Monday, January 17, 2011

Monday histories: Short story with okra

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus Moench, known also as “lady's fingers” or gumbo) is cultivated in various tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions around the world for its fibrous fruits or pods with white seeds. It can be frozen, pickled and canned and it goes well with tomatoes, onions, peppers and eggplant.


One of the earliest accounts of the vegetable 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. It was brought to the “New World” around 1600, with the first transports of slaves.
In Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Yemen, and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus and Israel, okra is widely used in a thick stew made with vegetables and meat. It is one of the most popular vegetables among West Asians, North Indians and Pakistanis alike. In most of West Asia, okra is known as bamia or bamya. West Asian cuisine usually uses young okra pods and they are usually cooked whole. In India, the harvesting is done at a later stage, when the pods and seeds are larger.
It is popular in India and Pakistan, where chopped pieces are stir fried with spices, pickled, salted or added to gravy-based preparations like Bhindi Ghosht or sambar. In western parts of India (Gujarat, Maharashtra), okra is often stir-fried with some sugar. Okra is also used in Kadhi. The ladies finger is used to make sambar (kodel) in Udupi cuisine.
In Singapore, okra is commonly a part of yong tau food – a Chinese soup dish - cuisine. As a part of the cuisine, it is stuffed with processed fish paste (Surimi) and boiled with a selection of vegetables and tofu. It is then served in a soup with noodles.

The vegetable

The species is an annual or perennial, growing to 2 m tall. It is related to such species as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus. 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.
The products of the plant are mucilaginous, resulting in the characteristic "goo" or slime when the seed pods are cooked; the mucilage contains a usable form of soluble fiber. While many people enjoy okra cooked this way, others prefer to minimise sliminess; keeping the pods intact and cooking quickly help to achieve this. To avoid sliminess, okra pods are often briefly stir-fried, or cooked with acidic ingredients such as citrus, tomatoes, or vinegar. A few drops of lemon juice will usually suffice. Alternatively the pods can be sliced thinly and cooked for a long time, so that the mucilage dissolves, as in gumbo. The cooked leaves can also be used as a powerful soup thickener. The young pods may also be pickled.


It can be served raw, marinated in salads or cooked on its own, and goes well with tomatoes, onions, corn, peppers, and eggplant. Whole, fresh okra pods also make excellent pickles. Its mild flavor can be compared to eggplant, though the texture is somewhat unusual.
In the Caribbean islands, okra is eaten as soup, often with fish. In Haiti it is cooked with rice and maize, and 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 – the name for a preparation of dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna -, or as tempura.
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. Breaded, deep fried okra is eaten in the southern United States. Okra is also an ingredient expected in kallaloo, a Caribbean dish and the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago. It is also a part of the national dish of Barbados coucou (turned cornmeal). Okra is also eaten in Nigeria, where draw soup is a popular dish, often eaten with garri or cassava – knows also as manioc. In Vietnam, okra is the important ingredient in the canh chua – sour soup dish from the Mekong Delta. Okra slices can also be added to ratatouille, combining very well with the other ingredients of this French popular dish.
The Thai variant – which I used by now - is keeping the same taste and texture, but might look as a medium zucchini.

How and what to cook

Okra may be stored in the refrigerator in a paper bag or wrapped in a paper towel in a perforated plastic bag for 2 to 3 days, or it may be frozen for up to 12 months after blanching whole for 2 minutes. Cooked okra can be stored (tightly covered) in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
The leaves may be cooked in a similar way to the greens of beets or dandelions. The leaves are also eaten raw in salads. The seeds may be roasted and ground to form a caffeinate-free substitute for coffee.
Common Okra seed is reported to contain only 15% oil.  The oil is extracted from the seeds, resulting greenish-yellow edible oil with a pleasant taste and odor, high in unsaturated fats such as oleic acid and linoleic acid. The oil content of the seed can 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.
Also, okra can be dried and ground into a powder, to use as a thickening agent for soups and sauces.

Culinary use// Source: USDA Nutrient database
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy           129 kJ (31 kcal)
Carbohydrates        7.03 g
Sugars           1.20 g
Dietary fiber            3.2 g
Fat      0.10 g
Protein          2.00 g
Water            90.17 g

My experience

The first encounter was very bad, as I had lacked any basic experience and bibliography in dealing with. After boiling it for 15 minutes, the result was a terribly gummy vegetable, with a disgusting aspect. I got the recommendation of frying it by didn’t try it yet. By now, I used only the Thai - Siam herbs branded - but I am ready to try the tempura version in the days to come.

Here are some links for okra recipes:

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