Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Making the Case for Okra

Credit: Langdon Clay
One of the many iconic ingredients in Southern cooking is okra. While okra is available year-round in the South, summertime is when the rest of the country can find it in season. In a recent TIME article, Health & Family reporter Alexandra Sifferlin makes the case for okra and explains its global popularity.
[B]ecause it is relatively simple to grow in warm climates, okra is becoming popular in north and south China. ‘It was the preferred vegetable for the Olympic athletes of the Beijing Olympic Games,’ says Kantha Shelke, a food scientist at Corvus Blue LLC and spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). . . . While okra is a popular staple in some international cuisines, Americans are still warming up to the vegetable. According to Shelke, who studies food trends, okra chips are gaining popularity in the appetizer menus of Indian and vegetarian restaurants.
In THE SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE COMMUNITY COOKBOOK, Vishwesh Bhatt of Oxford, Mississippi explains that okra is popular in India and offers a recipe for a dish that is both Indian and Southern.

Sifferlin also shares the health properties and benefits of adding okra to your diet.
‘The fruit and the young leaves of the plant have a wide range of medicinal values and have been used historically to treat many diseases,’ says Shelke. Studies have linked some of okra’s carbohydrates to a range of physiologic effects, including. . . . Protecting brain neurons: ‘Okra is popularly consumed by young students in the Middle East, Far East and South East Asia, where people believe that okra is good for brain function,’ says Shelke.
Okra is not native to the United States and was introduced from Africa via the slave trade. In her book VIBRATION COOKING, Vertamame Smart-Grosvenor refers to okra as "so-called okra", since it goes by a different name in Africa.
If you are wondering how come I say so-called okra it is because the African name of okra is gombo. Just like so-called Negroes. We are Africans. Negroes only started when they got here. I am a black woman. I am tired of people calling me out of my name. Okra must be sick of that mess too. So from now on call it like it is. Okra will be referred to in this book as gombo. Corn will be called maize and Negroes will be referred to as black people.
Smart-Grosvenor offers three simple recipes in her book for preparing "so-called okra" or "gombo." For fried gombos:
"Wash and dry the gombos and sprinkle with corn meal, salt and pepper and fry in peanut oil. You may need to sprinkle with salt again after they are fried."

One of the most popular ways to eat okra—particularly in the South—is pickled okra. According to Susan Puckett in her book, EAT DRINK DELTA, "Deltans can't seem to get enough of the stuff—especially in Cleveland, where there's even a sports bar called the Pickled Okra." To cure "okraphobia," Puckett offers three recipes guaranteed to turn anyone into an okra lover: Blue Levee Fried Okra, Bolivar County Okra Pilaf, and Cleveland Farmers Market Pickled Okra (recipe below).

Whether you prefer crunchy, fried, pickled, boiled, or sautéed, there is sure to be a recipe out there to help you create the perfect okra dish. Need inspiration? Be sure to check out one of the above-mentioned cookbooks for more recipes and ideas.