We'll start this post with a Dad joke: where does the Lowcountry's favorite vegetable come from? Okra-homa! (Pause for the groan...) And that's not the worst of the jokes about the slender green vegetable, sometimes called the Lady Finger, that's been a staple of Southern cooking for generations. Steamed, boiled, grilled, pickled, sautéed or fried, okra is the key ingredient in gumbos and salads, or as a side dish. It's high in vitamins C, K, A and B6, and contributes no fat to your diet while offering 2 grams of protein and only about 30 calories per cup.
But okra's most famous attribute, the one that gives pause to newcomers to the vegetable, is the slimy goo the pods exude when cooked. (The amount of goo can be reduced by cooking with an acidic vegetable, like tomato.) But even the mucilage has its benefits, used as part of wastewater treatment (it reduces cloudiness) and under study as a biodegradable packaging material and as a biofuel. The pod's seeds can be roasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute (a popular use during the Civil War, when coffee beans were hard to come by), or pressed for their oil, which is high in unsaturated fats.
And okra carries a bit of mystery, too, because no one seems to know for certain where it was first cultivated. Egypt is the current favored origin, first described there in the 13th-century, and from where it spread around the Mediterranean and east toward India and southeast Asia. The first use of the word in English appeared in 1679 in colonial Virginia, derived from the vocabulary of enslaved worker fromWest Africa. But the plant (it's related to cotton and cocoa plants) was under cultivation in Asia long before and remains a staple of Asian cooking.
While the okra at our local farm stands is grown here, most of the commercial okra crop these days comes from Florida and, yes, from "Okra-homa". To enjoy this quintessential Southern food, check out these recipes from Southern Living.