As with many of the world’s wonderful vegetables, okra’s birthplace remains disputed. Though the drought and heat-resistant mallow appears to come from a tropical location, okra lovers and scientists from around the world can’t seem to agree on exactly which tropical location it is. The proposed parent species of okra still live in East Asia but the greatest diversity of okra persists in West Africa. To make matters more confusing, North East Africans report that okra grows wild in the Northern Nile river, bolstering their origin claims.
But wherever okra first took root, the species has traveled far from its birthplace on the wings of human cultivation and been so wildly successful that we can’t tell where it came from anymore. People have long borne the intense itch of the okra harvest to feast on either the leaves or the seed pods. Though many cuisines have techniques to minimize sliminess, adding acidic ingredients such as yogurt or tomato or frying okra whole, okra’s ‘mucilage’ is savored by others. In one extreme case, Malawians add baking soda to okra as it is stewed to increase the slime content and then scoop up the delicious goop with hard maize porridge or ‘nsima.’ Okra slime is also an indispensable ingredient in the more familiar gumbo, and indeed many other soups and curries, as a broth thickener. And finally, Okra’s mucilage acts as a built-in binder for breading when frying, no egg necessary!
Though okra origins remain as cloudy as a thick gumbo, its more recent transatlantic journey is clear as day. Okra, derived from ‘nkru’ in the Akan language of Ghana and ‘okwuru’ in the Igbo language of Nigeria, sailed to America alongside millions of enslaved Africans. Okra took happily to hot summers and soon became used as a food crop and an oil seed crop, and the roasted seeds even served as a cheap coffee substitute. Thomas Jefferson and likely the Jeffersonian owner of Bellair, Reverend Charles Wingfield Jr., grew okra in their kitchen gardens. With our CSA, okra is once again reigning tall in Bellair’s fields with some ambitious plants reaching 10 feet by this time in the season! The plants are slowing down with the cold weather so if you’re an okraphiliac, savor your last few bites. If you suffer from okraphobia on the other hand, you can still snag a few ‘lady fingers’ to make a spooky Halloween costume.