Okra is a green vegetable that was relatively unknown anywhere outside the Americas until fairly recently, even though it is supposed to have originated in North Africa. It can now be found in the exotic section of the vegetable section of upper crust supermarkets in most parts of the world.
Okra seems to have found an especially favourable reception in the Americas. It was known already from the 1600’s and was widely grown during the 1700’s. Most modern cooks do not anticipate the mucilaginous nature of the pod and so discard any thought of cooking okra in disgust after the first gooey failure. Some cooks refer to the texture as “unusual” and it does take a bit of getting used to. In fact, okra does best when added to stews and soups, rather than being cooked on its own.
Okra has become an important crop in the American South, and as such, many recipes for cooking okra can be found in southern cook books. When buying okra, make sure that the pods look fresh, not wilted, and select shorter rather than longer ones. They do not keep for long in the refrigerator – 2 or 3 days at most.
Most often, cooks seem to cover okra in breadcrumbs and deep fry it quickly. Some cooks first boil the okra in salted water for eight to ten minutes. To really succeed with fried okra however, you have to perfect the trick of frying it in oil that is neither too cold nor too hot. It should not fry for more than 2 minutes and in that time it should become cooked without burning. Then, the trick is to drain it really well on paper towels. Okra behaves a bit like eggplant (brinjals) in that it just soaks up the oil. If you leave it like that it really tastes only of oil – yucky – so go the extra mile and make sure you drain as much oil as possible right after frying.
Of course, the most famous dish that contains okra is gumbo. Every cook has her or his own favourite gumbo recipe and it is a very versatile kind of dish that you can adapt to your own personal preference. Usually the gumbo contains at least okra, onions, tomatoes, garlic and either bacon or salty ham. Chillies, green pepper and chicken are also commonly found in okra gumbo recipes. The whole lot is slightly cooked with some water for 30 -40 minutes and then served with rice or something else that can soak up the stew.