Okra (pronounced US: /ˈoʊkrə/, UK: /ˈɒkrə/), known by many others names, is a flowering plant in the mallow family (along with such species as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus), valued for its edible green fruits. Okra’s scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus; it is occasionally referred to as Hibiscus esculentus L.
The species is an annual or perennial, growing to 2 m tall. The leaves are 10–20 cm long and broad, palmately lobed with 5–7 lobes. The flowers are 4–8 cm diameter, with five white to yellow petals, often with a red or purple spot at the base of each petal. The fruit is a capsule up to 18 cm long, containing numerous seeds.
Etymology, origin and distribution
Okra is native to the Old World tropics (West Africa) and has become established in the wild in some New World tropical areas. It is believed that okra first reached the New World during the days of slave trafficking. Okra is a popular and important food worldwide. Okra is often known as lady’s fingers outside of the United States, and gumbo in parts of the United States and English-speaking Caribbean, based on a corruption of the Portuguese word “quingombo,” which is in turn a corruption of the word “quillobo,” the word for the plant in some parts of eastern Africa.
The name “okra” is of West African origin and is cognate with “ọ́kụ̀rụ̀” in Igbo, a language spoken in Nigeria. In various Bantu languages, okra is called “kingombo” or a variant thereof, and this is the origin of its name in Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French. The Arabic “bāmyah” is the basis of the names in Cyprus, the Middle East, the Balkans, Iran, Afghanistan, Greece, North Africa and Russia. In Southern Asia, its name is usually a variant of “bhindi” or “vendi” (வெண்டை in Tamil).”
Okra flower bud and immature seed podThe species apparently originated in the Ethiopian Highlands, though the manner of distribution from there is undocumented. The Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries used the Arab word for the plant, suggesting that it had come from the east. The plant may thus have been taken across the Red Sea or the Bab-el-Mandeb strait to the Arabian Peninsula, rather than north across the Sahara. One of the earliest accounts is by a Spanish Moor who visited Egypt in 1216, who described the plant under cultivation by the locals who ate the tender, young pods with meal.
From Arabia, the plant spread around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and eastward. The lack of a word for okra in the ancient languages of India suggests that it arrived there in the Common Era. The plant was introduced to the Americas by ships plying the Atlantic slave trade by 1658, when its presence was recorded in Brazil. It was further documented in Suriname in 1686.
Okra may have been introduced to southeastern North America in the early 18th century. It was being grown as far north as Philadelphia by 1748. Thomas Jefferson noted that it was well established in Virginia by 1781. It was commonplace throughout the southern United States by 1800 and the first mention of different cultivars was in 1806.
In Vietnam, it is called đậu bắp and is used in sour soup dish.
Abelmoschus esculentus is cultivated throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world for its fibrous fruits or pods containing round, white seeds. The fruits are harvested when immature and eaten as a vegetable.
A high resolution scan showing pentagonal cross-section of fruit. A traditional food plant in Africa, this vegetable has potential to improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable landcare.
In Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Yemen, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus, okra is widely used in a thick stew made with vegetables and meat. In Indian and Pakistani cooking, it is sauteed or added to gravy-based preparations and is very popular in North India & Pakistan. In western parts of India, okra is one of the most popular vegetables of all and is often cooked in daily meals. Generally okra is stir-fried with spices and some sugar. Okra is also used in Kadhi. In Caribbean islands okra is cooked and eaten as soup, often with fish. In Haiti, it is cooked with rice and maize; it is also used as a sauce for meat. It became a popular vegetable in Japanese cuisine toward the end of the 20th century, served with soy sauce and katsuobushi or as tempura. It is used as a thickening agent in gumbo. Breaded, deep fried okra is served in the southern United States. The immature pods may also be pickled.
Okra slices show the pentagonal cross-section of the fruit. Okra leaves may be cooked in a similar manner as the greens of beets or dandelions. The leaves are also eaten raw in salads. Okra seeds may be roasted and ground to form a non-caffeinated substitute for coffee. As imports were disrupted by the American Civil War in 1861, the Austin State Gazette noted, “An acre of okra will produce seed enough to furnish a plantation of fifty negroes with coffee in every way equal to that imported from Rio.”
Okra forms part of several regional “signature” dishes. Frango com quiabo (chicken with okra) is a Brazilian dish that is especially famous in the region of Minas Gerais. Gumbo, a hearty stew whose key ingredient is okra, is found throughout the Gulf Coast of the United States and in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The word “gumbo” is based on the Central Bantu word for okra, “kigombo”, via the Caribbean Spanish “guingambó” or “quimbombó”. It is also an expected ingredient in callaloo, a Caribbean dish and the national dish of Trinidad & Tobago. Okra is also enjoyed in Nigeria where draw soup is a popular dish, often eaten with garri or cassava.
In Vietnam, okra is the important ingredient in the dish canh chua.
Okra oil is a pressed seed oil, extracted from the seeds of the okra. The greenish yellow edible oil has a pleasant taste and odor, and is high in unsaturated fats such as oleic acid and linoleic acid. The oil content of the seed is quite high at about 40%. Oil yields from okra crops are also high. At 794 kg/ha, the yield was exceeded only by that of sunflower oil in one trial.
Okra is also reported to contain the male contraceptive gossypol.
In cultivation, the seeds are soaked overnight prior to planting to a depth of 1-2 cm. Germination occurs between six days (soaked seeds) and three weeks. Seedlings require ample water. The seed pods rapidly become fibrous and woody and must be harvested within a week of the fruit being pollinated to be edible.
Abelmoschus esculentus is among the most heat- and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world. It will tolerate poor soils with heavy clay and intermittent moisture. Severe frost can damage the pods.
The products of the plant are mucilaginous, resulting in the characteristic “goo” when the seed pods are cooked. In order to avoid this effect, okra pods are often stir fried, so the moisture is cooked away, or paired with slightly acidic ingredients, such as citrus or tomatoes. The cooked leaves are also a powerful soup thickener.