)
“In America, where it appears almost exclusively in stews and soups, okra is usually seen in cross section, cut into disks that look like little cartwheels with a seed nestled between each pair of spokes. Okra is also the key ingredient in gumbo, the famous dish of the American South.”
A study in robustness, okra grows easily in tropical, subtropical, and temperate climates, but can adapt to dry climates also.
Okra and tomatoes
Southern Living’s 10 best okra recipes