The origin of okra is, believe or not, a matter of intense debate. Okra is as popular in South Asia as it is in West Africa, as it is in East Africa. That being said, there is little to no dispute that it was brought to North America by enslaved Africans and worked its way into Southern cooking. Okra is most abundant in the middle of summer, which is why I can find it in most grocery stores right now. Once summer is past, I'll have to drive farther and rely on H-Mart.
Okra grows best in hot and humid climates and the plants can grow up to 6 feet or taller. Seeds are soaked overnight before planting and once planted need lots of water and sunshine. I can say from experience that okra is one of the easiest, least fussy vegetables to grow and a healthy plant can yield a bounty of pods and beautiful flowers. Pods have to be harvested when young or they get too woody to eat. There are many varietals of okra, and they can be red or green in color.
But did you know that okra is so much more than a gumbo thickener? In fact, it is a low calorie, high fiber vegetable that is also packed with Vitamin C. Okra is high in both soluble and insoluble fiber which is helpful in aiding digestion and lowering cholesterol. And one serving of okra can deliver 36 percent of the daily amount of Vitamin C. Okra also boasts impressive levels of potassium, vitamin B, folic acid, and calcium. Okra consumption has even been tied to helping manage blood sugar, of particular import if you are living with Diabetes.
A lot of folks are turned off by okra's reputation as a slimy vegetable, but it really all depends how you cook it. Perfectly deep fried okra is a revelation, as is the okra I had in a Thai restaurant that was sautéed with nothing more than chilis and fish sauce. I've had okra poppers, tomatoes and okra, and, of course okra in gumbo and other stews.
Buy pods that are nice and green or red, with few bruises and black spots. Keep in mind that okra goes south a day or two after picking, so you want to cook it as soon as you can once you get it home or pick it. Give the pods a nice rinse with cold water and dry throughly before using. The entire pod is edible, tops and all, so waste-not-want-not!
I encourage you to acquaint yourself with this mighty little pod and find creative ways to use it.