What is Okra?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Okra is a plant native to Ethiopia, where it has been cultivated and used for centuries. This vegetable is in common use in many African nations, and also in the American South, thanks to seeds carried to the United States by slaves. Many people associate it with Southern cuisine, and in fact some people are under the impression that okra is native to the South, thanks to the widespread use of the vegetable in this region.

Gumbo often contains okra.
Gumbo often contains okra.

This plant is in the mallow family, making it a relative of cotton, hibiscus, and cocoa, among other well-known crops. Okra plants can grow to 6 feet (2 meters) tall, and sometimes even higher, in the right conditions. The plants produce large white to yellow flowers that develop into ridged pentagonal pods. This is the part of the plant which is most commonly used, typically while the pods are still immature and tender. The leaves are also edible.

Okra is native to Ethiopia.
Okra is native to Ethiopia.

Okra is notorious for the mucilaginous substance found inside the pods. Depending on how it is cooked, okra can be extremely slimy, and some people find this texture repellent. The thick goo can also be advantageous, however, as when it is used in soups and stews as a thickener. To reduce the slimy texture, many cooks like to cook it with acidic ingredients that will cut through the slime, and some believe that it benefits from being cut, lightly sprinkled in salt to draw out the slime, and allowed to rest for 15-20 minutes before cooking.

In Africa, okra is used in an assortment of traditional stews. In the American South, it is famously included in gumbo, a rich stew, and it is also served as a side, pickled as a condiment, and added to various soups as a thickener. The vegetable has a fairly mild flavor, and it is highly absorbent, making it a versatile vegetable ingredient.

Some people may also hear this warm-season vegetable referred to as gumbo, lady's fingers, or bamyas. It is rich in vitamin C, magnesium, and folate, making it a useful addition to the human diet. When choosing okra in the store, cooks should look for firm, evenly-colored pods which are relatively small, with no soft spots or signs of discoloration.

People can grow okra in USDA zones nine through 11, as long as they have a very sunny spot in the garden. The plant prefers rich, well-worked soil, and seeds should be planted around two weeks after the last chance of frost in the spring. It needs lots of room to grow, along with supportive stakes, and it should be watered intermittently and deeply for best results. Once pods start to develop, they can be harvested almost immediately. The longer pods sit on the plant, the more hard and unpalatable they will become.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


For a healthy, low calorie okra stew, you can brown some bacon (easy on this ingredient) add onion and saute for a few minutes. Garlic is also a nice addition.

To that add tomatoes and sliced okra. The liquid part can be water, tomato juice, or broth.

Simmer gently until done. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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