Okra in 500 words

There are thousands of ingredients that can be used in the kitchen. Get to know them 500 words at a time.


It’s doubtful okra could get fill a category in Jeopardy. There are only three questions to be offered to the board’s answers- 

What is gumbo? 

What is Bhindi Masala? 

What is mucilaginous?

Then again maybe the gameshow format of Jeopardy isn’t the best manner to explore okra, it is worthy of a deep dive. 

Okra is loaded with chromosomes. 130 of them. That is a super-abundance of hardwired information stored in those pods. My lack of genetic coding forces me to be the responsible actor and to seek shelter in the elements; slake my thirst when I’m parched. In new or changing environments, okra can lean back and draw on its preloaded programming when presented with a unique situation. Does okra have free will? 

Do any of us?  

Those who study such things believe the plant was developed into a food source in eastern Africa. Most likely in modern Ethiopia, an area that has been identified as a Center of Origin slash Center of Diversity. Heuristically, these Centers are the 12 geographic regions that Soviet agronomist, genius, and inspirational human Nikolai Vavilov designated as the areas where modern crops emerged. 

If Ethiopia is the ancestral home to okra, it’s a newer crop since okra seeds have never been identified in either Pharaonic tombs nor excavated in Egyptian middens. From its birthplace, okra moved both east to India where it became a common food, and west across Africa, eventually arriving in the Americas via chattel slavery. 

Most of us in the States know okra through gumbo. A word that derives from the Angolan word for okra (kingombo). Or equally possible, the thick stew’s name comes from the Choctaw language’s word for filé (kombo). Gumbo, more of a genus than a specific species in the taxonomy of soup, is a dish featuring what’s on hand, in season and/or affordable, can be thickened with either okra or filé, but an aficionado will tell you never both. While gumbo is a regional specialty strongly associated with the costal south in general and Louisiana in particular, okra can be found outside these designated environments. 

Locally, okra appears at the end of dry summers at area farmers markets. It seems to be grown for the knowledgable or veg-curious. During the brief window it’s in season, okra is tasty when paired with ginger and curry spices in bhindi masala. It may be even better when cooked quickly in butter, with garlic before taking off the heat and then mixing in thyme, halved cherry tomatoes and fresh corn. Serve with fish or over rice.

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