Okra has a flavor similar to eggplant with hints of asparagus and artichoke. Okra’s is a rich, sweet earthy flavor.
But if fresh Louisiana crawfish gumbo—May is the height of the American crawfish season— thickened by okra sounds too kitchen intensive, then you can still enjoy okra eaten fresh picked, raw, and whole while still immature.
Late spring is a great time to look for early, tender okra at your farm market. The peak season for okra is spring through summer. Since okra grows best in subtropical regions, in some markets it is available year-round.
Okra is an upright annual plant that grows to about 3 feet (1m) tall with a hibiscus-like flower. The okra plant produces slender, tapered, five-sided edible pods that can be red, white, or green and are sometimes called ladies fingers. The pods are eaten as a vegetable.
Okra pods range in size form 2 to 8 inches (5-20 cm) long. The pods can be smooth or slightly fuzzy in texture. Each pod contains sections of edible green or brownish seeds. Okra tastes best when the pods are harvested 2 to 4 inches (5-10 cm) long.
Okra pods contain a gummy, slippery substance that tends to become more slippery or gelatinous when cooked. It’s that mucilaginous texture that helps to thicken soups, stews, and gumbo.
Choose. Select young, tender okra pods free of bruises. Okra pods should be firm to the touch with no browning at the tips. Select brightly colored pods less than 4 inches long. Younger pods are less glutinous. (Long, gummy pods about 7 inches (16 mm) long are preferred in some parts of the United States.)
Avoid okra that is soft, shriveled, or dull colored. Large okra will tough and fibrous.
Store. Refrigerate okra in a paper bag or inside a paper towel in a perforated plastic bag for 2 to 3 days. Okra can be frozen after blanching whole for 2 minutes.
Prepare. Rinse okra in cool water before using. Rinse and drain, then slice off the top and tail if the pods are to be cooked whole. Once cooked okra can be cut into slices and used to thicken soups or ragoûts.
Trim the caps off of larger pods, but do not expose the seeds. If pods are fuzzy, remove the fuzz by rubbing the pods in a towel before you wash them.
Do not cook okra in iron, brass, tin, or copper pots; the pods will discolor.
Serve. Use okra raw or cooked. Okra can be steamed, boiled, sautéed, baked, deep-fried, braised or made into soup or cut raw into salad.
- Eat okra raw in salads. Wash the pods and clip off the ends. Soak the pods in water with a dash of lemon juice for about 30 minutes, drain, rinse, and dry.
- Serve okra cold with vinaigrette or add to a salad after a quick blanching.
- Cook okra as you would asparagus or eggplant; okra can replace those vegetables in most recipes. Substitute okra for zucchini in ratatouille.
- Use okra in soups, stews, and curries or sautéed or fried to accompany meat or poultry.
- Steam okra alone or with other vegetables or serve as a side dish. Arrange on a steamer rack, cover and steam over simmering water until tender.
- Simmer okra with eggplant, onions, and chopped ripe tomatoes.
- Boil okra in a small amount of salted water for 8 to 15 minutes or till tender. Drain, chill, and serve with vinaigrette or a dip.
- Pan-fry sliced okra rounds in olive oil over medium heat then flavor with cumin, tomato, and lemon juice.
- Deep fry okra: wash and dry pods, cut in half lengthwise, roll in salted yellow cornmeal until coated, fry vegetable oil heated to 365°F until golden brown about 3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and drain. Or dip okra pods in flour, egg, and cornmeal and deep-fry until golden brown and serve with lemon and hot sauce.
- Serve okra soup-stews over fluffy white rice to soak up juices.
- Serve okra with stewed tomatoes: add okra to hot stewed tomatoes for 8 to 10 minutes and simmer.
- Use okra in gumbo for thickening and flavor. Add diced okra to gumbo, Brunswick stew, or rice pilaf. Add about 10 minutes before the end of cooking. Okra will thicken like cornstarch.
- In India, okra–called bhindi—is used to accompany curries.
If okra is overcooked, the pods will become gluey. To cure this, add a little lemon juice to the pan and cover.
Flavor partners. Okra has a flavor affinity for chiles, corn, cornmeal, lemon, onion, rice, sweet peppers, tomato, and vinegar.
Season okra with curry, coriander, lemon, marjoram, oregano, parsley, or vinegar.
Partner okra with late summer crops such as garlic, onions, tomatoes, and sweet peppers.
Nutrition. Okra contains vitamins A and C and is a good source of potassium, magnesium, and folic acid.
Okra facts and trivia. Okra is native to tropical Africa and Asia. The West African Ashanti language word for okra is ki ngombo. After African slaves arrived in the West Indies and American South in the seventeenth century that word was shortened to gombo or gumbo. Today okra grows as far north as Virginia in the United States.
Okra has been cultivated by the Egyptians since the twelfth century. From Egypt, okra was traded around the Mediterranean and to India, Southeast Asia, and China.
Okra is commonly eaten in Africa, India, the Middle East, the West Indies, South America, and Louisiana. It is often used in Creole and Cajun cookery.
The botanical name for okra is Hibiscus esculentus (formerly Abelmoschus esculentas).