I find that most people are surprised to learn that there is a plant called the marshmallow. It grows in marshy areas and, like most mallows, has pretty flowers—though the flowers are not as showy or large as those of the related hibiscus and hollyhock. The marshmallow has a root that was at one time used to make a creamy confection, which has more recently found itself vaguely imitated by the sugar and gelatin puffs we now buy in bags.

The reason marshmallow roots made good candy is because of the mucilage, which works as a thickening agent. This is a trait it shares with another family member, okra. However, in okra, it is the pods that contain this thickening agent.

If you saw okra growing, you’d recognize the family resemblance, especially to hibiscus. The plant is, in fact, grown as an ornamental in many places. The pods you see in the store, whether fresh, frozen, or in jars, are immature. In fact, okra is always harvested unripe, about ten weeks after planting. If the pods ripen, they become fibrous and indigestible.

Okra comes to us from West Africa. It takes a little imagination to see the word okra in the Twi word from which it derives. In Twi, which is spoken on Africa’s Gold Coast, it’s called nkruman or nkrumun. Hmmm—nkru/okra— okay, I get it. Gumbo is a lot easier to see. It comes from the Bantu word for okra, ngombo. Actually, the fact that both okra and gumbo come from African languages is considered to be part of the evidence for the vegetable’s point of origin.

Because okra originated in a region that had no tradition of writing, it’s not really known when consumption of okra began. However, we do know when it reached the Western Hemisphere. Not too surprisingly, okra traveled to the New World (North and South America, as well as the Caribbean) with Africans bound for slavery.

Despite the fact that okra is from an exotic place, it has never had the cachet of other exotic foods—no doubt at least in part due to its historic association with slavery. Still, it can be considered an international success. It now grows in almost every tropical, subtropical, or warm temperate climate region in the world. Its greatest popularity seems to be in poorer or developing nations. In India,it is called bendi-kai, bindhi, or ladies fingers, and it is eaten fresh, is prepared like asparagus, or is pickled. It is called by its Arabic name—bamyah or bamieh—in the Middle East, Greece, and Egypt, where the tender young pods are used in many dishes, usually in combination with meat. It is a huge favorite in the Caribbean. In Brazil, okra borders on being sacred, and is used in religious rites by the Candomblé, a group that has for four centuries preserved customs from its African roots. And in North Africa, tropical Africa, and Madagascar, it is a staple. The pods are used fresh or dried, and even the leaves are widely eaten. (I have heard that, in Ghana, okra stew is the dish by which a bride’s cooking skill is judged.)

In Europe, okra is still a rarity, found in jars in the import section or in ethnic restaurants. The exceptions are Greece, as noted above, which takes many of its culinary cues from the Middle East, and Spain, where it was introduced by the Moors. In the U.S., it is only widely used in the South, where it’s fried, pickled, and used in soup. (Even if you don’t like okra in soup, try it pickled or fried—it’s great both ways.)

Okra is tasty and, like most vegetables, very nutritious. One of the things that recommends it most highly is large amounts of fiber—both soluble and insoluble.

In the American South, especially Louisiana, okra gave its name to the famous local soup—or, to be more precise, the West African soup made with okra morphed into the signature soup of Creole cooking—gumbo. Traditionally, okra was used to thicken all New World gumbos. However, in Lousiana, cooks may also use filé as a thickener. Filé is ground sassafras leaf, which the Choctaw Indians introduced to early settlers. So it is in fact possible to have gumbo with no gumbo—and equally possible to have gumbo with no soup.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.
© 2009 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Language, Nutrition

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