Around the World with Okra

Photo by Flickr user NatalieMaynor

Most folks in the South think of okra as one of our native veggies, and rightfully so. The little green pods, belonging to the same family as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus, were introduced to southeastern North America in the early 18th century and have been an integral part of our food heritage ever since. But okra’s history and uses go back much farther than just our ancestors here in the States. The plant is native to West Africa, first originating in the Ethiopian Highlands, and can be traced back to Egyptians and Moors of the 12th and 13th centuries. From Arabia, okra spread around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea eastward, and later was documented in India and Brazil.

As evidenced in the list of countries where okra thrives, it’s among the most heat and drought-tolerant vegetable species in the world – right at home here in the American South! And, if you’ve ever walked around Decatur’s ethnic grocery store, Your DeKalb Farmers Market, you’ll see the many other cultures that associate this tasty summer staple with home. Okra is a traditional food plant in Africa, India, Syria, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Palestine, among others. Preparations include usage in thick meat and vegetable stews (eastern Mediterranean); young pods cooked whole (Middle East); stir fried with spices, pickled, salted or added to gravy-based preparations (India and Pakistan); eaten as soup, often with fish (Caribbean); cooked with rice and maize (Haiti). And, at the end of the 20th century, okra became popular in Japan, particularly as tempura. We can relate.

Here are three great recipes with southern roots from Chef Steven Satterfield of Miller Union, including fried okra. Try them out with this week’s batch of fresh okra from the Market!

Pickled Okra
1 pound okra, washed
1 Yellow onion, peeled and sliced
6-8 Dried hot chiles
2 T. Coriander seeds
1 T. Black peppercorns
1/4 cup Kosher salt
3 T. granulated sugar
1.5 cups water
1 quart apple cider vinegar

Canning jars
Clean towels
Large pot with lid
Extra water for boiling

In a large pot, boil lids, seals, and jars for several minutes. Remove carefully, drain, and place onto clean towels to dry. Leave the pot of water on the stove for future use.
Wash okra and trim any long stems. With clean hands stuff the okra into jars and pack tightly. Add 1-2 dried chiles 2-3 slices of onion per jar, and distribute the spices evenly among each jar. Meanwhile, bring the sugar, salt, vinegar and water to a boil in a nonreactive saucepot. Ladle the hot vinegar brine into the jars and quickly seal them. Then place the sealed jars into boiling water. Make sure the water is at least an inch above the top of the cans. Cover with lid and boil gently for 10 minutes. Pull the jars out carefully with tongs and then allow to cool. Check the lids to make sure the jars sealed properly, then once cooled, store in a cool dry place for a minimum of 5 days before opening.

Sautéed Okra
3 T. EVO
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
1 pound of okra, washed and trimmed
1 clove of garlic, peeled and sliced
1 ripe tomato, skin removed, and diced
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes

Small pot of boiling water to remove tomato skins
Heavy bottomed skillet or non-stick sauté pan

In a small pot or medium sized saucepan, bring some water to a boil. Place the tomato into the boiling water for approximately 60 seconds or until the skin bursts. Remove the tomato immediately and plunge into ice water. Peel the skin off then trim and dice into medium sized pieces.
Wash and drain the okra, trim the tops off, and then cut in half lengthwise.
Heat olive oil in a wide skillet on medium-high heat. Add onions and season with salt and pepper. Cook for five minutes, stirring frequently, then add slivered garlic, hot pepper, okra, and season again. Cook for five minutes, then add chopped tomatoes, seasoning again. Serve as a side dish or add to pasta for a main dish. Also delicious if cooked with shrimp, added with the tomatoes.

Fried Okra
1 # washed and drained okra, cut crosswise into pieces as thick as the okra is wide
Cold water
Sea salt
2 cups finely ground white cornmeal
1/2 cup cornstarch
6-8 cups vegetable oil for frying (canola, safflower, peanut, etc.)

Skimmer or wire mesh basket
Thermometer for measuring oil temperature

Place okra into a container with cold water and add a pinch of salt. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. This allows the okra to produce a thick natural coating.
Meanwhile, combine dry ingredients in a bowl to make the dredge and heat the oil to approximately 350 degrees.
With your hands, pull the okra out of the liquid and allow to drip dry for a few seconds, then drop into the dredge. Toss to coat well. Pick up the coated okra and shake well in a sifter or mesh strainer basket.
Drop the okra carefully into the hot oil and fry until golden brown. Using a skimmer or something similar, pull the okra from the hot oil and drip dry for a few seconds, then toss into a paper towel lined bowl. Season with salt to taste and serve immediately.

- Jennifer Maley